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.

Spanish federation maintains five-match ban for Ronaldo

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MADRID (AP) The Spanish soccer federation has ratified its decision to suspend Cristiano Ronaldo for five matches.

The Real Madrid forward will miss the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup against Barcelona. Madrid holds a 3-1 advantage.

He will also miss the first four matches of the Spanish league, which Madrid opens on Sunday at Deportivo La Coruna.

Ronaldo was suspended for one match after being sent off during Sunday’s first leg of the Spanish Super Cup. Spanish media reports said Madrid appealed Ronaldo’s second yellow card, when the Portugal forward was booked for diving.

Ronaldo was given an additional four-match ban for shoving the referee in the back after he was shown the red card.

USMNT’s John Brooks out three months with thigh injury

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Uh oh.

The U.S. men’s national team will have to do without center back John Brooks for their crucial upcoming 2018 World Cup qualifiers after his club side, Wolfbsurg, confirmed he ruptured tendons in his thigh in a German Cup game last weekend.

Brooks, 24, became the most-expensive U.S. player in history this summer after he joined Wolfsburg from Bundesliga rivals Hertha Berlin for $23.3 million but the German-American will now spend a considerable amount of time on the sidelines.

“John Anthony Brooks will be out for VfL Wolfsburg long term,” Wolfsburg said in a statement. “In the first round of the DFB Cup the American ruptured a tendon in his right front thigh at FC Eintracht Norderstedt. This resulted in in-depth investigations on Tuesday and Wednesday and it is expected that Brooks will be able to return to the team training in about three months.”

So, a huge blow for Bruce Arena who will now have to find a new partner for Geoff Cameron at the heart of the USA’s defense.

Tim Ream, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez will be the frontrunners to slot into the back four, but Cameron and Steve Birnbaum struck up a good partnership in the past. Ream, who has had a fine start to the season with Fulham, would seem like the best option, especially with his ability to play as a left-sided center back.

Whatever way you slice it up, this isn’t great news for the USMNT ahead of their qualifiers against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena on Sept. 1 and at Honduras on Sept. 5.

Transfer Rumor Roundup: Saints won’t sell Van Dijk; Aurier to Tottenham

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Southampton are said to be interested in signing Lazio’s Dutch international center back Wesley Hoedt and have issued an update on Virgil Van Dijk‘s future at St Mary’s.

[ MORE: Danny Rose to Chelsea?

Multiple outlets, including the Sun, say Saints have bid $20 million for Hoedt, 23, and many believe that is the first chain of action in star Virgil van Dijk leaving St Mary’s.

Van Dijk, 26, has put in a transfer request with Liverpool and Chelsea said to be interested in the $80 million valued center back, but the Press Association is reporting that Hoedt is not seen as a replacement for VVD.

Southampton continue to insist that their star man isn’t for sale despite his desire to leave and in an interview with BBC Radio Solent, Saints chairman Ralph Krueger issued an update on van Dijk’s situation on Wednesday.

“Our stance remains based on our strategy from May when we spoke last. I already told you the numbers that we have transferred in and transferred out and it is time to stop that. We really thought this was a good summer for that. Strength of the contracts, age of the group and the experiences of last year like going to a cup final gave us the feeling this is a group that tasted that winning and keeping them together would give us the chance to reach another level.

“Virgil is not the only player that is involved in this he is part of the whole strategy of not selling. Nobody is for sale that we don’t want to sell and so he is not for sale in this window. We have said it more than once. We are not done with the window yet. We are still looking at some options. I am not going to promise anything. It has got to be something that truly strengthens the squad and fits into our group.”

Saints currently have Japanese international Maya Yoshida, England U-21 international Jack Stephens and Poland U-21 defender Jan Bednarek as their three central defensive options available, and it is likely Hoedt would come in to take a starting role in place of either Yoshida or Stephens.

If Van Dijk’s situation can be resolved amicably and he returns to the squad then Saints’ defense would be much stronger with two Dutch internationals at the heart of their defense. Conceding goals hasn’t been the biggest issue over the past 12 months for the south coast club but a drought of six home Premier League games without a goal is perhaps the biggest concern for new manager Mauricio Pellegrino.


French outlet L’Equipe are reporting that Tottenham have agreed to sign Paris Saint-Germain’s Serge Aurier for $25.7 million.

Aurier was previously linked with a move to Manchester United and both Inter Milan and Juventus are said to be interested in the defender.

The right back, 24, has fallen down the pecking order for Les Parisiens after Dani Alves joined PSG from Juventus this summer, plus Thomas Meunier is also around at the Parcs des Princes.

Per the report the deal for Aurier is fully agreed but is dependent on his appeal hearing against his conviction of assaulting a police officer in Paris. He was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence and that could complicate a move to the UK as Aurier could not travel to England to play in PSG’s UEFA Champions League game at Arsenal last November.

The Ivory Coast international has pace, power and is versatile, making him a perfect fit for Spurs’ defensive unit. After losing Kyle Walker to Manchester City for $64.3 million many believed Kieran Tripier would be the automatic starter for Tottenham at right back, but with the England international currently out injured Spurs academy product Kyle Walker-Peters (I know, confusing Stick with it) put in a man of the match display at right back against Newcastle United during the opening weekend of the Premier League season.

Aurier’s added experience would help Spurs in the UCL this season and there’s no questioning they need some extra cover in the back with Mauricio Pochettino also said to be closing in on a move for Ajax’s Colombian center back Davinson Sanchez.

Premier League player Power Rankings – Week 1

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It is time to take stock of the Premier League’s opening weekend and select the top 20 players who dazzled to open up the 2017-18 campaign.

[ MORE: Power Rankings archive ]

Remember: this is a list of the top 20 performing players right now in the Premier League.

Let us know in the comments section below if you agree with the selections of the top 20 players in the PL right now.


  1. Romelu Lukaku (Man United)
  2. Steve Mounie (Huddersfield)
  3. Nemanja Matic (Man United)
  4. David Silva (Man City)
  5. Alexandre Laczette (Arsenal)
  6. Jamie Vardy (Leicester City)
  7. Dele Alli (Tottenham)
  8. Sadio Mane (Liverpool)
  9. Wayne Rooney (Everton)
  10. Mohamed Salah (Liverpool)
  11. Kevin De Bruyne (Man City)
  12. Christian Eriksen (Tottenham)
  13. Alvaro Morata (Chelsea)
  14. Kyle Walker (Man City)
  15. Stefano Okaka (Watford)
  16. Aaron Mooy (Huddersfield)
  17. Sam Vokes (Burnley)
  18. Jay Rodriguez (West Brom)
  19. Lukasz Fabianski (Swansea)
  20. Ryan Bertrand (Southampton)