Credit German-born Jürgen Klinsmann for turning U.S. Soccer into America's Team.
While the Australians have their national rugby team and the Brazilians, Spanish and Germans have their national soccer teams, Americans have only had professional sports teams representing their cities. No wonder Europeans are so passionate about their national teams while Americans focus on the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, Boston Celtics and Chicago Blackhawks.
Now that has changed. In less than a month, the gritty, determined 23 athletes chosen by Klinsmann to represent America in the World Cup have captured the hearts of America. Never before have Americans turned out in such record numbers to watch any team -- pro or national -- play four consecutive games. Never before have so many fans gathered in groups to watch an American national team. And in a country 5,000 miles away no less! Over 40,000 watched the games on large screens in Chicago's Grant Park. America's first game against Ghana attracted 16.9 million television viewers, making it the second-most-watched sporting event of the year. Tuesday's game against Belgium attracted over 23 million viewers -- an all-time record.
Klinsmann did so by cobbling together a group of players from all over the world, including seven dual-nationality players, into a cohesive fighting force that battled to the very end of every contest, including an exhausting, non-stop 120 minutes against Belgium in last Tuesday's 2-1 overtime loss. They learned to play "The Klinsmann Way" -- attacking the ball all over the field with non-stop running and collective defense.
In reality, America's soccer talent cannot come close to comparing with the world-class stars fielded by Germany, Belgium, Ghana or Portugal. Yet the U.S. survived the most difficult group in the tournament, the so-called "Group of Death," and advanced further than more talented teams like Spain, Italy and England. All because Klinsmann instilled the tactical discipline, physical conditioning, positive psychology and teamwork necessary to compete toe-to-toe with the best players in the world. The team performed strongly even without without striker Jozi Altidore, who played only 22 minutes of the Ghana game before pulling his hamstring, and Landon Donovan, who would have added much more offensive punch than side midfielders like Brad Davis, Graham Zusi and Alejandro Bedoya.
When he took over U.S. Men's National Team in 2013, Klinsmann knew he didn't have the talent to compete at the highest level. So he challenged America's best players like Michael Bradley, Tim Howard, and Clint Dempsey to elevate their games, while integrating no fewer than seven dual-nationality players into the national team: German-Americans Jermaine Jones, Fabian Jones, and youngsters John Brooks and Julian Green; Norwegian-American Mix Diskerud, Icelantic-American Aron Jóhannsson, and Alejandro Bedoya of Columbian descent.
Unlike his predecessors Bob Bradley and Bruce Arena, Klinsmann isn't just preparing for World Cup competition, but building American soccer for the long-term to the level of the best countries in the world. With his new four-year contract which adds the role of "technical director" for the first time, America has someone responsible for developing the cadre of talented youth players who can compete with the best in the world. In an encouraging sign of what's to come, the U.S. Under-17 team has won four international competitions.
The good news is that Americans won't have to wait four more years to see their new national favorites in action. Next July the U.S. will compete in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a tournament it won in 2013, with a chance to qualify for the Confederations Cup in 2017 against the world's best teams. Thanks to Klinsmann's negotiating skills, the U.S. will host Copa America for the first time in June 2016 against the best national teams from South America (e.g., Brazil, Columbia, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay), the Caribbean and North America. All of this action with Klinsmann at the helm will prepare America to advance further in the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Meanwhile, thanks to Don Garber, Major League Soccer continues to grow in quality with the addition of Bradley, Dempsey, and Brazilian star Kaka as well as fan attendance and the addition of more franchises in cities like Miami and Orlando.
The future of soccer is brighter this summer. For the first time we can say with confidence that professional soccer is here to stay, and that Klinsmann's troops have become America's Team!
Bill George is professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and author of True North and Authentic Leadership. He is the former chair and CEO of Medtronic. Read more at www.BillGeorge.org, or follow him on Twitter @Bill_George.