USA Training & Press Conference - 2014 FIFA World Cup

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.

Liverpool keeper Karius to miss two months

MEYRIN, SWITZERLAND - JULY 22:   Loris Karius of 1. FSV Mainz 05 in action during the pre-season friendly match between 1. FSV Mainz 05 and AS Monaco at Stade des Arberes on July 22, 2015 in Meyrin, Switzerland.  (Photo by Harold Cunningham/Getty Images)
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He was tabbed to be Liverpool’s opening day starter in goal, but Loris Karius could now miss the first two months of the Premier League season after suffering a hand injury in Wednesday’s International Champions Cup loss against Chelsea.

[ MORE: Real looking at Sissoko, Verratti as midfield options ]

The 23-year-old was brought to the Reds this summer from Bundesliga side Mainz for over $6 million.

Karius opted not to represent Germany at next month’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in order to avoid missing any game action with Liverpool. Unfortunately, the young keeper will now likely miss between eight and 10 weeks.

Italian legend Christian Vieri looks to make comeback

ROME, ITALY - OCTOBER 19:  Christian Vieri poses with the UEFA Champions League Trophy during the UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour 2012/13 on October 19, 2012 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images for UEFA)
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His career ended over seven years ago, but former Italy international Christian Vieri is looking to make an improbable comeback in a country that continues to attract big stars.

The 43-year-old Vieri is reportedly coming out of retirement to join the Chinese Super League, and posted a video on Twitter confirming his plans.

Last playing in 2009, Vieri finished his career where it began — in Italy — with Atalanta. During his career, the striker played for 10 clubs in his native country, while also spending time in Spain and France with Atletico Madrid and Monaco, respectively.

Vieri made his name with Inter Milan, where he recorded six straight seasons with double-digit goals. At the height of his career with Internazionale, Vieri netted 27 times across all competitions during the 2002/03 season.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Real looking at Sissoko, Verratti

PARIS, FRANCE - JULY 10:  Cedric Soares (l) and William Carvalho of Portugal (c) combine to tackle Moussa Sissoko of France during the UEFA EURO 2016 Final match between Portugal and France at Stade de France on July 10, 2016 in Paris, France.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
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While Real Madrid still holds a slim hope of winning the signature of Juventus midfielder Paul Pogba, Los Blancos are said to have a viable backup plan in the event the Frenchman does the inevitable and joins Manchester United.

[ MORE: Ten most noteworthy summers transfers (so far) ]

Real is reportedly looking at another French midfielder, Moussa Sissoko, to fill the center of the park. The 26-year-old has made 118 appearances for Newcastle since joining the Magpies back in 2013.

While it may be outside option, Real is also interested in Paris Saint-Germain midfielder Marco Verratti, although the French champions likely aren’t willing to part ways with the player.


Andy King has signed a new four-year contract with Leicester City, after Jamie Vardy and Ben Chilwell each agreed to a new deals this summer with the Foxes.

The midfielder appeared in 25 matches last season in the team’s Premier League title-winning campaign, while also featuring for Wales this summer at EURO 2016.


Aston Villa manager Roberto di Matteo has confirmed that Everton is set to acquire Idrissa Gueye.

The 26-year-old shined during the 2015/16 season for Villa, appearing in matches as a deep-lying midfielder. Everton has reportedly met the player’s release clause of over $9 million, and is now discussing personal terms with Gueye.


Swansea City striker Bafe Gomis has joined French side Marseille on a season-long loan after netting 17 goals in 71 matches in England.

The Frenchman is likely seen as the replacement for Michy Batshuayi, who left for Chelsea this summer.

Roma’s Spalletti on massive transfer fees, Italians in Premier League, more

CAMBRIDGE, MA - JULY 27:  AS Roma manager Luciano Spalletti speaks to media after a friendly match against the Boston Bolts at Ohiri Field on July 27, 2016 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)
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Luciano Spalletti takes his longest pause before answering a question on the massive and controversial transfer fees paid out for Serie A stars Gonzalo Higuain and (probably) Paul Pogba.

Some of his players, like Francesco Totti, have been very vocal in their distaste for Higuain’s departure from Napoli for one of the highest fees in football history, but Spalletti understands what’s going on.

The 57-year-old AS Roma manager has been around the block, highlighted by two stints each with Roma and Udinese as well as parts of five seasons with Zenit Saint Petersburg which included a pair of league titles.

[ MORE: Klopp frowns at Pogba fee ]

And when it comes to making more than $100 million on a player, you do it. As for buying a player like that, it’s a different story.

“You have to sell that player because you can turn that into two or three very good players,” Spalletti said in a translated interview Friday with ProSoccerTalk. “I think it’s the best thing. Personally, I wouldn’t spend that kind of money on a single player, but these clubs have very high goals like winning the Champions League.”

ROME, ITALY - APRIL 20: Francesco Totti and his head coach Luciano Spalletti of AS Roma react after the Serie A match between AS Roma and Torino FC at Stadio Olimpico on April 20, 2016 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
(Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)

Of course Spalletti has that goal as well.

The manager was speaking ahead of Roma’s date with Liverpool in St. Louis on Monday, one of two dates in North America. I Lupi faces the Montreal Impact on Wednesday before heading home to prepare for its Aug. 20 Serie A opener against Spalletti’s former club, Udinese.

Spalletti’s second stint with Roma saw the club go to the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16, and his familiarity with success in the competition bodes well for the club moving forward.

He shepherded i Lupi to the quarterfinals in 2006-07 and 2007-08 before being bounced in the Round of 16 in the final season of his first stint, and also led Zenit to two UCL Round of 16s.

[ MORE: Higuain, Napoli boss trade barbs ]

Roma also finished third in Serie A despite being mid-table when Spalletti took over. He’d like to better that this season, after selling superstar Miralem Pjanic but picking up Stephan El Shaaraway and making standout defender Antonio Rudiger’s loan permanent.

“I can count on a very good squad,” Spalletti said. “It won’t be easy to build on the season, but we want to keep doing what we just finished.”

PST asked Spalletti about the quartet of Italian coaches who’ve taken the step to the Premier League. Claudio Ranieri won the Premier League with Leicester last season while Francesco Guidolin helped rescue Swansea City.

Now Chelsea has hired Italian mastermind Antonio Conte, and Watford has brought in Walter Mazzerri. It’s a source of pride for coaches in Serie A.

“Italy has a great tradition of coaches and production,” Spalletti said. “The Italian league allows you to build a coach with valuable experience that you can later pass on at international levels. The two coaches, Conte and Mazzarri, are two great coaches who have proven their class.”