Jürgen Klinsmann did something that no other figure in American soccer has been able to do – he got soccer fans in the United States really, really angry.
Americans care about soccer. They have gone through a wide range of emotions over the past 25 years. Anger never came into the equation.
There was surprise in 1989 when they qualified for their first World Cup in ages. There was giddiness after 1994 and 2002. There was sheer joy in 2010. There has been disgust, following flameouts in 1998 and 2006. There has been wistfulness about coming so close, following the 2009 Confederations Cup.
But through it all, there had rarely, if ever, been a disconnect between the fans and the team. Some fans weren’t thrilled with Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley, but they never drew out ruthless venom from a portion of the fanbase.
Klinsmann, with one stroke of egotism, pulled it off.
Let’s be honest – Landon Donovan should be going to Brazil. Even the soccer hipsters – the ones who take the least popular opinion and defend it to death – have been proven a fraud. Why? Because their arguments have pitted Landon Donovan in 2014 against Landon Donovan in 2010. Is that who Landon was left off for? I have yet to have anyone convince me that Julian Green or John Brooks – right now – are better players than Landon Donovan.
But I’m not here to discuss or dissect that decision. It’s been made. And now we have to deal with the aftermath and that’s the real problem for Klinsmann. He may have a contract through the 2018 World Cup but that doesn’t mean he’ll be coaching the U.S. Men’s National Team at the 2018 World Cup.
Let’s go back to the World Cup draw and relive the moment when the U.S. was put in the Group of Death. I’m sure we were not the only country who sighed and shook their head after the announcement. Ghana and Portugal – two other knockout stage participants from 2010 – had to be disappointed as well. The Germans, well, I’m sure they just kept training and hardly noticed.
The World Cup is not supposed to be easy. The fact the U.S. got a tough draw was not ideal, to say the least, but it felt like the entire U.S. Soccer program accepted that they would be eliminated in the Group stage.
How else to explain the inexplicable contract extension for Klinsmann? They wanted to ensure that a terrible World Cup result didn’t derail his program.
How else to explain the inclusion of youngsters, like the aforementioned Green, to the roster? Klinsmann can say he’s not thinking of 2018, but it sure feels that way.
In sports, perception carries the day. Whether or not Landon Donovan was slipping as precipitously as Klinsmann implied, the perception remained that Landon Donovan is American soccer.
Before Landon Donovan was left off the team, I would best describe the feeling toward the World Cup for the U.S. as realistic. Not many thought they could advance, but we’d seen the National Team pull off miracles before so the faith and hope remained.
After Landon Donovan was left off the team, that mood changed to pessimistic. A fairly innocuous 2-0 win over Azerbaijan in unfavorable, windy conditions was cause for concern and panic. It feels like the walls are closing in on the team, especially with news of Clint Dempsey’s sore groin worrying fans further.
Klinsmann and soccer analysts are trying as hard as they can to ensure this World Cup is not about the guy who isn’t there, but that ship has sailed. Has Klinsmann not watched ESPN for the past five years? When they find a story that captivates audiences – Tim Tebow, anyone? – they are going to pound it into the ground. So is the rest of the sports media.
Has any Klinsmann press conference been aired live on SportsCenter like the one last Friday where he was grilled and prodded by Donovan questions for 30-plus minutes?
The problem with Klinsmann’s decision has nothing to do with soccer – it has to do with the aftermath. Klinsmann was clearly irked by Donovan’s position as a “sacred cow” in American soccer and he wanted to make sure everyone knew he was in charge.
There have been many comparisons to Klinsmann’s handling of the 2006 German team, which included the demotion of Oliver Kahn from the #1 keeper spot. It’s an absurd comparison to say the least since the new goalkeeper, Jens Lehmann, was one of the best in the world and Kahn wasn’t left off the team entirely. Also, the depth of the German soccer program is a tad better than the United States. Just a tad.
So ultimately, Klinsmann made his power move and now he has to suffer the consequences.
That means he burned up his free pass before the World Cup began. There was a large contingent of fans – and maybe there still are – prepared to accept a Group Stage exit. It was always a big ask to finish second in a group with Germany, Portugal and Ghana. And if Donovan had been named to the team and they kept chugging along to Brazil, that would have been okay.
By eliminating Donovan, Klinsmann turned the pressure way up. He said he’s thinking of 2014, not 2018. He said Donovan isn’t one of the best 23. It’s time for Klinsmann to produce.
The last time the United States watched its team play in the World Cup, Landon Donovan provided the defining moment for soccer in this country.
The next time the United States watches its team play in the World Cup, Landon Donovan won’t be there.
That means all eyes will be on Jürgen Klinsmann. If the United States flames out, it will fall on Klinsmann and I doubt he will survive through the next World Cup. If the United States advances to the knockout round, Klinsmann will be correctly hailed as a hero.
The pressure is on, Jürgen.
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