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.

Marseille signs Caleta-Car, Fonte joins Lille

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MARSEILLE, France (AP) Croatia defender Duje Caleta-Car has joined Marseille from Red Bull Salzburg, becoming the first offseason signing for the nine-time French champion.

Caleta-Car played a group game at the World Cup with Croatia, which lost 4-2 against France in the final last week.

[ MORE: Spurs sign Son to contract extension ]

He won four Austrian league titles and three national cups with Salzburg.

Terms of the deals were not disclosed but L’Equipe newspaper reported that Marseille agreed to a fee of 19 million euros for the 21-year-old player, who was also targeted by Spanish club Sevilla.

“He is a very good central defender, for now and for the future,” Marseille sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta said. “He is a clever player, who understands football. His very physical skills make him very good in the air and has good passing abilities.”

Marseille finished fourth in the French league last season and lost 3-0 against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final, missing out on a Champions League berth.

FONTE JOINS LILLE

Portugal defender Jose Fonte is set to continue his much-traveled career in the north of France after agreeing to a two-year deal with Lille.

The 34-year-old Fonte started all four games at the World Cup in Russia as Portugal was eliminated by Uruguay in the round of 16.

Two years ago, he was a member of the squad which won the European championship in France.

Lille said in a statement Fonte will sign “in the coming days” following medical tests.

The former Crystal Palace, Southampton and West Ham center back played only a few matches with Chinese club Dalian Yifang this year before terminating his contract.

He is the second international to join Lille this summer after former France forward Loic Remy.

“I’m very proud to join Lille, which is a great French club,” Fonte said. “It’s a new challenge for me, hopefully it will be successful.”

Naby Keita emulated Gerrard growing up, and will now take on his role

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Naby Keita represents another new face in the next generation Liverpool regime, and he’s taking a page out of Anfield’s past in his approach at the Premier League club.

[ MORE: Neymar says he’s staying at PSG despite rumors “invented by the press” ]

When the 23-year-old finally completed his long-awaited move to the Reds in 2018, comparisons to N'Golo Kante quickly arose, a strong compliment for many.

However, for everything that Kante does well, it may actually be unfair to compare Keita to the now-World Cup winner with France.

Keita’s tireless ability to track up and down the pitch, complimented by his incredible skill on the ball and pace make him the ideal box-to-box midfielder, something his new club has been lacking for several years.

“My first mind-set is to defend well and not concede,” Keita told the Telegraph. “As a midfielder, when you have sealed things up at the back, my job is to provide the ammunition for the strikers and forwards, to create opportunities. Also, if I get a chance that comes my way, I want to take it and score. But I am a team player. I think about the team and the group always.”

That player is one Steven Gerrard.

And for Keita, the player that he once emulated as a child has now influenced him into the young star that drove manager Jurgen Klopp towards bringing him in to Anfield.

“When I came here that day I didn’t know Steven would be at Melwood,” says Keita. “It was a surprise to me. It was exciting. He said, ‘Everyone will be here for you, we’re all going to help you develop’.

“I had watched Steven Gerrard growing up as a kid and admired him so that was a special day.

“We used to play in the streets wearing a Liverpool shirt. My dad had a love of Liverpool back then when I was 11 or 12 years old.

“I wanted to be like him. It couldn’t be anyone else. He was always the boss of the team.”

Las Vegas Lights keen on bringing Usain Bolt to USL

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It wouldn’t be the first time a star athlete has made the move to the United Soccer League — the second tier in the U.S. Soccer professional pyramid — however, the magnitude of the deal would transcend soccer.

[ MORE: Spurs sign Son to contract extension ]

Although reported interest from Australia, Turkey and Hungary could derail a move, former Jamaican track star Usain Bolt is being courted by USL side Las Vegas Lights FC, who are currently in their first season in the league.

“Of course we have an interest in Usain Bolt. Why wouldn’t we?” said Las Vegas owner and CEO Brett Lashbrook.

“He’s the world’s fastest guy and he’s trained at some of the best clubs in the world. To come play Division 2 soccer in the U.S. actually makes all the sense in the world. This guy is an absolute specimen of an athlete and we think he could absolutely succeed at the USL level.”

While the possibility of having Bolt play alongside Freddy Adu next to the Vegas Strip is an enticing one, the Jamaican’s salary demands are likely far too much for a USL side to take on.

Lights FC currently sit 13th in the USL Western Conference, eight point outside of a playoff spot.

Bolt is an eight-time Olympic gold medalist, having competed at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games.

ICC 2018: Dortmund tops Man City in Mahrez debut

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A relatively young squad took the pitch for Manchester City on Friday night, but Pep Guardiola‘s newest signing made his first appearance at Soldier Field in Chicago.

Borussia Dortmund topped Man City, 1-0, in the first match of the 2018 International Champions Cup — a game that saw Algeria international Riyad Mahrez debut for the Citizens after joining from Leicester City.

It was the Germans that capitalized on one of the game’s few opportunities, which came from the penalty spot just before the half-hour mark when U.S. Men’s National team star Christian Pulisic drew the foul inside the Man City area.

Mario Gotze stepped up and buried the spot kick in the 28th minutes, ensuring Dortmund would earn the tournament’s first victory.

Guardiola removed Mahrez after 73 minutes, while first-team regular Leroy Sane made a brief appearance in the final quarter hour for the Citizens.

For Dortmund, Pulisic was one of the few regulars to start the match for the German giants, however, the 19-year-old was one of 10 substitutions made by new manager Luicen Favre at halftime.