Lots of people are talking about the fact that U.S. men’s national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann has told the New York Times that his team can’t win the World Cup.
“We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet,” Klinsmann said in an interview with Sam Borden for this weekend’s Magazine section. “Realistically, it is not possible.”
Klinsmann has been pilloried across wide swaths of the media echo chamber for this. Never mind that just about everyone knows he’s right; if you’re in charge of an American team, you aren’t allowed to be defeatist in public.
(And never mind that the interview in which he said the words took place back in December. Would he say the same thing now? Probably, but who knows?)
The truth - which most of us get, whether or not we'd admit it - is that Klinsmann’s words don’t matter. Here’s why.
Go back to when Klinsmann took over as head coach in August of 2011. You might remember it well, as he made his debut played at Lincoln Financial Field.
For as much as Klinsmann has genuinely improved the U.S. national team program during his tenure, there was never any way he’d make the team a potential World Cup winner in three and a half years.
So in saying that the U.S. can’t win the World Cup in 2014, Klinsmann is being honest.
Indeed, lots of teams with much better pedigrees than the United States can’t win the World Cup. Their coaches might not come out and say so, but they know it’s true.
In fact, if any of those coaches publicly state that their teams can win the World Cup, they run the risk of it backfiring.
Take England, for example. On Thursday, Roy Hodgson stood in front of a bunch of microphones and offered a proclamation.
“What makes me think we can win it is that it is a knockout competition,” he said. “Anyone who thinks we can’t win has to be barking up the wrong tree.”
The English press promptly smacked him around, as well they should have.
Hodgson’s team might not even get far enough in the tournament to reach the knockout rounds, as England’s group is the most difficult in the tournament. It would not at all be surprising to see them get thumped by Uruguay and Italy in the first two games.
Indeed, if Costa Rica had not lost forward Álvaro Saborío to a broken metatarsal bone in his right foot, the Ticos might have had the firepower to snatch a point off the Three Lions in their group stage finale.
Hodgson is actually a pretty smart guy. He has traveled the world and been influenced by many different styles of soccer throughout his career, which is much more than many of his players can say.
So he knew better than to run his mouth like that. But of course, it’s the World Cup, and England expects that every coach will do his duty of rallying the fan base behind irrational expectations.
Mercifully, there has never been any such requirement for U.S. men’s national team coaches.
Then again, the lack of said requirement stems from the fact that for most of American soccer’s modern era, there haven’t been expectations of any kind. Now there are.
Part of that is due to Klinsmann’s public attempts to raise standards, and part of that is the men’s national team’s 24-year-long record of gradual improvement across six different head coaches.
I would argue that the latter carries more weight than the former. Until the draw took place, the American soccer community would have expected the U.S. to advance from the group stage no matter who was in charge. Once the draw took place, expectations changed.
That’s just fine with me. Ask yourself this: How many nations in the world are automatic locks to advance from any World Cup group stage no matter the opponents?
Not even Spain, the reigning World Cup champion and two-time reigning European champion, has that status this year.
If Klinsmann wanted to truly do right by himself, his players and the American soccer community, he would have said: “We are going to do everything we can do to the best we can at this World Cup.”
He has not said that, though, or anything really like it since he picked the final 23-man roster for Brazil.
(Perhaps because of the possibility that it wouldn't be true if he said it. But that's for another post.)
To be fair, Klinsman has gotten one thing that he wants. Americans are caring a lot about soccer right now - and about him in particular. Everything that has happened since Klinsmann cut Landon Donovan from the World Cup roster has generated attention the likes of which soccer has never received before in this country.
Want a good measuring stick for how things have changed? A dozen years ago, Bruce Arena uttered almost the exact same words heading into the 2002 World Cup that Klinsmann said to the Times.
"We’re not going to win [the World Cup] because we’re not a good enough team,” Arena said back then. “I don’t think anyone is going to be damaged by us saying that. I mean, how many countries have won it?"
Do you remember Arena saying that? Were you even paying attention to soccer at that point?
If you answered no to either question, then you’re a sign of how the sport has changed in this country since then.
Of course it’s a good thing that Klinsmann’s remarks got much more attention.
American soccer - which is a subset of soccer in America - isn’t the proverbial garage band anymore. It’s a big deal. The nine-year, $720 million television deal that Major League Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Federation recently struck with ESPN, Fox and Univision is a sign of that.
(It’s also a good thing if the comparison ever so slightly punctures Klinsmann’s air of moral superiority over every American coach the sport has ever known. But that’s for another post.)
If you were hoping that American soccer would grow in such a way that it would allow you to keep that sense of cultural exclusivity that lets you feel good about yourself by feeling superior to others, too bad. The sport and its culture are in the mainstream now. You’d be well advised to get over that sooner rather than later.
As an example, I give you Soccer Morning, the great daily chat show that often has me on as a guest. It is one of the best measuring sticks I know of for gauging the mood of American soccer's core fan base. This week, many callers have been complaining to the show's host, Jason Davis, about the way that mainstream sports talk radio has been discussing the World Cup.
It has not yet occurred to those callers that it's kind of a big deal that soccer is being discussed on mainstream sports talk radio in the first place.
(Nor has it occured to those callers that they were calling a sports talk radio show to complain about callers to sports talk radio shows.)
I would also recommend this essay on soccer snobbery by NBC Sports analyst Kyle Martino for The Shin Guardian. I figure you’re less likely to have seen it than the holier-than-thou stemwinders that have recently been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere.
Now, you might hope, as Klinsmann does, that the American soccer community develops the maniacal fury for the sport that exists in - to pick one random example - Germany. If so, do me a favor. Take a deep breath.
It might not be the worst thing if soccer doesn't dominate our lives. It's good to be driven and it's good to be passionate, but it's also good to keep the bigger picture in mind.
That bigger picture remains what it always has been, not just for soccer but for every other American sport: Coaches are judged on results. Scouting and development and tactics are important. but at the end of the day, we rightly ask them to shut up and win.
For whatever standards change in American soccer during the Klinsmann era, I hope that one stays the same.
It will be tempting, in part because Klinsmann got a contract extension last December that will take him through the 2018 World Cup. It's not unreasonable to ask if the extension and the "Group of Death" draw take Klinsmann off the hook for the present. It's also not unreasonable to ask if those events factored into Klinsmann's roster selections for Brazil.
But at some level, results - and accountability for them - should still matter.
If Klinsmann protests, it might be worth pointing out that the German soccer community has a standard that looks remarkably similar.
Funny how that works.