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.

Who voted for who at the FIFA awards?

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This is always one of the best parts about the morning after the night before when it comes to the annual FIFA awards.

Who voted for who?

With the national team coach, captain and one media member from all of FIFA’s member associations getting to vote for the three best players on the planet, Luka Modric came out on top with Cristiano Ronaldo second and Mohamed Salah third.

In terms of voting, a player received five points every time he was selected in top spot, while they received three points for a second place on the ballot and one point for being selected third.

The U.S. men’s national team interim head coach Dave Sarachan went for a Messi, Ronaldo, Modric top three, while current captain Wil Trapp went for Modric, Ronaldo then Messi.

And while Messi voted for Ronaldo as his third choice, Ronaldo didn’t include a single Barcelona player in his top three and instead selected two of his former Real Madrid teammates.

Below we take a look at some of the big name voters and who they selected to win the top individual prize on the planet.

While you can find the full list of voting for the FIFA male player of the year award right here.


Dave Sarachan – USMNT coach: Lionel Messi (1st), Cristiano Ronaldo (2nd), Luka Modric (3rd)

Wil Trapp – USMNT captain: Luka Modric (1st), Cristiano Ronaldo (2nd), Lionel Messi (3rd)

Lionel Messi – Argentina captain: Luka Modric (1st) Kylian Mbappe (2nd) Cristiano Ronaldo (3rd)

Cristiano Ronaldo – Portugal captain: Raphael Varane (1st) Luka Modric (2nd) Antoine Griezmann (3rd)

Luka Modric – Croatia captain: Raphael Varane (1st) Cristiano Ronaldo (2nd) Antoine Griezmann

Harry Kane – England captain: Cristiano Ronaldo (1st) Lionel Messi (2nd) Kevin De Bruyne (3rd)

Hugo Loris – France captain: Raphael Varane (1st) Antoine Griezmann (2nd) Kylian Mbappe (3rd)

Manuel Neuer – Germany captain: Eden Hazard (1st) Luka Modric (2nd) Raphael Varane (3rd)

Virgil Van Dijk – Netherlands captain: Mohamed Salah (1st) Kevin De Bruyne (2nd) Kylian Mbappe (3rd)

Sergio Ramos – Spain captain: Luka Modric (1st) Cristiano Ronaldo (2nd) Lionel Messi (3rd)

Explaining Ronaldo, Messi no show for FIFA awards

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For the last decade either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo have been crowned the best player on the planet, winning the coveted award five times each and finish second on the other five occasions.

On Monday in London, FIFA’s TheBest award went to Real Madrid and Croatia midfielder Luka Modric at the glitzy award evening in London, with Ronaldo finishing second and Mohamed Salah third. Messi wasn’t even nominated among the top three despite an incredible last 12 months, and that was one of several bizarre decisions as votes were counted by national team coaches, captains and selected journalists and officials from around the world.

Neither Messi nor Ronaldo were present to applaud Modric, as they both decided not to attend the event with Messi citing “personal reasons” on the morning of the event and he remained in Spain ahead of Barcelona’s trip to Leganes on Wednesday. While Ronaldo pulled out due to Juventus’ busy schedule as they have a Serie A game on Wednesday.

Ronaldo knew it was unlikely he would win the award after Modric was handed the best player award by UEFA and won the Golden Ball as the best player at the World Cup this summer, while Messi’s goal was in the running for the Puskas award but lost out to Mo Salah’s striker against Everton.

At many of the previous events it has been too close to call between Messi and Ronaldo as to who will win the best player on the planet. But this was the first time in a decade the award was destined to go elsewhere.

But should they have shown up on Monday?

Both Messi and Ronaldo were included in the FIFPro World 11 and the other nine players included in that team turned up. Granted, it was easier for the three Premier League players (Eden Hazard, N'Golo Kante and David De Gea) to make it, but four Real Madrid players still showed up, plus Kylian Mbappe and Dani Alves from elsewhere in Europe. Real Madrid play on Wednesday, so too do PSG and Chelsea and Man United, but their players turned up.

Can we really criticize Messi and Ronaldo for not showing up in London?

Both players have given us so much joy over the years and this is only one awards ceremony (and a slightly confusing and long-winded one at that), but what does their inability to show up when they haven’t won the main award suggest?

Are they simply so trophy orientated that they can’t bear the thought of being in a room full of the greatest players and coaches on the planet and not winning the top prize? Or did scheduling issues really stop them from turning up?

It could be as simple as the latter but it leaves a slightly sour taste in the mouth to think that Messi and/or Ronaldo believe they don’t have time to waste to attend an awards ceremony celebrating not only their greatness but that of others, when they don’t have a chance of winning the main award.

Giuseppe Rossi faces one-year ban for doping case in Italy

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ROME (AP) Former Italy forward Giuseppe Rossi’s injury-plagued career has taken another negative turn with a positive doping test.

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Italy’s anti-doping agency Nado Italia announced on Tuesday that Rossi will stand trial next week after testing positive for an eye drug that can be used as a masking agent.

The anti-doping prosecutor is seeking a one-year ban.

The test was taken in May while Rossi played for Genoa at the end of the last Serie A season.

Rossi is currently out of contract.

Dorzolamide, the substance that Rossi tested positive for, is not banned when administered with eye drops but Rossi told anti-doping authorities that he did not use eye drops when he was questioned twice, in June and July.

Rossi had no immediate comment.

The 31-year-old Rossi was born in the United States but played for Italy from 2008-14. His career has been slowed by a series of knee injuries.

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Players’ union reiterates disapproval of league match in US

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MADRID (AP) The Spanish players’ association remains against the league’s plan to play a regular-season match in the United States despite receiving more detailed information.

The association was not convinced by the league’s update and said on Monday it still disapproved of the Girona-Barcelona game planned for suburban Miami in January. It said the league still lacks the necessary approvals from other stakeholders, and it can’t guarantee the union contract won’t be breached.

The association doesn’t have a final say on whether the game actually happens, although players recently did not rule out a strike if their demands are not considered. They complained about not being consulted by the league before the idea was presented.

The association’s latest announcement came three days after the Spanish soccer federation refused to approve the match, putting the plan in serious doubt. The federation requested more documentation from the league after saying it failed to show the overseas match would comply with Spanish and international regulations and TV broadcast contracts, and that it would not harm the other 18 league clubs and the fans of Girona and Barcelona.

The match would also need to be approved by the U.S. soccer federation, plus continental bodies UEFA and CONCACAF. FIFA’s permission is not mandatory but president Gianni Infantino recently expressed his doubts about the game.

Spanish league president Javier Tebas again defended the match, saying football needs to catch up to what other sports have been doing to try to keep growing internationally.

“If we don’t keep working to try to grow, other competitions and other sports will leave us behind. We have to be different,” Tebas said on Monday at a soccer conference in Madrid.

“In the sports industry we have to try to copy what others are doing well. Why does the NBA and the NFL take a match abroad and we can’t? Why can’t we keep growing? This is our greatest responsibility, to grow, because this is an industry.”

Tebas said he was surprised by the amount of negative reaction to the proposal.

“It looks like we want to play the entire league in Miami. It’s just one match,” he said. “We want to play one match, for strategic reasons, to try to grow the league.”

Earlier Monday, European Club Association chairman Andrea Agnelli, Juventus’ president, said he “take(s) his hat off” to Tebas for taking the initiative and working to expand the Spanish league globally.

“That’s something that should be looked at,” Agnelli said. “If you want to have a global audience, you need to be closer to (that audience).”

The league plan to play games in the U.S. is part of a new 15-year partnership with sports and entertainment group Relevent, which operates the International Champions Cup, a tournament of club friendlies during the European offseason in July and August around the world.

The Spanish federation held its season-opening Super Cup abroad for the first time in August, with Barcelona beating Sevilla in Tangier, Morocco.

Real Madrid president Florentino Perez said on Sunday his team would not play the game abroad in the future, saying he was “vehemently against it.”

The league has said it will not force clubs to play in the overseas match.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/tag/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports