No world-beater, U.S. shoots for progress

Jurgen Klinsmann
Jurgen Klinsmann
Posted: June 17, 2014

When the U.S. men's national team arrived in Brazil last week for the 2014 World Cup, the players, coaches, and staff found themselves in a place where all was not in complete readiness.

That might have bothered teams from some other nations, but the U.S. team should have felt right at home. Our national side isn't quite ready for this World Cup, either.

While the Brazilians suffered small oversights such as not completing the stadiums on schedule, the U.S. team is once again in the midst of a building process of its own that has been taking place for most of the last 30 years. As with some of the World Cup venues, there is no firm completion date.

Nevertheless, the U.S. team begins the tournament Monday night against Ghana, with matches still to come against world powers Germany and Portugal. It would take a great effort for the United States to be one of the two teams to advance out of group play, and the idea of going much further is not even one entertained by the head coach.

"For us now, talking about winning a World Cup, it's just not realistic," Jurgen Klinsmann told reporters.

He is right, of course, but we expect coaches in his position to give the old you-never-know until you finally do know. Klinsmann doesn't care. He has a contract that runs through the next World Cup cycle, and he is the type of person who does not say things to make people happy.

Klinsmann, a star as both a player and coach for Germany, took over the U.S. team in 2011 and basically said the soccer federation had to stop thinking and acting like Americans. He had little respect for the way players had been developed in this country, for how the game was taught, for how much the resident professional league helps - Playing in the summer, what is that nonsense? - and for the architects of the many previous plans.

Judging by results, it is hard to disagree. If the World Cup is a fair measure of a nation's place in the soccer world, then the richest free nation on Earth hasn't measured up very well. The U.S. team is playing in its seventh straight quadrennial Cup after failing to qualify the previous 40 years. In the six appearances preceding Brazil, the U.S. team didn't get out of group play three times, made it to the round of 16 twice, and advanced one more match to the quarterfinals just once.

In that span, the United States has a record of 4 wins, 13 losses, and 5 draws, allowing 35 goals and scoring 20 along the way. The quarterfinal run in 2002 was looked upon, somewhat hopefully, as a turning point for the program, but the 2006 and 2010 World Cup results were both decided steps back.

Which leads us to Klinsmann, who replaced Bob Bradley as coach and systematically undertook a restructuring of the national team. He wasn't necessarily interested in soccer academy hotshots who could dribble around cones. He scoured the world for passport Americans and convinced some players with dual citizenship that playing for the U.S. team was better than sitting on someone else's bench. He kept the holdovers who were tough and talented enough by his standards and then let everyone know it really was a new day when he left all-time leading scorer Landon Donovan off the World Cup roster.

There was a minor firestorm about that, but, just to repeat, Klinsmann doesn't think this team can win, anyway. The 23-man roster, which has eight players who are 25 or younger, is about building for the future. Some people say that isn't an American attitude, but, then again, Klinsmann isn't American.

"We're not there yet. American or not American, I don't know," Klinsmann said. "You can correct me however you want."

Klinsmann has experimented with a number of lineups and a variety of formations heading into the match against Ghana, which eliminated the United States in both 2006 and 2010. He is known as an attacking coach, but the U.S. team is in a group that makes playing behind the ball seem like a safer course. We'll see. On a positive offensive note, striker Jozy Altidore, who was 0-for-2014, broke a long scoring drought with two goals in the final U.S. tune-up match.

If nothing else, Klinsmann has succeeded in dampening expectations, and any success will be viewed as a positive step. Given the difficult group draw and the somewhat green roster, that success might be dispensed with a coffee spoon rather than a ladle.

"I think we are getting every year another step forward. We are getting stronger," Klinsmann said.

What he can't say - as the Brazilians still trowel concrete into place at the stadiums - is when the job will be done. So far, "not yet" is as much as we know.


bford@phillynews.com

@bobfordsports

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