BY Art Thiel 06:30AM 06/12/2014

Thiel: Klinsmann offers a better soccer debate

If you find ritual soccer bashing as boring as the claims of American ignorance about the game, here’s a fresh debate: What does Klinsmann mean when he says the U.S. has no chance?

Flags for the 2014 World Cup.

Among the many World Cup traditions is a quaint one in the U.S.: The quadrennial bashing of soccer by fans of other sports, while defenders decry American ignorance. Adherents always say the corner has been turned, while critics say it’s a round building.

It is an argument of surpassing feebleness, particularly in Seattle, which has, on yet another national topic, zigged as all others zagged. The Sounders’ well-documented success appears to be the beachhead from which soccer will conquer America’s sporting souls, one bicycle kick at a time — or just another example of Seattle’s weirdness.

I have always looked upon soccer in America as I have oysters in North Dakota — an acquired taste not native to the local palate. But unless that’s the only item on the menu, diners don’t have to eat them.

American sports, including soccer, are a buffet. Eat what you will, quit mocking the dishes on other tables and tip well.

Fortunately, for this World Cup that begins Thursday in Sao Paulo with the host country going against Croatia at 12:30 p.m. (ESPN, or better yet, CBUT), the debate about soccer’s virtues or lack thereof can be dumped to the curb.

There’s a less tiresome conflagration to discuss: Coach Jurgen Klinsmann‘s vision of the U.S. chances in the kickfest.

Which is, more or less: We are Honduras, perhaps with a better dental plan.

Klinsmann all but kiboshed whatever fantasy was held by American fans about winning the tournament when he told the New York Times Magazine, “We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. For us, we have to play the game of our lives seven times to win the tournament.”

The kicker, pardon the expression, was that he said it in December, but the paper didn’t publish it until the past weekend, meaning all the training camps, friendlies and cutting of Landon Donovan in the previous six months for the U.S. Men’s National Team apparently were the equivalent of the band aboard the Titanic arguing about whether to play an encore.

Klinsmann, who helped win the Cup as a player in 1990 for his native Germany, and managed Germany to third place in the 2006 affair, was appointed U.S. soccer kingpin in July 2011 precisely because he knows what it takes on the biggest soccer stage. But Klinsmann’s honest assessment drew much lamentation and cursing in the U.S. because, well, that’s not how ‘Merkin coaches talk.

We Yanks always believe in the underdog credo of, “Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, til you find your dream,” and other such lyrical treacle. Michael Wilbon, normally the soul of rectitude, told Klinsmann a recent “Pardon The Interruption” episode on ESPN to “get out” of America:

Really? For being dead honest with an opinion, he should leave America? You know, “land of the free” and all that?

That might be a tad stiff. Particularly if Klinsmann was sandbagging.

Wilbon has been around enough to know of the rhetorical piffle made famous by football coach Lou Holtz. Whenever Notre Dame scheduled Big Rock Candy Mountain University, Holtz would make the pitiable foe sound like Old Testament plagues.

Could be that Klinsmann is deking fellow group members Ghana, Portugal and Germany, hoping for a heavy-lidded game out of one of them. Certainly, he wasn’t claiming misquote Wednesday at his first news conference upon arrival in Brazil (video above).

“If it’s now American, or not American, I don’t know. You can correct me however you want,” he told reporters in Sao Paulo. “First we’ve got to make it through the group. So let’s stay with our feet on the ground and say let’s get that group first done, and then the sky is the limit.

“But a half a year before, and even today before the World Cup starts, to say that we should win the World Cup is just not realistic.”

More likely is that Klinsmann is simply doing a smart thing: Playing for 2018.

The giveaway is the presence of DeAndre Yedlin, 20, of the Sounders and Seattle’s O’Dea High School, along with Julian Green, the 18-year-old said to be the next great American superstar (heaven help him with that burden).

Purely from a tactical perspective, neither belong among the 23 best American players. Yedlin is growing his rep in MLS, but Green, who has dual German-American citizenship, was in the German fourth division playing for Bayern Munich’s B team. It’s unlikely either will play much in the tourney, but Klinsmann sees them as part of the 2018 future.

That presupposes, then, that Wilbon and other ‘Merkin populists will fail in their efforts to deport Klinsmann for his heresies against American sports. Then again, maybe the righteous will prevail.

From Donald Sterling to Biogenesis to BALCO to Lance Armstrong to Michael Vick to Tim Donaghy to Roger Clemens to Marion Jones to Tiger Woods to Jerry Sandusky to the Vikings love boat to Duke lacrosse to the myriad hypocrisies and deceits of the NCAA, bygawd, no furriner better tell us how to run our games.

You soccer people just keep going around the round building.


  • jafabian

    Excellent column Art. And your buffet anaology is spot on as well as your point on non-soccer fans coming out of the woodwork at this time to ridicule the sport. (Probably the same idiots that rip on the WNBA.) The US really needs to host the World Cup a few times in order to quell that idiocy. It’s surprising that the US has hosted the World Cup only once but has hosted the Olympics multiple times. Politics with FIFA in play perhaps? Seeing Seattle host an Olympics or World Cup is on my “wishful thinking but I still hope it happens” list.

    I like the team Klinsmann put together. When he left veterans like Donovan and Evans off the team I knew he was building for 2018. It’s a team rife with potential but a bit short on international experience. What he’s doing is not unlike countries sending teens to the Olympics for the experience so they’re ready to dominate their second time around. I’ve questioned if Donovan was left off the team not so much because he didn’t deserve to be on it but to send a message to players. I’m looking forward to seeing just how the 2014 team plays.

    I believe that we will win!

    • Bayview Herb

      It is a generational thing, and trust me, I didn’t come out of the woodwork. If you are under about 25 or so you were exposed to soccer. Hockey was a Canadian and upper border states until US Millionaires trew huge amounts of money at teams in Canada. Let’s face it. Hockey in Southern California is not a native sport. You youngsters are ridiculing those of us that didn’t grow up in your generation

      • art thiel

        Herb, you’re entitled to your generational view, but the critics of soccer aren’t confined to your generation. They’re in all generations, and they rightly jump on the sport’s shortcomings, as di critics of fb, bb and bkb.

        It is a matter of taste and familiarity. As one who has covered nine Olympics, I can tell you there is an incredibly diverse collection of global sports that puzzle me. But that’s OK. Good for the proponents. Whatever turns their cranks.

        • Bayview Herb

          I wasn’t sneering at soccer, but pointing out to those that think I am ignorant. It’s the same thing if I were to call 20 or 30’s people that they are ignorant because they don’t remember greats like Elgin Baylor, etc.

          There is a tendency of many, to preface their comments by insulting the person they disagree with. I have no differences with those that like sports that I don’t have a history with. Perhaps you and others mis-interpreted my comments, or I didn’t present them in a way that could be understood.

    • art thiel

      The development of soccer was far behind the other sports, which developed largely because America has (had?) the largest middle class in the history of civilization. We had the time, wealth and innovation to create other pastimes.

      • Bayview Herb

        Alas, Abner Doubleday wasn’t European either. Different backgrounds make for different favorites whether from age difference or geographic.

  • goHAwks

    Soccer has the potential to catch on in the US but the first match between Brazil and Croatia illustrated why it won’t: way too much flopping and bad calls, both missed calls and calls that shouldn’t have been made. Just leaves a sour taste in your mouth seeing the refs have such an impact on the game and that Brazil just kept flopping. Brazil was clearly the better team, so why all the damn flops?
    Back to my point, I think the game could catch on but for starters add some more refs so they can make better calls. The whole stoppage time thing is weird too. Just stop the damn clock throughout the game like a normal sport or if you insist on stoppage time have an official clock everyone can see and when it hits time the game or half is over. None of this 4 minutes added time but we’ll play for 4 minutes 37 seconds.

    • art thiel

      Every sport has flaws and quirks that will annoy some. But I agree that flopping is the single most annoying aspect of soccer as well as basketball. Both have introduced penalties, but it’s still too ingrained. Once officials start handing out game suspensions for flopping, not just fines, behavior will start to change.

  • Bayview Herb

    Many of us old timers grew up without soccer in this country. The sport isn’t native to this country like football and baseball. Two sports, soccer and Hockey I can do without, too.

    • jafabian

      Evidently you didn’t grow up here and see the impact the Sounders had in the 70s and 80s. Many old timers around here did.

      • Bayview Herb

        I thought I had made that clear. I grew up in the 1940’s and ’50’s No soccer nor hockey existed in those years.

  • Doug

    Speak for yourself Bayview Herb. Many of us other old timers DID grow up with soccer. I played it in the 60s as a kid and have followed it as a fan since then. The U.S. national team started playing internationals in 1913 — well before the NBA or NFL were around. So, those who claim the sport has no history here are uninformed. Also, it never ceases to amaze me how the same folks, including media, who rave about a 1-0 pitcher’s duel will say soccer is too low scoring. I would agree the ref missed the PK call, but there was no more flopping than in a typical NBA game. I, too, would prefer an official clock that everyone can see. Soccer authorities have been way too slow to adopt modern technology. In any event, I’m looking forward to watching lots of great soccer during the next month. For those of you who don’t like the sport, just change the channel and let the rest of us enjoy ourselves.

    • Bayview Herb

      Actually, I thought you would catch on to the fact that I’m a generation older than you. I did speak for myself and others of my age.If it existed somewhere other than the pacific nw, I wasn’t aware of it.

      • Bayview Herb

        Oh well, like many other issues, I guess people in their 60’s and 70’s don’t count. Seattle bet you never saw Al Lyons hit one out of Sick Seattle stadium for the Seattle Rainiers, or Cupie Dick Berrett throwing a non-no. I bet you don’t remember that Lou Pinella was a Seattle Pilot either. Not every thing in history happened in your young lifetime.

        • Bayview Herb

          I don’t suppose you have ever heard of Leo Lassen, the voice of the Rainiers, either. Don’t confuse your youthful ignorance with logic.

        • art thiel

          Herb, it was Kewpie Dick Barrett. I know my Rainiers history. Don’t be so defensive. Every child remembers best and mostly fondly the sports figures of his or her youth. Plain old human nature, as it is for youth to scoff at the pleasures and passions of elders.

          As don’t confuse logic with sports fandom. If we relied on logic, there would be no sports.

    • art thiel

      Doug, many sports have come and gone that have followings. But as I said below, no country has had the size and wealth in the middle class as America. We developed many interests, while numerous countries locked on to one, primarily because it was the cheapest and easiest to stage. Americans indulged its own passions. Nothing wrong with either way.

  • hockeypuck

    @jafabian – if soccer had such an impact (ala the sounders) in the 70s and 80s why did the team fold and the NASL close its doors. Please don’t romanticize your childish fantasies…..

  • RadioGuy

    Klinsmann was being totally honest. FIFA did us no favors by putting us in the Group of Death (the overall draw this year shows little balance from group to group), and Jurgen is wise to temper expectations back home. He’s got the USMNT program on the right track but let’s face it: We AREN’T ready to take our place among the Brazils and Germanys right now. Like Ric Flair (of all people) used to say, “If you want to BE the best, you’ve got to BEAT the best.” We’re not there quite yet.

    BTW, no fan of soccer, hockey, cricket or any other sport HAS to defend their support. Nobody forces anyone to watch the Sounders, the Storm or even the Seattle Mist. If you like what you’re watching, that’s its own reward. If you don’t like it, shut up and change the channel.

    • art thiel

      Honesty has never had much place with teams, leagues and conferences (see Root and the Pac-12 Nets). Besides, Klinsmann may have said one thing for public consumption and another thing for team consumption.

      You’re right about the defensiveness. Such an auto-reflex among soccer fans

  • 3 Lions

    Klinsman was just stating the obvious. If we get out of the group it will be a major accomplishment. After that, anything can happen. I thought Wilbon’s statement was more alarming & resentful. At least the tournament is getting quality coverage now, thanks ESPN.

    • art thiel

      I was surprised to see Wilbon go all love-it-or-leave-it. And Klinsmann didn’t saying anything others have said about the wrongness of paying for past performance.