Klinsmann continues to pull Team USA out of the underdog mindset
JUN 11, 2014 4:45p ET
SAO PAULO --
Jurgen Klinsmann strode onstage in his tracksuit. He smiled, cracked a joke to a staffer, and then sat down and faced a room brimming with reporters and a wall of cameras. Then he smiled again.
"We are thrilled to be here," he began, speaking to the media on Wednesday, for the first time since arriving in Brazil 24 hours prior. "We are thrilled to get this World Cup started. We can't wait to play our first game. You can just sense now the excitement of the population here. We are just proud to be part of it."
That may have all sounded like a pile of, let's say, trite and rehearsed platitudes. But it's not. No, really. The thing about Klinsmann is that he is a man of unbridled and endless optimism, fueled by boundless energy and espresso addict. He smiles all day long. Whenever you ask how he is, he replies: "fantastic." The only time that grin slips is during practice and games.
To wit, he was asked about all of the challenges facing the Americans at this tricky World Cup. But his answer is always the same.
On Portugal getting the world's best player back from injury, a potentially significant setback for the Americans: "It's great to have Cristiano [Ronaldo] on the field. Those special players is what the fans want to see."
On the disparate and difficult climates the USA will play in: "For us, everything is ideal. Whatever the temperature is, whatever the conditions are, rain, no rain, hot, humid, whatever -- we are prepared."
For 19 minutes, he cracked jokes and bantered with reporters in what has become a notably breezy style. He even talked about his aborted attempts to take up yoga -- "I tried it so many times and I just don't have the patience for it."
Which is why it was so jarring when the American public read the comments he made to the New York Times Magazine in December when the story ran in June. He said that America "cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet."
The comment caused a flurry of criticism, both measured and not. Some agreed, some disagreed. Some ventured that the comments were "un-American" and consequently unbecoming of the American coach. Moreover, they seemed out of character, irreconcilable with all of that positive energy, those good vibrations.
The United States men's national team has always traded on its togetherness, grittiness and unshakable belief in team and the necessary service to it. He elaborated on those supposedly incendiary remarks on Wednesday. "You have to be realistic," he said. "I think we are making every year another step forward. We are getting stronger. We always now approach games where we say, 'We don't look at ourselves as an underdog.' Even if a lot of people want to put us as the underdog in this very difficult group. We're not."
"For us now winning a World Cup is not realistic," Klinsmann continued. "But at the end of the day, soccer is the beautiful thing that's unpredictable. Once you make it through that group that we're in, wow, we're not shying away from anybody. But first we've got to make it through that group. Let's stay with our feet on the ground and say, let's get that group done first. And then the sky is the limit. But before the World Cup starts, to say that we should win it is just not realistic. If that's American or not American, I don't know, you can correct me however you want."
Realism and optimism don't have to be mutually exclusive. Klinsmann remains dedicated to raising his team's self-belief. "he's helped me with my confidence a lot," said winger Alejandro Bedoya, who has blossomed of late. "He's a good speaker, good at motivating players and everybody feeds off his optimism -- you can sense that."
"It rubs off on everybody," echoed striker Jozy Altidore, who has recently rediscovered his form. "He tries to remain upbeat at all times. When you're positive like that, you give positive energy to your team, to the coaching staff, to everybody involved. So everybody automatically is feeling in a better mood. It helps the morale of the team."
Most of all, Klinsmann has found useful parts in career-MLS veterans previously deemed a tad short of the international level by empowering them with important roles. Holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman springs to mind. Or left winger Brad Davis. "He's kind of brought out more the attacking side of me with the freedom to go and create," said Davis. "It's been a lot of fun. He's put a lot of confidence in a lot of guys, to say, 'Go forward and express yourself.'"
Klinsmann's primary task upon his appointment in the summer of 2011 was unambiguous: push USA Soccer to a higher plain. He instilled in his players the sense that they were better than they were, before they actually got better. A series of upsets over more reputable teams, and a steep upwards slope on the results curve soon followed.
Mostly, Klinsmann has pulled the USA out of the underdog mindset. They don't think of themselves as scrappy but inferior anymore. "We don't talk about that," said midfielder Jermaine Jones. "We play game to game and face everybody and then we will see."
The players look to their manager and see a man sure of self. Who tells them not to worry so much. "Go out and enjoy it," Klinsmann said he tells his players. "Go out and embrace it. Be confident. Don't forget to enjoy it."