JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jurgen Klinsmann sure knows how to fire people up.
The United States head coach took the podium here Friday, a day before his team's final game on home soil before heading to Brazil for the World Cup, and one of the top stories on the Drudge Report as he spoke was "USA Soccer Coach: 'We Cannot Win The World Cup!' " That bomb of a quote, printed in the New York Times this week, followed his highly unpopular decision to leave Landon Donovan off the roster.
And then there was Klinsmann's quip that Kobe Bryant's two-year, $50 million extension "makes no sense." That got a strangely angry and inappropriate response from commentator Michael Wilbon, who instructed the coach to "Get out of America."
Almost right away on Friday, Klinsmann was asked about his "we cannot win" comments, and he didn't exactly back down.
"We're not coming in with the arrogance to say we're going to win the World Cup," he said. He went on to clarify that the team's goal is to get through the group stage, but "you can't tell the general public you're going to win the World Cup – it's unrealistic."
In the soccer world, this is obvious and even refreshing. Klinsmann is telling it like it is: The U.S. is in the "Group of Death" and it's hard to imagine the Americans going deep into the knockout stage, let alone winning it all in Brazil.
"It was blown out of proportion," said striker Chris Wondolowski of the reaction to what his coach said. And it's not like Klinsmann said never; he said not this year.
Still, Klinsmann is poking at a raw nerve of the American sports psyche. A lot of casual fans understand the odds and don't require a reality check. They want to hear it's possible. They want to believe. That's why the 1980 U.S. men's hockey team, made up of amateurs who were given no chance of beating the Russians, is one of the most beloved teams in American sports history.
Realism doesn't go well with the American sports culture and neither does fatalism. The "Shock the world!" rallying cry has become a cliché but there's a reason for that: It's a cry that rallies. It's hard to find a championship team in the U.S. that isn't galvanized by some external doubt – real or imagined. That doubt, however, is not supposed to come from the head coach of the team.
Some of this was illustrated by Wondolowski, who has a long-shot story of his own. He's on this team for the first time at age 31. Donovan, the U.S.'s all-time leading scorer, is off the roster and he's on it. He explained his journey this way: "The future is never decided. With a lot of work, you never know."
That's the stuff of inspiration, for a player, a team and a fan base.
"Wondo," as he's called, dismissed the non-troversy over Klinsmann's "cannot win" buzz, saying he has a "great game plan" for the team. "It's a lot different when you're inside the locker room," he added.
Yet when asked if the team can win the World Cup, he said, "Yeah, I think so. Anything can happen." That sentiment may be "unrealistic," but every player on the roster has to believe it. So why doesn't the head coach?
Klinsmann's position as the leader of U.S. soccer forces him to walk a line between happy optimism and hard truth, and he's tripped over it a few times already. Was Donovan, at age 32, going to usher the Americans out of the Group of Death? Not likely. Is the U.S. team going to win the World Cup? Even less likely. And, sorry to all you Lakers fans, but it's probably not likely that Kobe Bryant reverts to his 2004 self in 2014. (Klinsmann, by the way, did walk back his Kobe comments, saying "There was absolutely nothing negative meant towards Kobe, who I admire a lot and who I've watched many times.")
The coach is probably right in taking aim at wishful thinking. But that still doesn't really go over well to an audience that wants to believe for the next few weeks. And although the players themselves are too mature to internalize the idea that they really can't win the World Cup, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world if the head coach felt it was possible. Think of all the speeches made by athletes over the years that thanked the head coach for believing when no one else would. Some would say believing is part of the coach's job – not only for someday, but for today.
What’s somewhat ironic about Klinsmann's comments is that his arrival has brought a new hope for U.S. soccer. Here's a coach who knows what it takes to win the grandest tournament, has already won a Gold Cup with the Americans, and he plans to deliver an offensive attack that brings more excitement and, yes, belief. There are some smart soccer people who feel the U.S. will never, ever, ever be able to compete with Goliaths like Brazil and Germany. But Klinsmann himself is thought of as a path to a new era – one where "we can win" is uttered all over the country.
That phrase is being spoken in countries all over the world this month, in many different languages, and most of that talk is unrealistic. Can it really hurt if it's spoken here, too?