Stars, Stripes and Soccer

12 minute read

When the U.S. national soccer team kicks off against Germany in Recife, Brazil, on June 26, it’s likely that the majority of the players on the field will be German. The American team will feature stars such as Jermaine Jones and Fabian Johnson, sons of U.S. service members, who grew up in Germany and played professionally there. Both speak German as a primary language. And if the play in this first-round 2014 World Cup game resembles Germany’s Bundesliga more than the U.S.’s Major League Soccer (MLS), that will be deliberate too.

The two teams have a common denominator: Jürgen Klinsmann, the U.S. coach and former German striker who was in charge of Germany during the 2006 World Cup. Back then, Klinsmann introduced a radically new up-tempo style of play–completely un-German–that transformed the national team. Now Klinsmann is training Team USA to play that game, but with a decidedly American flair.

Klinsmann is the U.S.’s first rock-star soccer coach. He earns more money ($2.5 million-plus annually) than most of his players. In Los Angeles, he’s known to pilot his own helicopter to training sessions. That’s more than fitting, because Klinsmann–Klinsie to his fans–long ago navigated his own course through a glittering career in European soccer. Cerebral, innovative, iconoclastic yet at the same time enthusiastic, he sought out different cultures and countries in which to ply his trade. He starred for glamour clubs such as Inter Milan, AS Monaco, Bayern Munich and London’s Tottenham Hotspur. A striker of such guile and artistry that songs have been written about him (search “Jürgen Klinsmann Fußball Gott” on YouTube), he won a European title with an Italian club and a league title in Germany and collected a European-championship medal for the German national team and a World Cup winner’s medal for what was then the West German national team.

But Klinsmann isn’t some pricey German import that U.S. Soccer just landed from Europe to give its team some Continental sheen. He is, like, a total Southern California dude, having lived there since 1998. That’s not insignificant: Klinsmann believes a team must reflect its national heritage. In the U.S.’s case, that’s the need to succeed. “He’s realized what the Americans have done well is their blue collar attitude,” says Graham Zusi, a Sporting Kansas City midfielder and national-team player. In that spirit, Klinsmann has been adding European dimensions that the Americans have traditionally lacked. “Slowly, the technical, the tactical, the soccer-sense part is getting better and better and better, and Jürgen is really pushing that,” says Landon Donovan of the L.A. Galaxy. “And because of that, eventually we are going to take over in this area too.”

Not, alas, with Donovan, a veteran of three World Cups, who was abruptly cut from the team three weeks before the tournament. Dropping one of the most experienced, most popular American players ever reflects Klinsmann’s willingness to give the status quo the boot. Under his more offense-minded system, this U.S. team won’t lie back and hope for a counterattack. The idea is to take the game to the opposition, whoever it is. “A lot of nations around the world, they don’t know how to take us,” says Klinsmann. “Because they see our results, because they see that we come into their country and actually try to play with them.”

By the time the U.S. and German teams meet, that could be moot. The U.S. plays Ghana–its nemesis in the past two World Cups–on June 16. Six days later, it faces Portugal, a team featuring the world’s best player, Cristiano Ronaldo. If the U.S. loses both games, the match against Germany would effectively be an exhibition. So Klinsmann’s current team, unlike his previous one, has no room for error. “You can’t come like Germany approaches it, always starting slowly in the tournament and then it gets better step by step,” he says. “For us, it’s the opposite. We have to start in the tournament with 3 points no matter what.”

Klinsmann is a realist. He has admitted that his team is going into the World Cup with zero expectation of winning the thing. Host Brazil is the favorite for the sixth time; current champion Spain, older and more fragile, has enough skill to defend the trophy. Argentina, with the incredible Lionel Messi, would love to spoil Brazil’s party. Germany, France, Italy and even Belgium and Uruguay will all have a say.

But Klinsmann’s team can, on a good day, go toe-to-toe against anybody. Advancing out of its “group of death” would mark Klinsmann as a magician. And that’s the expectation. “He doesn’t walk on water,” says U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati, “but over the last two years we’ve had our best-ever record, so there is an element of the Pied Piper story–people want to believe.”

California Dreaming

Klinsmann’s fondness for the U.S. started in the dank winter of early 1983. Stuttgarter Kickers, a second-division team in Germany, was loitering near the bottom of the standings. The team’s exasperated owner promised the players a trip to Florida if they finished in the top 10. The Kickers, led by Klinsmann, the son of a pretzelmaking baker from nearby Gingen, climbed up to eighth place. That is how he found himself in Florida, where he fell in love with the land of Disney and beaches and bagels. Two days after the team flew home, Klinsmann was on a plane back to the States. “I got so hooked on it,” he says. “I flew back with a teammate on my own, and we flew to New York, Chicago, California. We toured around, and I realized, it’s different. It’s just different.”

That started a pattern. After each European season, Klinsmann repaired to California, where he became just Jürgen from Germany. Few knew him. “You could really get a distance for a few weeks from your 11-month season and kind of get back down to the ground and enjoy the beauty of the country,” he says. After playing in the 1998 World Cup in France–scoring a memorable goal to kill off the U.S. in Paris–he moved to California permanently with his American wife Debbie to raise their two children.

Living in the U.S. changed Klinsmann’s views on a lot of things, soccer among them. So when the German soccer federation came calling in the summer of 2004 to ask him to take over the national team, he warned them not to expect a traditional coach. “I see the game very differently now by living in a different place for many years and by observing things in different sports,” he says. The German federation was desperate–the team had flopped in the 2004 European championships–so it bowed to Klinsmann’s demands.

With the 2006 World Cup approaching and Germany hosting it, Klinsmann knew he didn’t have time to make gradual, polite changes to the German system. “I was going to be measured, everyone was going to be measured, by the results of the World Cup in our own country. So with that deadline in mind, I’m sorry, I have to step people on their toes,” he says, veering gently into German sentence structure.

Klinsmann didn’t merely step people on their toes; he departed radically from tradition by refusing to move from his California home, coaching long distance using videoconferencing technology. He showed up only for weeklong training camps and friendly matches before the World Cup kicked off. To the horror of many Germans, he brought American trainers with him, as if Americans knew anything about fußball.

Most radical of all, he trashed the German soccer style, reconfiguring it from a defense-first team controlled from the back to one that operated on the fly and up the wings. The 2006 team was a revelation. A 1-0 victory over Poland transformed Germany’s World Cup into a joyride for the host nation. Germany would finish third after losing to eventual champion Italy in the semifinals, but Germans loved Klinsmann’s swaggering new style.

For Klinsmann, though, the love affair would end bitterly two years later, when he took over Bayern Munich, the soccer colossus that traditionally forms the core of the German team. Bayern wanted him to do the same makeover–until he started to do the makeover. The conservative Bavarian team didn’t have the stomach for the Klinsmann program, and when Bayern failed to win the league–by 3 points–he was fired. “Our philosophies were very, very different,” he says.

Back in the Game

Burned at Bayern, Klinsmann was cautious when U.S. Soccer’s Gulati approached him about the coaching job after the 2006 World Cup. The two negotiated for months but got bogged down on contract language. At the 2010 World Cup, in South Africa, Bob Bradley would coach the Americans to the round of 16 before Ghana got in the way. “We went through some soul-searching post-2010,” says Gulati. But in 2011, after the U.S. lost to Panama, squeaked by Guadeloupe and then got embarrassed by archrival Mexico, 4-2 in the final of the Gold Cup, Gulati got hold of Klinsmann again. This time they quickly agreed to a two-page contract.

Klinsmann already had a plan, based on his impression of the U.S. “The American culture is a highly energetic and dynamic culture,” he says. “In general, it is a country that is driven by the ambition to be No. 1–that’s just in their nature, in their DNA. That means you have to be proactive. You can’t react.” Yet reacting is exactly what Americans had been doing on the World Cup stage since 1990, when then coach Bora Milutinovic, a dour Serbian tactician, barely let them cross midfield without a hall pass. U.S. teams have been run with the implicit understanding that they rely on hustle because they aren’t skilled or schooled enough to play straight up with elite teams.

The U.S. has plenty of international class. Goalie Tim Howard, who plays for Everton in the English Premiership, is the latest in a line of great American netminders. In midfield, Michael Bradley has a ton of flair. In attack, Clint Dempsey, who played for two Premiership clubs before moving to MLS’s Seattle Sounders, is willing to take on any defender, anytime. But the U.S. has been unsettled at central defense, and Klinsmann has juggled his lineups waiting for the perfect partnership to emerge.

Klinsmann’s approach to World Cup preparation is getting players out of their comfort zones and emphasizing that every day is game day. In qualifying matches, he didn’t name the starting lineup until just before kickoff. He warned stars such as Donovan and Dempsey not to assume they had a place on the team. Until the World Cup begins, “it’s going to be a race for the spots,” he says. “I want competition. I want people to push from behind, for everybody not to feel safe, because that drives them … I call it a positive stress training.”

Klinsmann has tried out a wide variety of players in the past two years, especially ones from Europe. At a training camp in Frankfurt before a friendly with Ukraine, he called up six German players who also happen to be American citizens, plus Aron Johannsson, an Icelander born in Alabama. Klinsmann’s latest recruit is Julian Green, a 19-year-old Tampa-born, German-raised winger who plays at Bayern Munich. For a globalist like Klinsmann, the inclusion of German players is a natural evolution. If there are 3 million Americans living abroad, it’s logical that some of them would be raised in soccer nations. “Everybody’s familiar with Mexican Americans, but the new trend is European-American players that come through European soccer systems,” he says. “It adds a new dimension.”

Klinsmann’s stress strategy may have worked a little too well: last year players began to complain after a particularly poor showing in a qualifying match against Costa Rica. They argued that it’s hard to build chemistry on the field if you don’t know who’s going to be on the field. But after the U.S. cruised through the rest of the qualifying matches–and battered Mexico–the bellyaching subsided. And recent results bear him out. The Americans won three straight warmup games heading into the tournament. Besides, says defender Geoff Cameron, who will likely start for the U.S. in Brazil, “you can’t even really question a coach who’s done it [himself].”

That never stops fans and media critics. Klinsmann expects a backlash if the U.S. gets bounced from Brazil early. “I would define it that we are in the middle of a transition from more of a reactive game to, hopefully, one day, a proactive game,” he says. “Yet we don’t know how far we are in that process.” We are going to find out soon enough.

The answer is not going to change him. The baker’s boy turned boho football star and coaching guru seems imbued with the rugged individualism of the American West. He knows he can always retreat to SoCal and continue to live out the American Dream. When the U.S. and Germany meet, he said in an interview right after the World Cup draw, he will sing the German anthem because he’s German and the American anthem because it’s beautiful. “And then,” he said, “we’ll give it a go.”

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