Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Father of U.S. Soccer

By Kevin Beane

U.S. men's soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann raised some eyebrows in a New York Times profile today when he declared the World Cup unwinnable for the Americans in 2014.

“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. Realistically, it is not possible."

That's probably true, if a bit exaggerated. As much of a thorn Ghana has been in the U.S.'s side over the last two World Cups, the Americans probably do not need "the game of their lives" to defeat them. Further, if defeating national powers is something the U.S. needs the "game of their lives" to accomplish, then they've had many games of their lives over the past dozen years, including a win against Portugal, who the Yanks have drawn again in this World Cup. Soccer is a low-scoring enough sport that strange things can happen, and do all the time.

But Klinsmann's honesty is refreshing and emblematic of the realism Klinsmann approaches as he draws a thick line between where the U.S. team is now and where he wants them to be in the future. Klinsmann knows that in the U.S., the sports lags far behind many others and as a result, a formidable sea change needs to occur to make the United States a world soccer power, and that's exactly where his focus is and what gets him excited.

It's why he boldly and unilaterally left all-everything Landon Donovan off the World Cup squad. I'm not in complete agreement on the decision, and I penned a piece here defending Donovan's sabbatical a couple of years ago, but half the words out of his Donovan's mouth these days are about how he's not a young man anymore, fitness isn't as easy, and he's simply in the twilight of his career. As a player, he doesn't have much left to contribute to the national team in terms of priming them for a future World Cup run where the Americans can really contend.

Sam Borden, the author of the Times piece, made a few odd assertions. He heralds soccer fans as more "patient" than fans of American sports, and that's simply not true. Any pub crawl in Glasgow or message board lurking will demonstrate otherwise, and top brass is even worse. Last year, from May 2013 to April 2014, 12 of 20 clubs in the English Premier League changed managers, and Fulham and Manchester United changed managers twice. It's a similar story in most European leagues, and that sort of impatient turnover is well-nigh unheard-of in U.S. sports.

But there also seems to be a bit of disconnect between what Borden characterizes as Klinsmann's near-contempt for the MLS, while picking ten MLS players for this month's World Cup, up from four in the 2010 World Cup. That might just mean that Klinsmann is more right than we realize that this squad just isn't ready to challenge. I would much prefer to see our players test themselves against the best in Europe. That can produce some odd results, though: Clint Dempsey was dominant in Fulham, and then left Tottenham seemingly as soon as he arrived to return stateside. Jozy Altidore went from being a goal-scoring machine for the U.S. to useless for Hull to a goal-scoring machine for AZ Alkmaar to useless this past season for Sunderland. There is no middle ground with him.

But if the U.S. can beat Ghana and take a point off of either Germany and Portugal — unlikely, but far from impossible — then the knockout round becomes possible. Either way, there is little doubt we have the right man leading the way for the Americans, and a man who the history books will record as the father of U.S. soccer.

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