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.

UEFA Nations League wrap: Batshuayi stays hot, Croatia keeps England alive

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Belgium and Croatia picked up big wins in UEFA Nations League play on Thursday, the most notable events from the day’s action

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings | 3 things ]


Croatia 3-2 Spain

England is alive thanks to a wild second half between two World Cup powers, with Spain twice equalizing before falling victim to a goal deep in stoppage time. That goal was the second from — excellent name alert — Tin Jedvaj.

If Croatia beats England on Sunday, Croatia moves onto the semifinals. If England wins, the Three Lions move on. A scoreless draw pushes Spain onto the finals and relegates Croatia, while a scoring draw moves Croatia above England and relegates the Three Lions.

Belgium 2-0 Iceland

Why he didn’t work for Chelsea, we don’t know, but Michy Batshuayi has scored everywhere else. That includes his national team, as the Red Devils now have firm control over Group A2 with a 2-0 defeat of Iceland. A draw against Switzerland in the group finale will be enough for Belgium to reach the semifinals.

Elsewhere
Austria 0-0 Bosnia and Herzegovina
San Marino 0-1 Moldova
Luxembourg 0-2 Belarus
Andorra 1-1 Georgia
Kazakhstan 1-1 Latvia
Hungary 2-0 Estonia
Greece 1-0 Finland

Calls for new head coach grow, as USMNT lack direction

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LONDON — It is clear that the U.S. national team has been in quite a strange place for the last 13 months. And not good, strange.

[ MORE: Angry Pulisic hits out

Since Dave Sarachan took charge on an interim basis last October after the huge blow of not making the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. have played friendly and friendly and used over 50 players to try and find out whatever they can about the next crop of talent.

But what is the end game? What direction are the U.S. heading in?

Against a reserve England side at Wembley on Thursday, Sarachan’s youngster started slowly and never fully recovered despite Christian Pulisic and Bobby Wood going close to scoring in each half. They were outclassed throughout the 3-0 defeat and their play lacked a cutting edge. Subconsciously they must feel like they’re stuck in a holding pattern until the next permanent head coach arrives.

The fans, players and everyone who watches the team want the next step now. They want to move on from the wreckage of World Cup qualification failure.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned | Player ratings ] 

Sarachan has done all he can to push these players on and give them chances, but with so many players coming in and out the disjointed nature of the USMNT’s recent displays are to be expected.

But the reports of Gregg Berhalter set to take charge rumbling on for at least another few weeks, a lack of direction appears to be hurting this team badly.

“Dave is doing what he can and obviously he wants to win these games too, just like we do,” Pulisic said. “It is going to help a lot once we get a permanent head coach, moving forward with a guy who has a real plan and a style we want to play. He is going to help us a lot.”

Pulisic is only saying what everyone is thinking.

Brad Guzan, who was the most experienced U.S. player on the pitch on Thursday with 60 caps, admitted that everyone connected with the USMNT wants this situation sorted out as quickly as possible.

“Everyone is eager to see who that is, not just the players, fans, Dave [Sarachan], everybody involved with U.S. Soccer,” Guzan said. “As a national team, of course you want that direction and whatnot but ultimately when you step across the white line to a certain extent tactics go out of the window and you have to be able to play with a bit of desire and fight. We probably showed them too much respect in the first half.”

Sarachan, to his credit, has been exceptional in his handling of this situation.

He has handed chances to young players against France, Colombia, Brazil and now England, and the way he has encouraged them to step up to the international level must be remembered a few years down the line when the likes of Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Tim Weah are in their prime.

“These fixtures are great fixtures for our young guys. There is a lot of lessons learned when you play teams like England and the form they’re in and and the way they play and the quality they have in a tough environment. It showed,” Sarachan said. “In my mind in the first half we were a little timid and allowed a little too much space, their spacing and movement was very challenging for our group. As much as we talked about it, watched and scouted England, it is still on the players to sort through that.”

Right now, the players need more support from someone they know is going to be around beyond next week. That lack of uncertainty is hurting the development of this team.

13 months on from being hired as an interim head coach, Sarachan is still in charge. This situation should have never been allowed to get to this stage. Of course, the U.S. Soccer Presidential election in February and a change of leadership impacted this situation, but USMNT General Manager Earnie Stewart, who started his new gig in August, should not have waited this long to bring in someone on a permanent basis.

The damage this ‘lost year’ will do on the USMNT long-term remains to be seen but it is clear everyone is pushing for one thing. A permanent head coach. Now.

National Women’s Soccer League recognizes players union

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CHICAGO (AP) The National Women’s Soccer League has formally recognized the NWSL Players Association as the exclusive bargaining representative for the league’s players.

[ MORE: USMNT player ratings | 3 things ]

The NWSLPA represents current and future players who have signed standard player agreements with the NWSL. U.S. national team players who are allocated throughout the league are represented by the U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association.

“We’ve now achieved official status as a labor union, but we intend to approach our relationship with the league in a very different way than what comes to mind with traditional labor relations,” said union President Yael Averbuch, who plays for the Seattle Reign. “The NWSLPA is glad to continue a collaborative relationship with the league, with the health and sustainability of the league central to the ongoing relationship.”

The NWSL just wrapped up its sixth season.

USMNT’s Pulisic hits out after England defeat

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LONDON — Christian Pulisic’s mood sums up the current situation around the U.S. men’s national team right now.

[ MORE: 3 things we learned ]

Pulisic, 20, missed an early chance to give the USMNT a 1-0 lead but in truth they were always second best as they lost 3-0 at Wembley in Wayne Rooney’s farewell game. Pulisic, who was playing in just his second game for the U.S. in the past 13 months and his first since May, seemed to be a little off the pace throughout the match.

[ MORE: Player ratings

Speaking to reporters after the game, Pulisic was disappointed with the overall team display and he was asked directly if he felt he could have tracked back further to help out defensively on England’s first goal from Jesse Lingard.

“You think that?” Pulisic answered, as he had a face like thunder. He then added “I don’t know” when asked again, and moved on quickly.

His disappointment and anger was clear and in recent days he has seemed fed up with the way the USMNT are drifting along without a head coach (now 13 months and counting) amid a severe lack of direction.

Interim head coach Dave Sarachan and his staff are doing the best they can with this extremely young side but they were clearly second best against a reserve England team, which underlines just how far the U.S. have to go to become competitive among the top 20 in the world.

“You are never happy to lose 3-0. It is a tough result. We need to get a lot better as a team,” Pulisic said. “We can talk about continuing to gain experience. That is not why we are here. We want to win now. We need to win these games. I’m a competitive guy and I know everyone else is in the locker room. It wasn’t good enough today… I had a really good chance in the first half that I need to score and that could change the game, after that they scored two quick ones and that soccer is. It can change real quick and there just wasn’t time for us to recover.”

Moving ahead, the USA’s final game of 2018 is against Italy in Genk, Belgium next Tuesday. Do Pulisic and his teammates feel under pressure to deliver something special in what is likely Sarachan’s final game before a new manager comes in?

“There is no pressure. I don’t feel any added pressure because it is our last game of the year or whatever,” Pulisic said. “Whoever we are playing we want to go out and prove to ourselves and our country we can take down a good team. We want to go out there and we want to win.”