At the start of an excellent piece on U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann in the New York Times by Sam Borden, the German is quoted as stating what most people accept to be an absolute truth:
“We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet,” Klinsmann told me over lunch in December. “For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament.”
He leaned back in his chair on the terrace at a Newport Beach restaurant, not far from where he lives in Southern California. Then he shrugged and said, “Realistically, it is not possible.”
Despite the "If there are 23 players better than Landon then we have a chance to win the World Cup" banner held up by LA Galaxy fans after Landon Donovan was cut from the World Cup squad, this is not a revelatory statement. Nor is it even the first time a coach of the U.S. team has said this before a World Cup. Prior to the 2002 World Cup, then manager Bruce Arena said, "We’re not going to win [the World Cup] because we’re not a good enough team. I don’t think anyone is going to be damaged by us saying that. I mean, how many countries have won it?"
Of course, the U.S. then went on to reach the quarterfinals that year, making their deepest run in the tournament since the first World Cup in 1930. But the difference between Klinsmann's version and Arena's is that Klinsmann said "we are not at that level yet" — hinting at a future where that might one day change, whereas Arena's implication was that World Cup winners were in an exclusive group that the U.S. simply were not a part of. End of story.
Though his comments might seem like a harsh and unnecessary statement of the obvious, Klinsmann is not a dour man, determined to crush the will of his players. He's upbeat -- quick to smile and bounce around — and he seems to view unfiltered truth as something productive instead of an insult. That compliments a sense of logic that might also explain his decision to leave Donovan, the U.S.'s all-time leading scorer, out of the World Cup squad.
To Klinsmann, it simply doesn't make sense that an aging star is given special treatment and invited to linger on because of past accomplishments. From the same NYT piece:
“This always happens in America,” Klinsmann told me, waving his hands in the air. “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?”
Klinsmann also makes it clear that when Donovan needed a break and took a sabbatical from the game last year, he wasn't at all impressed with the Galaxy player when he was able to beat inferior competition in MLS without being at his best. "This is where MLS hurts him," Klinsmann said, even though half of the 30-man squad from which he chose his World Cup team plays in MLS.
Donovan did then return to a U.S. B-team for the Gold Cup last summer, where he dominated against another set of inferior competition, but Klinsmann is looking to the future and even the most ardent Donovan supporters know that he won't be at Russia 2018.
Klinsmann will, though. He has a contract that runs through the 2018 World Cup and he's not content to accept the status quo, say that miracles can happen and putter along in the here and now attempting to just hold down the fort. He wants to raise that level and work towards becoming a member of the exclusive club of World Cup winners. But the first step to that is being honest about where you are now so you can build on reality instead of the swampy ground of past plaudits and delusions of embellished progress. And Klinsmann seems to have that part down pat.
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