United States men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann reiterated his belief that the U.S. cannot win the 2014 World Cup in a press conference in São Paulo on Wednesday.
Klinsmann touched off a controversy last week when Sam Borden of the New York Times magazine published this quote from the coach:
“We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament.”
The quote was from December, but Klinsmann didn’t stand down when asked to clarify his remarks on Wednesday, telling the AP, “I think for us now, talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic.”
The sentiment runs contrary to the country’s boundless optimism. In fact, the U.S. is one of only four countries in the world that believes its national team will win the 2014 World Cup, according to a New York Times poll.
That sort of optimism is irrational. It’s also why Klinsmann’s harsh words are exactly what U.S. soccer needs.
Klinsmann was hired to turn the U.S. soccer program into something that produces contending teams at World Cups every four years. That process requires changes in some key areas (both on and off the field), as well as a realistic assessment of where the U.S. team and U.S. players stand relative to the top teams and players in the world.
Over the last three years, in both his interviews and his selection choices, Klinsmann has made two things clear — the United States and its players aren’t good enough, and U.S. soccer needs to do things differently to get there.
He has cut the country’s most beloved players down to size.
In January 2013, he said Clint Dempsey “hasn’t made s***” in a WSJ interview:
“My whole talk to Clint Dempsey for 18 months was [about how] he hasn’t made s — . You play for Fulham? Yeah, so? Show me you play for a Champions League team, and then you start on a Champions League team and that you may end up winning the Champions League.”
He told the NYT that Landon Donovan was hurt by playing in MLS after his 2013 sabbatical:
“He came back, and he was playing in M.L.S., and people say, ‘Oh, he’s playing well,’ but what does that really mean? This is where M.L.S. hurts him. He was playing at 70 per cent, 80 per cent, and he was still dominant. That doesn’t help anyone.”
“I watched the games. What was I supposed to say? That he was good? He was not good. Not then. No way. So he had to wait.”
He also dropped Donovan, the best outfield player the country has ever produced, and pushed Carlos Bocanegra (the team’s captain for years) out of the national team.
All the while he has stressed that his players must push themselves to play at top European clubs instead of being content to be a star in MLS. He picked left back Timothy Chandler, a German-American who plays in the Bundesliga, to go to the World Cup despite a lengthy absence from the national team. He cut left back Brad Evans, who plays for the Seattle Sounders, despite starting him for most of World Cup qualifying.
The point: There are no star players here. The U.S. doesn’t have a squad player on a relevant Champions League team, much less a star who deserves to be treated with reverence.
Through this sort of harsh realism, Klinsmann is asserting his belief that the U.S. must significantly change the way it produces soccer players.
He wants the team to develop a coherent national style of play that will be employed at every level — so that 9-year-olds play the same way the national team plays. He wants teenagers to join professional teams when they’re 18 instead of going to college, like they do in Europe. He wants to proactively identify and recruit dual nationals.
All of this requires resources, which Klinsmann has at his disposal at technical director of U.S. soccer.
But it also requires widespread acceptance of the fact that we aren’t good enough yet. And you can’t accept that fact and still rationally entertain the notion that we can win it all in 2014.
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