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.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.