Why Jurgen Klinsmann thinks U.S. can advance in World Cup knockout round

Dan Wetzel

SAO PAULO – The halftime score was United States 0, Germany 0, which, if it held, would not only be the draw needed to advance the Americans to the knockout round but also a positive result against a high-class opponent.

Jurgen Klinsmann saw it differently. He was angry as he stood in the U.S. halftime locker room in Recife. Not at the score, but at the effort. His team looked intimidated against the Germans, particularly in the first 25 minutes, where, other than Jermaine Jones, almost no one was aggressive.

"Too much respect," is how Klinsmann puts it, but scared might be more accurate. And scared is absolutely, positively the last thing Jurgen Klinsmann has ever been – or will ever tolerate from his teams.

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So he lit into his players, challenged them to stand up and stay strong, demanded that no matter the result they at least try to match the German intensity.

This is Jurgen Klinsmann, his players say, a guy who dresses and smiles like a suburban soccer dad but still burns with the competitiveness of the world-class striker he was – part of the unrelenting German machine (both as player and coach) that demands the furthest reaches of mental toughness.

Jurgen Klinsmann wants the U.S. team to know it shouldn't be satisfied with making the knockout round. (Getty Images)

"Especially the first 20 minutes, you know, I was screaming my lungs off there," he said.

The game ended in a 1-0 victory for Germany, but the Americans at least showed something in the second half, made it feel a little like a competitive game and were able to reach the round of 16 anyway. Still, Klinsmann is focused on making sure such a tentative effort does not occur again, first against Belgium next Tuesday.

If nothing else, Klinsmann wants it engrained in the conscious of the team that the U.S. belongs in the knockout round, that it has nothing to apologize for, that if it is focused and tough and plays together, anything can happen. It's not some lucky upset.

No fear.

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So once the team gathered Friday morning here at the U.S. base camp, Klinsmann laid out the expectations in no uncertain terms.

"I asked this morning, everybody, all the players, to make sure that all their flights are booked after July 13 [the day of the World Cup final]," Klinsmann said. "That's just how you have to approach a World Cup. No matter what happens now, you can always change your flights.

"So, it's better to start with the end in mind," he continued. "The end is July 13."

Prior to the World Cup, the New York Times printed an excellent and interesting Klinsmann profile. It included a comment that Klinsmann didn't believe the U.S. could win the tournament this year, which philosophically is correct.

Klinsmann told his players to book their flights home after the July 13 final. (AP)

It was taken by many, however – including most who didn't read the entire story or had ever met Klinsmann – not as a matter of fact or admission of reality well before the Cup began, but the idea that he somehow didn't believe in his team. Some went on to say he wasn't right for America.

In reality, there is no one who believes in the U.S. more than Klinsmann, whether it's the current team or the future one he'll take to the 2018 Cup, which his contract extends through. Cockiness, charisma, vision … berating his players for a lack of courage … demanding they change their flight plans … this is Jurgen at his best and at his core.

"He exudes confidence," U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati said. "You know the comments he made about 'we can't' … that's not what he ever believes, that's not the kind of guy he is.

"I walk into a room with Jurgen, and you come out of that room believing you can win the World Cup, but he never says you can win the World Cup," Gulati said. "He's just so confident about it, and I think that's extraordinary. And I think it fits the American mentality of 'we can.' …I fully appreciate that the moment we got the draw and got the tough group, he said, 'We are going to get through.' He believed. And not in the way we all have to believe we are going to do something, but intellectually, emotionally."

[Photos: Candid moments inside the World Cup tunnel]

Belief is everything to Klinsmann. It's essential, he says, to surviving the knockout rounds, which he did as a German player (1990, champion) and coach (2006, third place).

"The key going into the knockout stage, is about understanding the dynamics of knockout games," Klinsmann said. "That means do or die."

Taken one game at a time, one opponent at a time, one challenge at a time, and it all seems manageable. So push back the return flights. The U.S. is here to be heard.

That's why the first half against Germany, despite the scoreless draw, drove him crazy. Tentative and intimidated doesn't speak to surviving do or die.

Klinsmann's message to his team Friday was about the urgency of the opportunity, and how even though he is contracted to be here for the long haul, it's the short term that matters – or should – to them.

"We want to be one day in the top 10, top 12 in the world," Klinsmann said. "So, if you want to be there one day, this is now the moment to prove it. This is now the moment to show it.

"I told the players that this is now the time you've got to step it up. Especially, I would say the players that are beyond 30, this might be their last moment in the World Cup. That's just reality. So, if I'm in that age, if I know that I'm approaching 30, 31, 32, I have to tell myself, 'Shoot, this is it now, possibly.' "

Attention: Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, et al.

"I think if everybody goes to his own personal limits in context of the team, we're going to go further in this tournament," Klinsmann said. "But, you've got to realize that moment."

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From a nervous, pressured halftime locker room in Recife, to the calm of a day after training with the elimination round achieved, the message is the same:

You're good enough if you believe it. If you don't, you aren't. And right here, right now, is the time to decide.