Jurgen Klinsmann

Defining success: Does the U.S. have to make the leap at World Cup 2014?

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Win the World Cup. Develop the American Lionel Messi. Use The Beautiful Game to solve world hunger, and distribute the solution across the galaxy in Neil Degrasse Tyson’s upsetting space sliver. Those are the standards the mainstream sports public has set for soccer’s success in the United States, conveniently setting the bar too high to justify their consistent commitment. With a semifinal run in Brazil, the more patriotic NFL fans might reconsider; more realistically, 2014’s not going to meet those lofty goals.

More rational goals would consider the context of this year’s tournament. Where is the U.S. in its development? What are its goals? What does history tell us about realistic expectations, and most importantly, what obstacles does the team have to overcome? Being oblivious to these factors and defining success the same way you would USA Basketball’s doesn’t even work for baseball, anymore. As soccer fans know, on the men’s side ,the U.S. needs more pragmatic goals.

From a more level-headed perspective, there are a number of ways the U.S. can succeed next month, all of which come down to the same idea that led the  team to bring Jurgen Klinsmann in three years ago: Progress. Is the program getting closer to being competitive with the world’s elite? Are the players being selected, trained, and played in a way that promotes that growth? If the U.S. can’t realistically expect to win the World Cup in 2014, is it at least building for a day when it can?

That’s a lot of questions, something that’s expected when assessing a program in transition. Regardless, this program is very much in transition. The World Cup is just the latest, biggest test of that process, with the team’s response to its difficult group defining whether the 2014 finals can be deemed a success.

Those questions:

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U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati replaced Bob Bradley with Jurgen Klinsmann after the 2011 Gold Cup, sparking the program’s transition.

Where is the U.S. in its development?

Jurgen Klinsmann’s hire was a tacit confession the team needed to go in another direction. To expect it to be at its destination in three years is too much. To this point, the team’s shown progress, but the goals for World Cup 2014 are still defined by the program’s long-term objectives.

That doesn’t mean going farther than 2010. Whereas the draw for South Africa gave the U.S. one of the easiest draws in since the tournament expanded to 32 teams (1998), “Group of Death”  has been thrown around (perhaps lazily) in connection with this year’s draw. As Klinsmann’s contract extension attests, the federation knows the team can both show progress and fail to make the second round.

What are its goals?

There are a number of them, but they all come down to one concept. The team needs to be on the same level as the Germanys and Portugals of the world – top 10 teams who happen to be drawn into the U.S.’s quartet in Brazil.This is about more than one-off wins like the U.S. experienced against Spain in 2009. It’s about consistently being though of as one of the world’s better teams – something that’s not going to happen over the next six weeks.

If that comes, that means the U.S. will be dominating CONCACAF. It’ll be consistently churning out higher levels of talent. The pipeline to the national team will extend not only to a strong MLS but to a few of the best teams in Europe. The U.S. will be dominating Gold Cups and making an impact at Confederations Cups. It will be consistent quarterfinal-threat at World Cups.

Another run to a final eight would make the tournament a success, but it wouldn’t mean the U.S.’s goals are accomplished. Klinsmann was brought in to build something sustainable; not merely reach a World Cup mark. This summer is another test of that sustainability, but it’s not the only measure of success.

RELATED: World Cup news, analysis from Soccerly

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DaMarcus Beasley (L) was part of the team that made the 2002 World Cup quarterfinals. He and Landon Donovan, both 20-year-olds in Japan/South Korea, are hoping to make their fourth World Cups.

What does history tell us about realistic expectations? 

The U.S. made a semifinal in 1930: Important but ancient history. In the modern era (one that started with Paul Caligiuri’s goal in Port of Spain) the U.S.’s quarterfinal run under Bruce Arena in 2002 is the reference point. Fans that have persisted over the last 12 years want that magic back.

There is some reason to think it could return. Germany is clearly the group’s favorites, yet Portugal, despite their lofty FIFA ranking (three), is beatable. Though many have focused on the U.S.’s trouble matching up with Cristiano Ronaldo, the team didn’t have an obvious answer to Luis Figo, either. One-on-one match ups make great headlines, but they don’t always define games.

This year’s Portugal team is no more talented than the one that failed in 2002. Whether the U.S. is as talented as its 2002 entry is another debate. Regardless, just as the last 12 years have shown the team’s win over the Selaccao in Suwon didn’t catapult the program, one result in Brazil won’t be a litmus test, either. More realistically: There are better tests of U.S. success than one group stage result.

Obstacles does the team have to overcome?

The better test is how the team performs over the body of the tournament, and how that reflects on the program’s bigger goals. That isn’t as easy as latching onto a “did we actually win this time” standard, but it is a better predictor of the team’s future. Win, lose, or draw, if the U.S. plays well against Germany, Ghana, and Portugal, the tournament can be seen as a success.

Granted, those quick to reference 2004’s performance won’t think so, but in Germany and Portugal, the U.S. is facing two teams better than anybody that lined up against Bob Bradley’s team in South Africa. One day, the U.S. will be at the point where the bottom line is the only goal, but while big-picture progress is the main objective, the results can be more subtle.

source: AP
U.S. success at Brazil 2014 will likely be determined by how it competes against Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal. (Photo: AP Photo.)

So what does a successful tournament look like?

Beating Ghana is probably a must. Soccer can offer strange, mitigating scenarios (as the Ghanaians surely know), but it will be difficult for the team to claim progress if it can’t break through against a Ghana side weaker than its 2006 and 2010 models.

The Germany game? The U.S. has a chance, but against teams at that level — the rarefied air taken in by Argentina, Brazil, Spain as well as the Germans — few are expected to win, particularly at a World Cup. Even if the U.S. is blown out by the Germans, many will likely to chalk that up to the immense collection of talent Klinsmann helped build.

It’s the battle in between those two games that could define U.S. success. If the U.S. can’t compete with Portugal, the team won’t have an argument to make. People will look back to how the team performed against England and Ghana four years ago and ask whether the U.S. is better off now. While Paulo Bento’s group is talented, the team is not worlds above where the U.S. should be.

Regardless, progress will be about more than the final result. If the U.S. performs to its potential, it should be able to challenge for second in the group. In the process, the team will continue building a program that makes 2002 more than a one-off.

Perhaps that coveted semifinal run won’t happen this summer, but this summer’s progress could lay the foundation for a 2016 breakthrough.

Jozy Altidore’s foundation funding Copa America watch parties in Haiti

TORONTO, ON - MAY 07: Jozy Altidore #17 of Toronto FC looks on during the second half of an MLS soccer game against FC Dallas at BMO Field on May 7, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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Jozy Altidore has never shied away from his Hatian decent, and while the 26-year-old will miss the Copa America, but his second home certainly won’t.

Altidore’s charity organization the St. Luke Foundation has set up watch parties across Haiti so the island nation can watch all the United States and Haiti matches, as well as the semifinals and finals.

In a phone interview with Sports Illustrated, Altidore cited that Haiti had not been invited to a major international tournament since 1974, and that the country should be able to watch. According to SI, the watch parties will allow those in the country to watch who otherwise would be unable to do so.

“I thought this would be something cool knowing how much Haitian people love their national team” Altidore told SI, “to have thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to see the matches broadcast the group games and see them perform.”

Haiti plays in Brazil’s Group B along with Peru and Ecuador, with group stage games on June 4, 8, and 12.

[ MORE: Copa America Group B preview | USA in Group A ]

Altidore will miss the tournament due to a hamstring injury which will take 6-8 weeks to recover from.

The New Jersey product has been very active with charity work in Haiti in the past, mostly through his foundation. Altidore’s parents were both born in Haiti. He said he hopes that the Haitian team “can surprise some people” in the upcoming tournament.

Rafa Benitez to have total control at Newcastle, including player sales

NEWCASTLE, ENGLAND - MAY 15:  Rafa Benitez Newcastle United manager reacts during the Barclays Premier League match between Newcastle United and Tottenham at St James Park on May 15, 2016 in Newcastle, England. (Photo by Ian MacNicol/Getty images)
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Usually, when teams are relegated to the Championship, squad salaries must be reevaluated to make ends meet, often meaning the axe for players who are deemed too costly.

That won’t be the case with Newcastle next season.

With manager Rafa Benitez back on board with the hopes of navigating the Magpies back to the Premier League as quickly as possible, owner Mike Ashley has handed Benitez the reigns.

Benitez confirmed he will have complete, unmitigated control of the squad roster in exchange for his services.

“What I have is the assurance that if I don’t want to sell any players I don’t have to,” Benitez said in his second unveiling as Newcastle manager. “We can keep all the players who we want to.”

But that’s not all. “For football business I will have responsibility. But the main thing is that I have had assurances we will have a strong team. We will have a winning team and the fans have to be sure I will try to build a strong squad. If I am sat here it is because I am sure we can do it. To clarify I am a person who likes to talk. But if I have to take responsibility I will, no problem.”

This is not only big news for anyone relegated to the Championship, but especially big news for a Mike Ashley club. Not even Sam Allardyce or Alan Pardew were given this type of total control of the club. Ashley knew he had little leverage with such a big name having fallen out of the Premier League, and he needed to make concessions to get his man.

Fernando Torres, back from the depths, can become a Champions League leader

VALENCIA, SPAIN - MAY 08:  Fernando Torres of Atletico de Madrid looks on during the La Liga match between Levante UD and Atletico de Madrid at Ciutat de Valencia on May 8, 2016 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Manuel Queimadelos Alonso/Getty Images)
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His days in England are well past him. From Liverpool superstar to Chelsea flop, the unconventional route the 32-year-old’s career has taken has all led to this.

Yes, Fernando Torres has a Champions League winners’ medal, but it did not come in the fashion many believed he was destined for when he peaked at Anfield. A shell of his former self at Stamford Bridge, he was second-fiddle to fan-favorite Didier Drogba during the 2011/12 run Chelsea made through the competition. Ridiculed by plenty all across England for his YouTube-worthy misses and sleepy performances, Torres was run out of Stamford Bridge with just his medal to accompany him.

“This is the most important game of my life,” Torres emphatically claimed Wednesday morning ahead of Saturday’s final against Real Madrid in Milan. “A chance to write a page that has never been written in 113 years of Atlético’s history. I have the chance to make my dream come true, a dream I had as a kid, to win this cup with this club”.

Torres does not speak as if this is his team, because it is not his team. Despite his dominance at Liverpool, Torres will never be a standout player on a Champions League final caliber squad. Those days are well in the past. Now, Torres knows his place in the squad, an important cog in an engine with no one part more valuable than the other. Such is the way of Diego Simeone.

“I knew I was risking everything by coming back here to Atletico Madrid,” Torres said. “A lot of people thought it couldn’t get better for me here, but I knew the group I was coming into. I knew this group was destined for something big and I wanted to be part of it.”

For all the praises Simeone gets for his teams’ fitness, grit, and defensive prowess, bringing Torres back from the depths of obscurity might be one of his most underrated achievements. The ridicule Torres was forced to endure towards the end of his time in England can break a person. But Torres somehow managed to stay afloat despite the demons lapping at his ankles, and Simeone pulled him ashore. Now, reborn, Torres has finally shown flashes of his former self that only Anfield remembers. Across April and May, Torres bagged six goals and two assists in eight appearances – all starts – to close out the La Liga season. The Spaniard also fed the ball that sprung Antoine Griezmann free for the goal that won the semifinal against Bayern Munich.

No longer a star but still a valuable piece of the puzzle, Torres is right where he belongs. While his time with Chelsea brought him that medal so many legends in the game fail to achieve, he knows now is where his legacy will truly be judged. “The past can only help you get better,” Torres said. “We only think about Milan, which is the present.”

The key word being “we.” For his entire club career, the narrative surrounding Torres had always been about himself, from superstardom at Liverpool to the abuse he suffered after. Now with a “we” to fall back on, it’s time for Torres to play the most important game of his life.

Copa America 2016 preview, Group B: Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Haiti

Brazil's Willian, left, and United States’ Alejandro Bedoya contend for the ball during the first half of an international friendly soccer match Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2015, in Foxborough, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
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Brazil

They’ve won five Copa America titles with the last in 2007, but in their previous two Copa campaigns Brazil hasn’t made it past the quarterfinal stage. Despite not having captain and talisman Neymar around they’ll be one of the favorites this summer.

Star player: Douglas Costa – The winger was in fine form for Bayern Munich this season and along with Willian he will be a real threat in support of Hulk.

They will sweep all before them because… They have a huge number of talented attacking midfielders who can rip teams apart on their own. Together it could get rather silly. Expect them to be in the final four.

Really, though, Dunga will be on the hot seat in July: The one thing that stands out about this team is the lack of goals. Only one player in the entire squad has double figures (Hulk, with 12) and anything less than winning a major title is always treated with despair by the Brazilian population. If they don’t win either Copa America Centenario or the gold medal at Rio 2016, Dunga will be under big pressure.


Ecuador

LOS ANGELES, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - MARCH 28:  Miguel Layun of Mexico (L) fights for the ball with Antonio Valencia of Ecuador (R) during a friendly match between Mexico and Ecuador at Memorial Coliseum Stadium on March 28, 2015 in Los Angeles, United States. (Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)
(Photo by Omar Vega/LatinContent/Getty Images)

Man, Ecuador is due a good Copa America performance. They haven’t made it out of the group stage since 1997 and have finished in fourth place twice.

Star player: Enner Valencia – After returning from injury in the final 13weeks of the season we saw just how important he is for Manchester United. That was from right back. Valencia will play in a more advanced role for Ecuador and provides bags of experience.

La Tricolor will go far because of forwards: Goals. Goals. Goals. Ecuador has a ton of talented attackers in its squad. Enner Valencia and Jefferson Montero will be dangerous and through the first five 2018 World Cup qualifying games they’ve scored 12 times and sit second in the table.

Likely heartbreak warning: With top scorer from World Cup qualifying, Felipe Caceido, out injured, Ecuador has been dealt a huge blow. They seem to always be the nearly men.


Peru

Paolo Guerrero, Peru

They’ve won the tournament twice in their history and last summer they were the surprise semifinalists who finished in third place. Anchored by a strong defense, they’ll be hoping to cause another upset.

Star player: Paolo Guerrero – He is their main man up top with 26 goals in 67 appearances. If Peru has a chance in the box, they want it to fall to him.

They will be the darlings of the tournament: If they get off to a flying start against Haiti in Seattle then we can expect big things. Confidence will be key ahead of the final game against Brazil.

Goals will be the big problem: They scored just twice in three games during the group stage last summer and somehow made it through. They will have to do more than that this time out and if they don’t beat Haiti, it is curtains for their knockout stage hopes.


Haiti

Gyasi Zardes, Frantz Bertin
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This will be their first-ever appearance in the Copa America and after their successful Gold Cup campaign in 2015, who knows what’s possible? They will fancy their chances of advancing despite all the odds stacked against them.

Star player: Johnny Placide – He shone for Haiti during the Gold Cup last summer and their goalkeeper will be another busy man. A beast.

Beware of the underdogs, they’ll get you: As we saw last summer, we shouldn’t underestimate Haiti. They only lost to the USA 1-0 and beat Honduras on their way to a quarterfinal exit to eventual runners up Jamaica. They will keep it tight and try to grind out wins.

Tight isn’t good enough: As they’ve found out in World Cup qualifying, you have to do more than hang in there. They haven’t scored a goal through four games of 2018 World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF Group B and sit bottom of the table. Placide will have to come up big this summer if they’re going to produce something special.


Game schedule – Full schedule for Group B, here

Who’s going through, who’s going home: Brazil, Ecuador going through; Peru and Haiti going home

Marquee match: I’m going with Brazil vs. Ecuador on June 4 at the Rose Bowl. This two will go at it to try and take control of Group B. Should be a fun one. 

Top players to watch

1) Douglas Costa
2) Willian
3) Antonio Valencia
4) Paolo Guerrero
5) Johnny Placide