No illusions: Unconventional Klinsmann instills confidence in United States

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So it has been, what, a week since we were calling the United States World Cup group (cue scary music, woman shrieking, young child with glowing eyes) the “GROUP OF DEATH.” In retrospect, that might have been a bit of an overstatement. “Group of Moderate Pain” might have been more apt. Or maybe “Group of Pretty Severe Heartburn.” Or “Kind of Tough Group.”

From the start, we probably should have known that the only team in the U.S. group with a real and viable chance of winning the World Cup was Germany. There’s no question about Germany’s awesomeness, which has already been on display. The others? Ghana has been a thorn in the U.S. side in recent World Cups, but come on, they are ranked 37th in the FIFA World Rankings.

Portugal is ranked very high in the World Rankings, but the most intense soccer fans I know seemed to think of them as somewhat insubstantial – a team that relies too much on the singular greatness of Cristiano Ronaldo. With Ronaldo possibly hurt (and possibly not; soccer loves its mysteries) and with the memory of the 4-0 drubbing by Germany fresh in the mind, Portugal has become a 40-to-1 long shot to win it all.

And that leaves the United States – a team very few fans around the world take seriously. Like I say – tough group. But Group of Death? This is a bit like some of the later U.S. Olympic basketball teams still trying to call themselves “Dream Teams.”

*If there is a GROUP OF DEATH out there it probably should be Group D – D for Death – with stunning Costa Rica, Luis Suarez’ inspired Uruguay, perennial power Italy and poor Mother England.

The U.S. has a very real chance to advance with a good performance against Portugal on Sunday – Ronaldo’s health is in question, superb defender Pepe is out – and you can’t help but wonder if all of this is playing out along the strange, serpentine path set out in the mind of the United States’ quirky and outspoken coach, Jürgen Klinsmann.

He’s a fascinating character in every way. You probably know his life story: Klinsmann apprenticed as a baker – his parents owned a bakery famous for its pretzels – but he was a soccer prodigy. According to a superb story Alex Wolff wrote about him in Sports Illustrated before the 1994 World Cup, Klinsmann once scored 16 goals in a youth soccer game. He was a breathtaking scorer his entire career – he became the first man to score three goals or more in three consecutive World Cups. He also was so famous for taking dives that he won England’s heart by taking fake dives after scoring goals when playing in the Premier League.

And he was an iconoclast off the field. He drove a Volkswagen Beetle. He traveled to places like South Africa to learn about the situation there. Wolff reported that he would sometimes sing to himself the German protest song “All People Will Be Brothers” while the German national anthem played before matches. There was something deeper always going on with him.

This was true too when he became coach of the German team. The team was pretty much a wreck going into the 2006 World Cup, and nobody was happy with Klinsmann. The defense was something of a shambles and many thought Klinsmann – always the most aggressive of offensive players – didn’t particularly care about defense. The Sun newspaper’s official 2006 World Cup song was “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Jürgen Klinsmann?” But the team made it all the way to the semifinal, losing to eventual champion Italy. And cynics had to grudgingly concede that Klinsmann turned out to be good at this too.

[ MORE: Three areas of focus for the U.S. against Portugal ]
[ MORE: Germany’s formation sheds light on Klinsmann’s roots ]

Ever since he took over the U.S. team – the 35th coach in United States soccer team history – he has been shockingly blunt about his mission to make U.S. soccer unlike U.S. soccer. For instance, he cut Landon Donovan – the most famous and perhaps best soccer player in American history – creating a stir. His explanation for cutting Donovan at the time seemed pretty weak; he simply said that others were in better form. But the REAL explanation emerged in his interview with Sam Borden of the New York Times Magazine … with Kobe Bryant being collateral damage.

“This always happens in America,” Klinsmann said, referring to stars becoming bigger than logic. “Kobe Bryant, for example – why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”

The key sentence in there, I think, is not the Bryant stuff but the line: “This always happens in America.” Klinsmann loves America, has been fascinated with our country since he was young. But there are American qualities that make no sense to him, especially when it comes to soccer. He thinks Donovan is finished as a world-class player. He thinks this is pretty obvious. And he thinks Americans are too sentimental about such matters of mortality.

He also thinks we Americans can be unrealistic – and so he has said point blank, on numerous occasions, that this team can’t win the World Cup. He has said it about 50 different ways. “We are not at the level yet,” he told the Times. And then: “Basically, it’s not possible.”

Think of another coach in any American sport would ever say anything is “not possible.”

But this is Klinsmann and it is part of his effort to make U.S. soccer bend to his will. He coaches a soccer team that has had little-to-no international success and yet recently had a youth program called “Project 2010” because the organizers honestly believed the U.S. would win the World Cup by 2010. He coaches in a country where we never stop believing in American possibility, and we never quite forget that we got to the moon first.

[ MORE: ProSoccerTalk covers all-things USMNT at the 2014 World Cup ]
[ MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2014 World Cup central  |  All-Access ]

So, he has stripped away all illusions. The past is the past. The team isn’t good enough. The U.S. has almost no chance to survive the GROUP OF DEATH. He did not come up with the last one, but I’m sure it suited his purposes.

Then, Monday, Clint Dempsey scored that super-quick goal against Ghana. The U.S. was promptly outplayed for 80-plus minutes. The game was ugly for the U.S. – the team does not often play beautiful soccer, anyway, but against Ghana there were stretches where it seemed they could not complete two passes in a row. Ghana dominated the ball and threatened again and again. But somehow the U.S. fought off the challenges for much longer than seemed possible. And after Ghana did score the equalizer, the U.S. found a way to get a corner kick, and then the ball found the head of John Brooks, who put away the thrilling game-winner.

Now, the U.S. plays a wounded and demoralized Portugal team – with rumors about Ronaldo’s health buzzing – and with a win they are basically through the Group of Death. With a draw, they still have an excellent chance of getting through. This is a much better position than anyone could have possibly expected, and everyone is getting really excited.

But perhaps this sort of hope is precisely the thing Klinsmann has railed again. Portugal has perhaps the best player on earth in Ronaldo, who they insist is 100 percent healthy. Portugal has had quite a bit of success the last 10 years including a fourth-place finish at the 2006 World Cup, and a semifinal at Euro 2012. Portugal has a much richer soccer history than the U.S. Klinsmann, no doubt, wants everyone to understand that the U.S. has little chance of …

“We believe we can beat them,” Klinsmann told reporters this week.

Wait. What?

“We have very good players in this squad, “ he said, “and we have the confidence to go into that game and say, ‘we are here and we want to beat you and get into the next round.”

“It can’t get any better,” he said.

Well, like I say: You never know with Jürgen Klinsmann.

Mourinho blames fatigue for Swansea collapse

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Following a 1-1 draw with Swansea City, Jose Mourinho has begged Manchester United fans to give his players their full support as they navigate a period of serious fixture congestion.

The Red Devils have gone unbeaten in a whopping 25 straight Premier League matches, but still remain outside the top four due to a plague of draws that has befallen the squad, again failing to secure a lead after a late Gylfi Sigurdsson free-kick pegged them back at Old Trafford.

“Did the supporters know it [that the players are struggling]?” Mourinho said in his post-match press conference. “Because if they know it, and they think about it, they would be more supportive of the players who give everything, deserve everything and are at their limits. The team is in trouble, the boys are in trouble. But when you give everything I cannot demand more. I’m not happy with the result. I’m very happy with the boys.”

United is suffering from a host of injuries, particularly to the defense. Chris Smalling and Phil Jones were both unavailable for the Swansea match Sunday, and both Luke Shaw and Eric Bailly both left the field injured during the 90 minutes

[ RECAP: Swansea City salvages 1-1 draw with Manchester United ]

“Luke has to be a big injury, when you’re out after 10 minutes, it has to be a big injury,” Mourinho said. “Eric, maybe he is injured but, at the same time, maybe it’s in relation to him being the guy who’s played 800 minutes of football in April.”

In addition, midfielders Paul Pogba and Marouane Fellaini were unavailable for the match, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic‘s season is over thanks to a double ACL/PCL tear.

Mourinho went on to explain his team’s schedule in further detail, and the issues behind it. “You cannot be punished because we play the League Cup final, you play the final and then you have to play a game in midweek. Why don’t you stop the competition [the Premier League] when you play the final?

“You are punished for doing well and if we beat Celta, we have the final — in this moment that is obviously hypothetical — but the Europa League final is on the Wednesday and then we play against Crystal Palace on the Sunday. We play Southampton away two days before the final. So they want us to play the final, and we would be playing in disaster consequences.”

Matt Miazga, Vitesse win Dutch League Cup

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USMNT youngster Matt Miazga started and played the full 90 minutes as Vitesse Arnhem defeated AZ Alkmaar 2-0 to win the KNVB Beker. The trophy is the club’s first in its entire 125 year history.

Former Norwich City striker Ricky Van Wolfswinkel scored the winner in the 81st minute, crashing in a header past lazy AZ defenders on a pinpoint cross by 20-year-old Kosovo international Milot Rashica. The former Premier League striker struck again in the 88th minute to put the game away.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned in the North London derby ]

Miazga has been a fixture for Vitesse this season, making 21 Eredivisie appearances this season and seeing the field in every Cup game. Vitesse conceded just four goals throughout the entire Cup run, and just one over the final four games. They shut out Feyenoord in the quarterfinals, a game which Miazga was a late substitute. Vitesse also kept clean sheets against lower league opponents in Jodan Boys in the Round of 16, and again in the finals, games that Miazga saw the entire 90 minutes.

The 21-year-old American is on loan from Chelsea, and after a slow start, has earned a significant place in the side. In the latest 10 league matches for Vitesse, Miazga has played the full 90 minutes in eight of them, with five wins and two clean sheets in that span. Vitesse sits in ninth position in the Eredivisie table, but their problems have come more so up front, as they’ve conceded just 38 goals in 34 matches, better than all but the top two teams in the table.

Another Chelsea loanee, central midfielder Lewis Baker, finished the competition as its top scorer, bagging five goals in Cup games. The 22-year-old England youth international had a brace in the 2-1 semifinal win over Sparta Rotterdam. Chelsea is known for its loan relationship with Vitesse, with four players currently loaned to the Dutch club.

Player ratings from North London Derby

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LONDON — Tottenham beat Arsenal 2-0 at White Hart Lane on Sunday as Spurs remained four points behind Chelsea in the title race and also ensured they will finish about their north London rivals for the first time in 22 years.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

There were some incredible individual displays throughout as Spurs dominated for vast swathes.

Here’s how each player marked out of 10.


TOTTENHAM

Hugo Lloris – 7 – Didn’t have too much to do but calm on the ball and quick off his line as ever.

Kieran Trippier – 7 – Picked ahead of Walker and didn’t let Pochettino down. Few loose balls but great defensively.

Toby Alderweireld – 8 – Fine display from the Belgian who oozed class.

Jan Vertonghen – 8 – Almost scored twice and an inspiration at the other end. Went down injured early on but battled hard.

Ben Davies – 7 – Solid and steady at left wing back.

Eric Dier – 8 – Fine display in center of midfield. Pochettino always looks to him to get info to the team. A leader.

Victor Wanyama – 9 – Dominant display from the Kenyan. Bossed midfield and even poured forward in attack.

Christian Eriksen – 7 – His shot was parried to Dele for Spurs’ first goal and always looked lively. Missed a good chance early.

Dele Alli – 7 – Finished well for his goal but missed a sitter early on. Popped up with another big goal.

Heung-Min Son – 7 – Launched some great counters in the first half but faded in the second.

Harry Kane – 8 – Won the penalty kick and slotted it home. Denied by Cech and bullied Arsenal’s defense. 6 in 5 NLD’s in the PL.

Subs
Kyle Walker on for Kieran Trippier – 6 – Did a solid job.
Mousa Dembele on for Heung-min Son – 6 – Steadied the ship in midfield late on.
Moussa Sissoko on for Dele Alli – N/A


ARSENAL

Petr Cech – 8 – Without Cech it could have been five or six. Three fines stops in the second half kept the score down.

Gabriel – 5 – Gave away the penalty kick and had a torrid game.

Laurent Koscielny – 6 – Tried to hold a shaky defense together but never looked comfortable. Looked like he was carrying a knock.

Nacho Monreal – 6 – Did okay on the ball but failed to give defensive solidity.

Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – 5 – Picked ahead of Bellerin at right wing back but showed little going forward.

Granit Xhaka – 4 – Poor display. Gave away silly free kicks and was subbed off.

Aaron Ramsey – 6 – One of Arsenal’s best players, especially in first half with his midfield runs.

Kieran Gibbs – 5 – Saw plenty of the ball but didn’t do much with it.

Mesut Ozil – 5 – Went missing in a big game again. Seemed to be carrying a knock. Last NLD for Ozil?

Alexis Sanchez – 6 – Last NLD for Sanchez? Had moments of class in the first half but seems to be on another page to his teammates.

Olivier Giroud – 5 – Barely touched the ball and had a snapshot he rifled over in the second half.

Subs
Hector Bellerin for Gabriel – 5 – Didn’t get too involved in his 15 minutes on the pitch.
Danny Welbeck on for Granit Xhaka – 6 – Put himself about and got in-behind Spurs’ defense on a couple of occasions.
Theo Walcott on for Olivier Giroud – 5 – Hardly touched the ball to make an impact.

Tottenham 2-0 Arsenal: Spurs quick pair wins North London derby

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For the first time in 22 years, Tottenham will finish above Arsenal in the league table.

The North London derby finished 2-0 in favor of the home side at White Hart Lane, and the last visit there for Arsene Wenger & company confirms they cannot catch Spurs. Dele Alli scored and Harry Kane struck from the spot just two minutes later as a quickfire double soon after halftime sent Tottenham through.

With White Hart Lane at full throat, Tottenham was the more dangerous side out of the gate. Harry Kane tested Petr Cech with a tight-angled shot inside the opening minute, and Toby Alderweireld had a set-piece header go just over the bar also from a difficult position. The Gunners also spent a bit of time in the opposition area as Kieran Gibbs forced Hugo Lloris off the line to challenge a ball near the end line.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

Spurs had the best pair of chances of the opening half on 21 minutes back-to-back. Harry Kane delivered a ball towards the six-yard box, and with a deflection it came to the head of Dele Alli, who should have scored, but put it over the bar from right on the doorstep. Minutes later, Heung-Min Son sliced up Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the left flank and burst into the box, and while his shot was deflected, it fell to Christian Eriksen who also should have scored with the goal gaping, but didn’t hit the volley cleanly and skied it over.

Aaron Ramsey worked Hugo Lloris as the Frenchman was forced into a low save to his left on the midfielder’s shot seven minutes before halftime.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

The hosts had the best chance straight out of halftime as Victor Wanyama charged down a loose ball and unleashed a howitzer on net that was just tipped over the bar by Petr Cech.

The breakthrough came in the 56th minute as Spurs went in front. Kane held the ball up brilliantly and found Alli, and under pressure Christian Eriksen latched onto it, and while his shot was saved, it fell back to Alli and he crashed it home. Immediately after, Spurs doubled their lead as Gabriel caught Kane’s foot in the penalty area, causing the England international to go to ground. Referee Michael Oliver gave the penalty, and Kane slotted it in off the left post.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Arsenal, suddenly down 2-0, looked to push forward to find a way back in. Olivier Giroud forced an easy scoop save from Lloris and then Gibbs fired over past the hour mark. The Gunners seemed shell-shocked at their sudden deficit, and by the time they truly worked themselves onto the ball, they were faced with a bunkered-in Spurs defense.

Tottenham saw the game out with little threat from the visitors, and the three points keeps pace with Chelsea, closing the gap back to four points with their ninth straight win. Arsenal, meanwhile, failed to capitalize on the opportunity brought on by Manchester United and Manchester City both dropping points earlier in the day.