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.

Inexperienced Southgate given first shot at vacant England job

BURTON-UPON-TRENT, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 05:  Gareth Southgate the manager of England U21's looks on during a training session at St Georges Park on September 5, 2016 in Burton-upon-Trent, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) After the acrimonious departure of Sam Allardyce, England’s national soccer team is temporarily in the hands of a man who said just three weeks ago that he wasn’t ready for such a high pressure job.

Yet interim coach Gareth Southgate may end up keeping it given the paucity of top-class English managers around.

The English Football Association’s preference is that an Englishman coaches the national team, but there’s hardly a queue of top-quality candidates.

[ MORE: MLS Playoff Picture gets clearer ]

Alan Pardew, Eddie Howe and Steve Bruce are high on the list of bookmakers’ favorites to be the next England coach, yet none of them have managed a so-called big club in the Premier League or coached a team in the Champions League. Pardew and Howe are in charge of unfashionable Premier League clubs (Crystal Palace and Bournemouth, respectively) and Bruce recently quit as manager of Hull.

Glenn Hoddle, England coach from 1996-99, is also on the bookies’ list and a popular call with ex-professionals even though he hasn’t coached in a decade.

So Southgate, who has been given the reins for England’s next four matches – against Malta, Slovenia, Scotland and Spain – can stake a claim for the role on a full-time basis should he impress as a caretaker coach.

Except this was the same man who said as recently as Sept. 5 that he needed more experience to be England manager, having coached only one club (Middlesbrough, from 2006-09) and been in charge of the England under-21 side since 2013. Southgate pulled out of the race to succeed Roy Hodgson after the European Championship for this very reason, with the job going to Allardyce.

“I’m pretty clear on what I’m comfortable with,” Southgate said then, “but also I know to take that role wasn’t something I think I’ve got the experience for.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

“I think it’s one of the ultimate jobs and you want every skill set possible when you go into it. I think with England, there are one or two other things that I would want to have had experience of before I took that role, to be going into it from a real position of strength. Maybe that happens in the future, maybe it doesn’t?”

Less than a month later, he’s been thrust into what some term “The Impossible Job.”

Clean-cut, well-spoken and with no baggage, the 46-year-old Southgate fits the bill for the FA in terms of image. He would be the last person likely to get caught up in the kind of newspaper sting that led to Allardyce losing his job on Tuesday. He also knows the FA and what the national body wants and expects, having been an employee for three years.

“Gareth Southgate will do a good job,” FA chairman Greg Clarke said. “He knows the people, he knows the team, he knows the setup at St. George’s Park. He’ll take over pretty seamlessly.”

Best known for missing a crucial penalty in England’s shootout loss to Germany in the Euro 1996 semifinals, Southgate was fired after three years at Middlesbrough following its relegation from the Premier League. He has repaired his coaching reputation with England’s under-21s and led the team to a first title in 22 years at the Toulon tournament this year.

[ MORE: Wenger excited at Arsenal’s chances ]

Bruce is the second-favorite with bookmakers, behind Southgate, and has to be a big contender considering he was interviewed by the FA for the job eventually given to Allardyce. The 38-year-old Howe, who guided unfancied Bournemouth into the Premier League and kept it there, is widely regarded as a future England coach but now may be too soon for him.

The problem for English coaches is they are rarely given the chance to prove themselves at the leading Premier League clubs, who prefer foreign managers. The FA has tried to address the lack of top English coaches by building the sprawling National Football Centre in central England in 2012 and using that as a base from where talented young coaches can be brought through. That will take time, though.

For now, the FA has given itself some breathing space and will look to have a new man in place by England’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania in March.

“It wasn’t the plan we had,” Clarke said, “but we’ve now got to make the new plan work.”

MLS Snapshots: Montreal, DC strengthen playoff bids; TFC draws Orlando (video)

Montreal Impact midfielder Ignacio Piatti, center, is congratulated by teammate Matteo Mancosu (21) following a goal against the San Jose Earthquakes during the first half of a soccer game, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP)
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For most of Wednesday’s trio of Major League Soccer matches we had a paucity of goals, Montreal’s potent attack the only thing assuring it wasn’t zero.

[ MORE: Tata chooses Atlanta United ]

But the final half hours in two of our three matches proved fruitful for the box scores.

Montreal Impact 3-1 San Jose Earthquakes

With Didier Drogba resting, the Impact still managed to strengthen their playoff plans while crushing San Jose’s hopes for the second season. Dominic Odoro buried a rebound early before MVP hopeful Ignacio Piatti made it 2-0 before halftime. Piatti later helped Johan Venegas put the game away late.

Chris Wondolowski scored his 11th goal of the season to pull San Jose within a goal with just under a half-hour to play, his 120th in MLS has him 25 behind Landon Donovan of the LA Galaxy for the all-time record.

The loss leaves San Jose seven points shy of a playoff spot with four matches to play.

Toronto FC 0-0 Orlando City

There were chances, sure: Michael Bradley looped a gorgeous pass that Jonathan Osorio somehow hit over the net from inside the six, and Cyle Larin was denied by a diving Alex Bono at the other end.

Two yellow cards to Tosaint Rickets in a 14-minute span left TFC down a man for the final 20 minutes, but the Reds held on for a point at home. Orlando is now five points shy of the East’s final playoff spot, while Toronto used its game-in-hand to pull ahead of New York Red Bulls and New York City FC for the top spot in the East.

DC United 3-0 Columbus Crew

This one saw the chances evenly distributed but the ball mostly with the visitors. Fortunately for DC’s playoff hopes, Lloyd Sam’s third goal of the season opened up a 1-0 lead in the 71st minute off a slick feed from Luciano Acosta. Lamar Neagle had a classy finish to make it 2-0, then assisted Alvaro Saborio to end this game and Columbus’ playoff hopes.

Tata Martino on choosing Atlanta: Project “worth more than money”

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - JUNE 26: Gerardo Martino of Argentina clls out against Chile during the Copa America Centenario Championship match at MetLife Stadium on June 26, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Chile defeated Argentina 4-2 in penalty kicks. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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Paraguay.

Newell’s Old Boys.

Barcelona.

Argentina.

Atlanta United.

That’s the career path for new Atlanta boss Tata Martino, announced Wednesday as the first manager in United history.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

It’s a fascinating hire for the club and its league, Major League Soccer, as United prepares to debut in 2017.

And it’s also interesting on account of the coach. The 53-year-old Argentine remains in his prime, a three-time Copa America runner-up who was organizing Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and company just three years ago.

Timothy Pratt filed a report on the hiring for the New York Times on Wednesday, one that speaks to Martino’s excitement at helping start a club from the ground up. The coach is excited to aid technical director and USMNT legend Carlos Bocanegra in guiding players from youth on up, similar to what Oscar Pareja has done at FC Dallas.

From NYTimes.com:

Martino underlined the importance of youth player development at his new club “based on how I became a player at Newell’s.” The club is known for grooming players, including a young Lionel Messi, who played for Martino with Barcelona and Argentina. “Working with the youth teams is fundamental for me, no matter where in the world I’m coaching,” he said.

“But the proposal they’re offering me — to install my style of play and build from the ground up — is worth more than money,” he said.

That’s the kinda hire that should be high-fived. Let’s see how it plays out.

Europa League: Mourinho says targeted Man Utd must win; Saints shorthanded

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Jose Mourinho, Manager of Manchester United makes his way to the tunnel after the final whistle  during the Premier League match between Manchester United and Leicester City at Old Trafford on September 24, 2016 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Europa League goes into its second day of group play with the onus on the biggest club in the tournament to pick up a win.

Don’t believe us? Ask Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho.

“To be honest, I think we have to win,” Mourinho said at his pre-match press conference. “If we don’t win, I would say we’d have to win all the last four matches, which is difficult, so I think it is very important that we win this game.”

[ MORE: Wenger excited at Arsenal’s chances ]

United fell 1-0 at Feyenoord to open the group stage, and now hosts Ukrainian side Zorya Luhansk at 3:05 p.m. ET Thursday. He knows its the equivalent of a massive Cup match for the visitors.

“The Europa League is a competition Man United isn’t normally in, so when these teams have a giant like Man United in front of them, it’s a huge moment for them and they come to the game with incredible motivation.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic will start for United, as there’s a chance that Anthony Martial will rejoin the side. Henrikh Mkhitaryan is out, and Wayne Rooney (back) and Luke Shaw (illness) may not play.

The other Premier League side in play is Southampton, as the Saints take a long flight to Israel for a 3:05 p.m. ET kickoff against Hapoel Be’er Sheva.

[ MORE: Why is Walcott on fire? | Wenger on MiB pod ]

Saints handled Sparta Prague at home, and now face the Camels, who went to Inter Milan and won. Southampton is without Charlie Austin, Jose Fonte, Ryan Bertrand, and Steven Davis.

Should be a very decent match from Turner Stadium in Be’er Sheva.

Elsewhere

all times ET

Mainz at Gabala — 11 a.m.
Young Boys at Astana — 11 a.m.
Osmanlispor at Zurich — 1 p.m.
Red Bull Salzburg at Schalke — 1 p.m.
PAOK at Liberec — 1 p.m.
Qarabag at Fiorentina — 1 p.m.
Villarreal at Steaua Bucuresti — 1 p.m.
Nice at Krasnodar — 1 p.m.
Standard Liege at Ajax — 1 p.m.
Braga at Shakhtar Donetsk — 1 p.m.
Panathinaikos at Celta Vigo — 1 p.m.
Inter Milan at Sparta Prague — 1 p.m.
Konyaspor at Gent — 1 p.m.
Sassuolo at Genk — 3:05 p.m.
Zorya at Manchester United — 3:05 p.m.
Anderlecht at Saint-Etienne — 3:05 p.m.
Apoel Nicosia at Olympiacos — 3:05 p.m.
Maccabi Tel-Aviv at Dundalk — 3:05 p.m.
Feyenoord at Fenerbahce — 3:05 p.m.
Rapid Wien at Athletic Bilbao — 3:05 p.m.
Viktoria Plzen at Austria Wien — 3:05 p.m.
AZ Alkmaar at Zenit Saint-Petersburg — 3:05 p.m.
Astra Giurgiu at AS Roma — 3:05 p.m.