Well before he moved to Orange County, Jurgen Klinsmann already had been to Fantasyland, having hoisted the World Cup alongside his West German associates in 1990. His quest now, as coach of the United States men’s soccer team, is Tomorrowland. Tomorrow won’t come this month in Brazil, where the Americans have been drawn into the Group of Death along with the Germans, Portuguese, and Ghanaians, and Klinsmann concedes as much.
“Germany was expected to win the World Cup,” said Klinsmann, who played in three of them and directed the 2006 edition of the Mannschaft that couldn’t manage a victory on home soil. “I don’t think we expect to win the World Cup, but definitely we want to go far.”
The Yanks, who were out of the global conversation for four decades after their 1950 shocking of England, haven’t made the semifinals since 1930. And while winning the Cup still may be a Disneyesque daydream, the US Soccer brass wants to hasten the arrival of tomorrow, which is why they’ve already granted Klinsmann, 49, a four-year extension through 2018 and also made him technical director.
That will give Klinsmann the time and the mandate to, as he says, connect the dots between the youth teams, development academy, coaching education and the grassroots, and to define the American soccer identity. “It should reflect your mentality and your culture,” Klinsmann mused when he was hired three summers ago after Bob Bradley, who coached the US to the second round in 2010, was let go. “If you talk about Brazil, you know how Brazil plays. You know about Argentina, you know about Italy.”
Klinsmann, who performed for top-level clubs in four countries, knows more about the game from direct experience than any previous US national coach. He collected 108 international caps as a sharpshooting striker and won both the gilded global trophy and the European championship plus an Olympic bronze medal. That gave him instant credibility with his star-spangled players, who know all about how Klinsmann wrecked their predecessors in their 1998 Cup opener in Paris.
“He’s lived it, he’s won it,” said Attleborough native Geoff Cameron, who’s likely to start at center back in the Cup, which for him and his teammates begins with a date with nemesis Ghana on June 16. “He’s experienced it as a player and he almost won it as a coach. Why wouldn’t you listen to a guy who has that knowledge, that philosophy of being successful?”
That was why the US federation wanted to hire Klinsmann, first after the team’s three-and-out in Deutschland in 2006 and then again after its 2010 exit. He’d been a dominant player for a decade for the planet’s most exacting program but also had spent more than a dozen years as a California dude who knew that the answer to any coastal query is “fantastic.” Klinsmann might have had the Teutonic approach to fussball — “He has 100 percent concentration,” said midfielder Jermaine Jones, one of five German-Americans on the 23-man roster. “He wants you in training to be 100 percent focused on what you do and do it perfect.” But Klinsmann also was an accomplished globetrotter who was fluent in four languages (German, English, French, Italian), who was married to a former American model, and who piloted choppers for fun.
“That inquisitiveness and the four languages and flying helicopters — all those things that we might think of as traditionally American craziness, Jurgen had some of that before he got here,” said US Soccer president Sunil Gulati.
Klinsmann made the move to the Left Coast in 1998 upon retiring from the pro game. What he discovered was that the entire Fatherland would fit into California with plenty of room left over for a desert, the Sierra Nevada, a couple dozen national parks, and a few thousand In-N-Out Burger joints.
“When you live in a country for a long period of time you obviously get more and more familiar with it and you try to read people better and better,” said Klinsmann, who lives in Huntington Beach and who once suited up for the fourth-tier Orange County Blue Stars under the name of Jay Goppingen, taken from his birthplace. “There are a lot of differences around the country. New York is very different from California. It’s a bit like the European lifestyle, as well. No matter where you live in a specific country it’s still where every region has its own element and its own character. Living here since ’98 is definitely something very positive for me because it helped me a lot to understand the American mind-set in terms of soccer.”
Not that that was the purpose of Klinsmann’s sandy sabbatical, but it’s one reason why US Soccer wooed him so persistently. “I think we get the best of both worlds in the sense that he’s had experience at the very highest European level,” said Gulati, “and also has an understanding of the American mentality from the time he spent here.”
Though Klinsmann’s practices are no-nonsense, he knows when to mix in a relaxed beach vibe. “After a win he’s the first one to turn on the music in the locker room,” said defender DaMarcus Beasley, who’ll be playing in his fourth Cup. “That’s Jurgen . . . Sometimes Germans can be a little bit cold, don’t really smile, don’t seem like they’re having a good time. But Jurgen is a whole different breed.”
Except for Bora Milutinovic, the Yugoslav expatriate who coached the 1994 squad, Klinsmann’s most recent predecessors were Born-in-the-USA guys who’d come up through the domestic ranks. Klinsmann, one of four sons of a baker, learned a decidedly different game. He already was a prodigy at 8, scoring 16 goals in one match for his club in Gingen an der Fils in southern Germany. By 18, after earning his baker’s diploma, Klinsmann was collecting a paycheck with Stuttgarter Kickers in the second division. From there it was the Bundesliga with VfB Stuttgart, then tours with Inter Milan, AS Monaco, Tottenham Hotspur (twice), Bayern Munich, and Sampdoria.
Along the way Klinsmann became a fixture on the national team, first with the West Side of the divided country, and made a name as the go-to guy on the big stage, especially when the clock was running down. What he learned the hard way is that what’s past is past.
“Success is about what happens today and what you do today and what you hopefully do tomorrow,” he said last month after cutting Landon Donovan, the US team’s all-time leading scorer and a key man in the last three Cups.
Nobody cared that half of Germany was the Cup holder when the full version was upended by Bulgaria in the 1994 quarterfinals, nor did the Croatians, who were making their global debut, show any deference when they blanked the aging “German grandpas” whom Klinsmann captained in the 1998 quarters. When he selected his squad for Brazil, Klinsmann went with players who were performing well against tough competition in the present.
“At the end of the day, it’s down to pure performance,” said Klinsmann, who picked five men with a dozen or fewer caps, including defenders Timmy Chandler, John Brooks, and DeAndre Yedlin. That was how he chose the German squad for 2006, benching veteran goalkeeper Oliver Kahn for Jens Lehmann and bringing in unknown midfielder David Odonkor as a supersub.
After a bumpy transition the US team has prospered under Klinsmann’s direction, beating Italy for the first time, finally defeating Mexico at rare-air Azteca, knocking off Germany, winning the 2013 Gold Cup, and topping the Hexagonal qualifying for the Cup.
“Since Jurgen was hired we’ve trusted in his decision-making and his opinion on what he thinks is best for the team,” said keeper Tim Howard, who’s on his third Cup squad. “He obviously has a vision for his team that he thinks is a winning one and we believe in that.”
Klinsmann’s vision for the makeup of his Cup squad comes from having been involved with four of them for a country that considers anything less than the golden trophy a failure. “Being able to be a real team player, being able to put yourself into service for a bigger cause and something that is far, far bigger than you are as an individual,” he said. “It’s about being able to suffer, to sacrifice yourself for that huge, huge event.”
His US team was built both for today and tomorrow because yesterday doesn’t matter. If the Yanks go three-and-out this month, which most global observers expect, Klinsmann immediately can head down the Road to Russia and 2018.
If he’s on the sideline inside Luzhniki Stadium for that final, Tomorrowland may well become Fantasyland. But four years, as Klinsmann can testify, is a lifetime and whatever got him his position won’t make a difference if the Yanks trip over themselves along the way. “Time will tell,” he said. “If I’m not getting the job done at the end of the day, you know the outcome of those things in the soccer world.”