SAO PAULO –United States head coach Jurgen Klinsmann came to America in large part to avoid being recognized. In his early years in California, the quest for anonymity was taken to a hilarious extreme.
Klinsmann had been retired from professional soccer for five years and after moving to Huntington Beach, Calif., in 2003, he was getting the itch to take the field again, albeit in a far more low-key way than during his time as one of the most feared forwards in the game and a World Cup champion.
So to stretch his legs and get back into the soccer saddle he signed up with the Orange County Blue Star, a small and now defunct semi-pro team in the Premier Development League based in Irvine, Calif. What happened next has become an amusing part of Klinsmann folklore.
To avoid media attention, a club official listed Klinsmann on the team sheet as "Jay Goppingen." Cue much head-scratching and bewilderment from bemused opponents when they were suddenly faced with one of the greats of the sport.
"It was never my idea to use the fake name," Klinsmann, whose U.S. side takes on his homeland, Germany, in Recife on Thursday in the Group G finale for both squads, told Yahoo Sports. "I think they took J for Jurgen and made it Jay, and then Goppingen is my hometown in Germany.
"I was just having fun and staying healthy and fit, and having a group of guys to kick the ball around with. It was for me after a long career, it was just enjoyable. It was a lot of fun and the name thing is funny."
The Blue Star team was a mix of veterans, former college players, thirty-somethings trying to turn back the clock and one wide-eyed youngster who would himself go on to a pro career.
Robbie Rogers was 14 years old when he played alongside Klinsmann for the team and remembers it with fondness. Later, when Klinsmann became U.S. coach in 2011 it was Rogers, now with the Los Angeles Galaxy, who scored the first goal of his tenure.
"It was pretty amazing to be a young kid and to be able to play and train with him," Rogers said, via telephone. "At first it was intimidating and then it became such a joy. The thing I remember is the enthusiasm he had and the positivity.
"At most we would have a couple of hundred people for our home games. A lot of people came to games and didn’t realize they were watching Jurgen Klinsmann. Soccer was different then; a lot of people in the States at that time wouldn’t even know who he was."
Klinsmann still lives in Huntington Beach lives with his wife, former model Debbie Chin, and his family, and occasionally plays picks games with delighted, if outmatched, locals.
Youth soccer coach Pete McNulty remembers playing pick-up with Klinsmann in an adult scrimmage at a junior soccer tournament in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., five years ago. Klinsmann was there watching his son, Jonathan, and did not hesitate to take part when a game started up.
"It was awesome," said McNulty, 50. "It was a lot of fun and there were moments of laughing and joking about, but Jurgen likes to win and there were definitely a few times when he got stuck in. Everyone loved it and you could see that’s why he loves California, the chance to do normal things like that."
So much has been made of "Klinsmann The German" in the build-up to Thursday’s crucial Group G game, which is understandable and inevitable. He is, after all, still a national icon in his birth country and the German press made such a big deal out of this matchup that the coach held a separate press conference in his native tongue on Tuesday.
But what about "Klinsmann The American?" He has been in the United States for a third of his life. His children know no other home. This isn’t a temporary assignment where a foreign coach heads overseas for a few years in search of a paycheck and goes back when he gets fired or his assignment is done.
"There is a lot of Californian in me because every place that you live for a long period of time you adjust to it and you enjoy it and you take the good things from it," Klinsmann said. "You hopefully keep the good things from the other places that you have lived, too.
"For us the best part is definitely being anonymous and living in a normal way and having a normal life. The climate is unbeatable and people let you live the way you want to live your life.
"People are not busy with thinking about what other people are doing so you can focus on important things, like your family and everybody leaves you alone and in peace."
Soccer is not yet big enough in the U.S. for Klinsmann to be bombarded by paparazzi any time soon. After the tournament he will go back to the O.C. (Orange County) – the place that is now truly home – and continues to enjoy the peace.
It was put to him that the deeper he can take the U.S. in the World Cup, the better known he will become. A few more looks and stares and handshakes in the grocery store or coffee shop maybe, a few more honks from fellow drivers when they recognize him at a stop light.
"And that’s just fine," Klinsmann smiled.
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