The year was 1994 and the United States was hosting the World Cup. Although USA was largely unpassionate about soccer up to this point, enthusiasm caught on as defender Alexi Lalas, goalie Tony Meola, midfeilder Claudio Renya and forward Eric Wynalda carried the Americans into the Round of 16. They’d lose 1-0 in a hard-fought match against the eventual champion Brazil, but Team USA had definitely created the first signs of life for American soccer in decades. Unfortunately, interest would wane in subsequent years and soccer remained a second-tier sport in the United States.
Fast-forward to today and it seems that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has reignited the flames that burned so brightly 20 years ago. Most didn’t expect USA to make it out of their group, which included Germany, Portugal and Ghana. Nevertheless, they played well enough to advance along with Germany and make it to the Round of 16. Here they pushed Belgium to extra time, before losing 2-1 in a commendable effort.
So here we stand again with soccer passion at an all-time high in America. But the big question is, can we expect the enthusiasm to actually have some substance past the World Cup? Moreover, will USA youth start putting more practice time into the game, and will sports fans pay more attention to Major League Soccer and other leagues around the world? In our opinion, the answer is a resounding “yes” thanks to Klinsmann.
Two months ago, many Americans could’ve cared less if USA went scoreless in the 2014 World Cup. In fact, some of the biggest naysayers thought this was an entirely possible scenario. Then Klinsmann went into action, grabbing mainstream headlines at a point when many are focused on the NBA Playoffs, baseball spring training and NFL offseason team activities.
First, he cut Landon Donovan from the US Men’s National Team roster. This was significant because the 32-year-old is America’s all-time leading goal scorer, and it seemed as if he had at least one more good World Cup in him. Many coaches would’ve kept Donovan simply out of respect or because they still think he has plenty of talent. Klinsmann, however, thought that USA’s soccer hero was lacking in the motivation department and promptly cut him.
The German-born coach earned more headlines when he used Kobe Bryant to explain why he doesn’t believe in honoring past player accomplishments. “This always happens in America,” he told the New York Times. “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?”
These comments got attention from the Black Mamba himself as Bryant responded by saying that Klinsmann’s comments were “comical.” He added that ownership groups want to look like they’re rewarding players for what they’ve done while balancing the team going forward. The idea is to make one’s team an attractive place for top free agents to consider.
One more big story that Klinsmann provided was saying that his team “cannot win” the World Cup. This brutal bit of honesty ruffled a few American feathers because it’s not part of the Red, White and Blue’s culture to ever give up or concede victory – no matter how unrealistic victory seems. It turns out Klinsmann was right, though, as his side looked overmatched in their final two games against Germany and Belgium.
Criticized but Relevant
Following America’s exit from the Cup, Donovan took this opportunity to deliver a thinly-veiled attack on the head man. After an LA Galaxy practice, the snubbed forward told media members the following:
I think the most disappointing is we didn’t seem like we gave it a real effort, from a tactical standpoint. I thought the guys did everything they could, they did everything that was asked of them, but I don’t think we were set up to succeed yesterday, and that was tough to watch.
If you really look at the performances, there were some good performances by guys, some not-so-good performances by guys. As a whole, I think tactically, the team was not set up to succeed. They were set up in a way that was opposite from what they’ve been the past couple years, which is opening up, passing, attacking – trying to do that. And the team’s been successful that way. Why they decided to switch that in the World Cup, none of us will know.
Michael was put in the wrong position. He was put in a position that he’s not used to playing. He does a better job, as you saw with Julian Green’s goal, being in a deeper position. And having someone in a front of him, someone to help Clint also, makes him that much better because he’s got more opportunity to pick out different passes, more attacking options ahead of him. I think that was clearly an error.
Maybe there is some truth to what Donovan said since Bradley and Dempsey did struggle a bit in their expanded roles. But then again, maybe Donovan is speaking out of bitterness and the injury to striker Jozy Altidore forced Klinsmann to make some adjustments to an already lacking-offensive team.
Even if Klinsmann did make some mistakes, though, one can’t deny the huge impact that he’s had on American soccer already. He got people to care and he’s proven to be a media-friendly presence.
Klinsmann’s contract runs on through the 2018 World Cup in Russia. He’s not obligated to remain with the team this long, but we can only hope that the German does choose to stay and keep bringing excitement to US soccer in the future.