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.

Usain Bolt to trial with A-League’s Mariners

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SYDNEY (AP) Eight-time Olympic gold medalist Usain Bolt will trial for six weeks with the Central Coast Mariners from next month in a deal which could see him play for a season in Australian football’s A-League.

[ MORE: Thierry Henry leaves TV job to focus on managerial career ]

Australian football agent Tony Rallis said Monday a “deal between the Mariners and Usain Bolt in principle has been agreed, subject to a couple of benchmarks.”

Rallis said it would be necessary for the 31-year-old Bolt to trial and for Football Federation Australia to support his salary.

“Once the FFA comes back and says that they’ll be part of the process, we’re going to the trial,” Rallis said.

Bolt has a long-held ambition to play professional football and, since his retirement from the track, has trialed with Germany’s Borussia Dortmund and Stromsgodset in Norway.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup: Bale’s future in Madrid; Chelsea’s makeover ]

“If he’s competitive, he will lift our A-League profile,” Rallis said. “He will create dreams for young people and he will give the A-League a profile no amount of money can buy. This bloke’s an ambitious athlete. The A-League needed a hero and we got superman.”

Rallis said the owner of the Mariners would guarantee 70 percent of his salary and the FFA would be expected to fund the remainder.

Mariners chief executive Shaun Mielekamp said there was still a lot of work to do and a trial was imperative to determine Bolt’s skill level.

“It would only be big if he can play and if he can go really, really well,” he said. “Beause if he comes and he’s not up to the level then it actually has a detrimental effect.

“But if he comes and he’s as good as our reports are saying that he can be, then that would be very exciting and I’m sure that this stadium would be pretty full every time he put the boots on.”

Blind to leave Man United, return to Ajax

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Daley Blind will leave Manchester United this summer and return to Ajax, the club from which the Red Devils signed him in 2014, per a brief and open-ended announcement from the Premier League side on Monday.

[ MORE: Thierry Henry leaves TV job to focus on managerial career ]

The 28-year-old Dutch defender/midfielder was previously an every-game player at Man United, from 2014-2016, but he was limited to just seven PL appearances (four starts) and 361 minutes (plus another six starts and 540 minutes in the UEFA Champions League) last season.

While the final details of Blind’s move are yet to be announced, it has been reported that United will receive a fee in the neighborhood of $18.5 million after paying $18 million for his services following the last World Cup.

World Cup win gives France new set of heroes, a needed boost

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PARIS (AP) — The welcome was grand, the emotion visceral as France’s victorious World Cup team rolled down Paris’ Champs-Elysees Avenue in an open-top bus Monday while tens of thousands of people cheered with unrestrained pride and jets streamed the national colors — blue, white, red — overhead.

[ MORE: With flags, song, pride, French celebrate unifying victory ]

The crowd that waited for hours to greet the soccer team, under a hot sun and amid celebratory smoke bombs that choked the air, got its moment hours after the team returned from Russia to hoist the gold trophy on French soil for the second time in 20 years.

The national team’s 4-2 win over Croatia on Sunday gave France a new set of heroes, many of whom represent the changing face of a diverse, multicultural country with which not all French citizens have yet reckoned.

The red carpet welcome for the World Cup winners continued at the Elysee Palace, where President Emmanuel Macron threw an informal garden party that had 1,000 children and 300 athletes from local soccer clubs as guests.

Many of the invited clubs are based in the poor neighborhoods French that produced the players who made up France’s youthful, diverse World Cup team, including 19-year-old breakout star Kylian Mbappe. Members of the club he grew up with in suburban Bondy attended the party.

“Merci!” Macron, the youngest person to become France’s president, told the guests. “This team is beautiful because it was united.”

Addressing the team, Macron offered advice.

“Don’t change,” he said, adding, “Never forget where you come from.”

[ MORE: Thierry Henry leaves TV job to focus on managerial career ]

Team captain and goalie Hugo Lloris, brandishing the trophy from soccer’s eminent tournament, and coach Didier Deschamps led the team onto the red carpet at the Elysee courtyard. With Republican Guards standing motionless in full dress uniforms, the squad quickly broke into party mode for the official photos.

The fun continued in the garden with chants led by midfielder Paul Pogba and off-the-cuff songs.

The victory came at a time when many French were in need of good news, and the magic provided a sense that a grand coming together might at least paper over political, economic and social fissures for a while.

“Eternal Happiness” read Monday’s headline in French sports daily L’Equipe, summing up the mood of many who hoped the euphoria would last.

Before the reception, the Champs-Elysees became the epicenter of national pride for the third day in a row, following the post-World Cup celebrations that brought hundreds of thousands to the fame avenue Sunday and a Bastille Day parade of French military might Saturday.

The team appeared elated, too, during its victory lap on the bus Monday. Players threw scarves into the crowd and recorded the action.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup: Bale’s future in Madrid; Chelsea’s makeover ]

Several Paris Metro stations were temporarily adjusting their names to honor the team and its members, the transport authority tweeted. The Champs-Elysees Clemenceau has become the Deschamps-Elysees Clemenceau to honor coach Didier Deschamps.

The Etoile station is, for now, “On a 2 Etoiles” (We have 2 stars), to denote France’s second World Cup victory. The Victor Hugo station is now Victor Hugo Lloris, after France’s standout goalie and team captain.

“We are linked for life now with this Cup,” defender Raphael Varane told BFM-TV on Monday before departing from Moscow, evoking the theme of unity that French partiers have consistently evoked.

Macron exulted on the field in Moscow and in the locker room, hugging players as they received their medals even as the skies poured rain. The president clearly hoped the World Cup glow would rub off on him, raising him up in the eyes of a nation where his economic reforms have drawn fierce protests and labor strikes.

He meets Tuesday with business representatives and an eye on mobilizing them in needy neighborhoods of France.

It was the players, though, who captured the French imagination.

Sports Minister Laura Flessel, who met the team at the airport, told Europe-1 radio that the World Cup victory allows France’s youth — like those in the poor suburbs where many of the players grew up — “to dare to believe in their dreams.”

The patriotic fervor sparked by the World Cup did not prevent the vandalism and violence that sometimes accompany public celebrations in France. Broken shop windows and signs of looting lined a section of the Champs-Elysees. Authorities detained 90 people for questioning in the Paris region and some 290 around France.

Thierry Henry leaves TV job to focus on managerial career

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Thierry Henry has walked away from his lucrative television punditry job in the UK in order to focus all of his time and energy on his “long-term ambition to become a football manager.”

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup: Bale’s future in Madrid; Chelsea’s makeover ]

Henry spent the last four years in punditry after retiring as a player in 2014. He most recently took time away from the television studio to work his other professional gig: assistant manager for Belgium at the 2018 World Cup.

“Over the last 4 years I have had some extremely rewarding coaching experiences in football,” he said in a series of posts from his Twitter account. “These experiences have only made me more determined to fulfill my long term ambition to become a football manager.

“It is with sadness, therefore, that I have decided that I must leave [Sky Sports] to enable me to spend more time on the pitch and concentrate on my journey to achieving that goal.

“I would like to thank everyone at Sky for making me feel so welcome and at ease throughout my time with them, and I wish them all the best for the future. Great memories.”

[ VIDEO: What do Liverpool, Spurs need this summer? ]

Indeed, Henry, 40, has made no attempts to conceal the fact he would like to become a top-tier manager in the future, and he has remained quite dedicated to that objective in taking on the job of assistant to Robert Martinez beginning in 2016.

It’ll be fascinating to see who give Henry his first opportunity as a first-team manager. Will he go straight into the Premier League based on name recognition alone? Perhaps the Championship, where Frank Lampard leads Derby County? Or, will he take a path similar to that of his former teammate, Patrick Vieira, whose first managerial post was in MLS — where Henry played four and a half seasons for New York Red Bulls — before making the jump to Europe, landing at Ligue 1 side Nice?

The likeliest scenario, however, is as follows: through one of his invaluable personal contacts in the game, Henry will land a job as a no. 2 at a European club and be constantly linked — similarly to Mikel Arteta at Manchester City — with a move elsewhere every time an intriguing job comes open.