In an interview with the New York Times back in December, Jurgen Klinsmann, coach of the U.S. mens national soccer team (USMNT), said that the U.S. can't win the World Cup which begins today in Brazil. After the story came out, I was truly surprised that Klinsmann, even though he is German, would ever suggest such a thing to American fans. How dare anyone say we can't win before the matches even start? Sacrilege. He caught some heat for the statement, but I figured it was just a media training lapse. Then yesterday, he said it again! In my opinion, Klinsmann's attitude is emblematic of why soccer can't seem to catch on in the U.S.
Now, before you brand me a fútbol hater (you know who you are), let me set the scene. I like soccer and the World Cup, just as I enjoy many other grand sporting events like the Indy 500, Wimbledon and the Olympics (I still don't get NASCAR). While it doesn't captivate me like American football, I do appreciate the athleticism and talent of soccer players. The fans are passionate, and aside from the drone of those vuvuzela horns and the practice of ending games with penalty kicks, I have few complaints. And I will watch the USMNT next week and hopefully well beyond.
So, I'm not a soccer hater, but I think a few things need to change for U.S. fans to start embracing "the beautiful game."
Stop Playing Not to Lose
When I was a kid, my neighbors were an Italian family that loved soccer. While watching a game with them, Italy fell behind by two early goals and my neighbors were ready to slit their wrists. The remainder of the game was spent watching the leading team play keep-away as the Italians sulked.
For Americans, nothing could be more boring. We are the country of long bombs, grand slams, hat tricks and tap outs. It's practically a cliché, but the lack of scoring and the tendency to protect slim leads is not good sporting theater in the U.S.
And then there are the dreaded penalty kicks. Have you seen the size of a soccer goal? It's huge. And the goalie has to basically guess where the kicker will shoot. Teams play a long, strategic match which then comes down to a couple lucky lunges - or an unfortunate choke by a kicker. If I was in charge, I would bring back the "Golden Goal." Make the games pure sudden death, and I guarantee more Americans will take notice.
America Needs Some Stars
Aside from his defeatist comments, Klinsmann also made news when he cut Landon Donovan, the best-known American player. I realize that the greatest players in the world today are not Americans. Europeans and South and Central Americans are beyond dominant, but we must have some good players to rally behind? While we shouldn't expect a dream team, somewhere along the line the promotional folks behind the USMNT should have introduced the casual fan to a few of our country's best players. Who is the Lebron James, Tom Brady or Mia Hamm of the USMNT? And if there's no superstar, who is the enigmatic oddball? Or the guy with a crazy haircut ... or supermodel girlfriend? That I can name at least one player for Brazil, Spain, Argentina and England yet none on the USMNT says more about the ineffectiveness of the team's promotional efforts than my apathy. Hopefully a star or two, who we can rally behind, will emerge in the next few weeks, otherwise the clock starts on NFL training camp.
This is Our Year? Nein!
Back to Klinsmann and bad karma. Yesterday he told the Associated Press: "I think for us now, talking about winning a World Cup is just not realistic. If it is American or not, you can correct me." Well it's not, and here we go:
He may be right about our chances, but that is the last thing American fans want to hear. We always believe that we can win, particularly at the beginning of a sporting event. Last time I checked, all matches still start off with 0-0 score. The tournament hasn't begun yet, and anything can happen. In the U.S., we believe it is our birthright to be the underdog, and we always have a chance to win. We are a nation that cheers on the little guy, and we adore the Cinderella story. My gosh, has Klinsmann not seen Rocky? Or Hoosiers? Or Rudy?
Suggesting that our team can't win is about as un-American as one could be. Bobby Knight would beat the crap out of Klinsmann for saying that. Vince Lombardi would pound him into the frozen tundra. Bill Belichick would cut him.
How can you expect us to get on board with the USMNT when the coach doesn't even believe in them? If I had a chance to counsel Klinsmann on public relations for his team, I could limit it to three words: "Know your audience."
My hope is that the USMNT will find a way to emerge from the "Group of Death" and play deep into the World Cup tournament. It will be wonderful if some new American stars are born, and hopefully many U.S. fans will fall in love with the game for years to come.
You can keep the penalty kicks.
Do you agree with Klinsmann or does the USMNT have a chance in the World Cup?