A month ago, U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann introduced himself to mainstream America by cutting the best player the country has ever produced and declaring that the U.S. couldn’t win the World Cup.
Those controversies brought an unprecedented amount of criticism for a U.S. soccer coach, but both decisions served a larger purpose. Klinsmann was trying to instill his belief that the U.S. has done very little as a soccer nation, and must make significant changes (exactly according to his plan) to get better.
It was a harsh but necessary dose of reality.
As the World Cup has gone along, Klinsmann has continued to employ a variety of mind games — calling out FIFA for a small scheduling quirk after the Portugal draw, taking an unsolicited shot at Mexico, dropping centerback Geoff Cameron for the Germany game, and even telling the players’ families to change their flights until after the World Cup final.
Before Tuesday’s Round of 16 game against Belgium, he’s pulling out every trick in the book.
At his press conference on Monday he proactively criticised the Round of 16 referee, who is Algerian. Klinsmann says Belgium has an unfair advantage because the Belgians can speak to the ref in French, and the U.S. knocked Algeria out of the World Cup in 2010. His theory conveniently leaves out the fact that Algeria lost to Belgium after holding a 1-0 lead in this World Cup.
This is a classic Phil Jackson manoeuvre. It may be ethically dubious, but by calling at the referee for no reason he fabricated the assumption that Belgium is going to get all the calls. It “plants the seed” in the referee’s mind, as Alexi Lalas notes, and might just affect a decision or two:
And then there’s the Jozy Altidore injury situation.
Two weeks ago Altidore went down with a nasty hamstring injury. He was ruled out days before both the Portugal and Germany games, and many feared he was done for the World Cup. Last Friday SI’s Grant Wahl reported that he was jogging, but he had yet to participate in full training.
On Monday, in a mild surprise, Klinsmann announced that Altidore was healthy and “available” to play.
U.S. Soccer even made a fancy HE’S BACK graphic:
But the general consensus among the U.S. soccer media is that it’d be a shock if Altidore starts, and we’ll probably only see him as a late-game substitute, if at all.
Klinsmann acknowledged as much in his press conference, saying, “We don’t know how much [he can play] … but he’s available. It’s now difficult to say how many minutes.”
No matter what happens with Altidore, this is a smart piece of misdirection from Klinsmann. It forces Belgium to draw up two game plans — one which has to account for a big, hulking center forward like Altidore, and another which has to account for the defensive, midfielder-laden 4-5-1 the U.S. has played without Altidore.
Klinsmann is pushing all sorts of buttons at this World Cup. So far, most of them have worked.
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