NATAL, Brazil – The United States men's national team flew Friday into this rainy beach town, home to the world's largest cashew tree – the monster, they say, stretches longer and wider than a soccer field.
The Americans are planning neither surfing nor sightseeing, of course, because what awaits them Monday is not just an important World Cup opener or even a Ghana team that's beaten them the last two World Cups.
[Related: Preview United States vs. Ghana ]
This is the first moment of the referendum on the reign of national coach Jurgen Klinsmann, as the German-born, California-settled bulldozer attempts to boldly remake U.S. Soccer into what he believes can one day be a global power.
This has meant infinite changes, many small, some significant and none more a touchstone to the public than one that determined who wasn't on the plane here as much as who was. That Landon Donovan is home offering analysis on cable television is anything but breaking news, but it still hangs as a backdrop to all which is to come.
Some pundits have wondered if this American team might fail to score a single goal in group play, essentially bowing out with nary a whimper. While such a dramatic silencing seems unlikely, concern over from where scoring is going to come is legitimate.
If the offense fails to take shape, then Klinsmann must deal with fan gripes about Donovan, even if that may be based on visions of past play more than the reality of what the 32-year-old could've offered today. The coach knew this, though, and made his choice anyway. You don't just dump arguably the nation's best and most accomplished player – its all-time leading scorer and owner of five World Cup goals, which is more than Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo combined.
Conversely, if the U.S. can attack with speed and show results, especially getting strong play from younger players, then Klinsmann will be hailed as a visionary and his plan to reinvent almost every facet of soccer in America will be emboldened.
[Related: Klinsmann opts for youth on U.S. roster ]
There's more, of course. While Klinsmann has famously [and accurately] said that the U.S. can't win this World Cup, that doesn't mean there aren't goals to determine success. Getting out of the group would suffice but that almost assuredly won't happen if the Americans lose Monday. Even a draw would be perilous, what with tougher foes Portugal and Germany waiting.
All of which sets up one of the more intriguing U.S. games in awhile, the culmination of years of debate, hires, fires, cuts, additions, arguments and mostly the realization that this is Klinsmann's ship right now and a reminder that he is exactly what so many American fans wanted. Can they be patient, though?
Klinsmann, they'll tell you across the game, is a man of immense self-confidence, so much so that he'd rather stumble than change. There is no Plan B here.
A skilled player for then-West Germany, the now 49-year-old became the national coach prior to a unified Germany hosting the 2006 World Cup. He changed the culture of the club from a defensive-first system to one built on attacking at all times. The Germans finished third and it's that result, and that transformation, that so attracted not just U.S. Soccer but so much grassroots support.
In 2008, Klinsmann took over the head coaching job at Bayern Munich, one of the powers of the German Bundesliga. His attempts to change things there ran into entrenched resistance and roadblocks. That he was fired didn't hurt his reputation. If anything, it solidified him as a man with the resolve to take on big challenges, unconcerned about his popularity or employment status.
With the U.S., Klinsmann is trying to reverse decades of play that was mostly based on defense, strong goalkeeping, counter-attacking and waiting for our burgeoning youth system to produce a generation of internationally elite playmakers and finishers. The talent has never arrived, though, and the style of play seemed to produce a glass ceiling for success – occasionally good but rarely something to be taken seriously.
So, armed with a $3 million-a-year contract that stretches through the 2018 World Cup, Klinsmann is trying to rewire American soccer down to the developmental level all while shaking up a national team by pushing for aggressiveness and confidence.
[Related: U.S. roster has German flavor ]
The coach believes a national team should represent the ethos of its country and Klinsmann, who has lived in Southern California since 1998, rightly sees the U.S. as driven to be the best of the best, by any means necessary. It doesn't sit back and wait. It doesn't much like mediocrity.
"That means you have to be proactive, you can't react," he told Time magazine.
When asked what Klinsmann was stressing with him, right back DeAndre Yedlin was succinct.
"To attack," he said.
[Related: DeAndre Yedlin is inspired by Dani Alves ]
Attack what he sees as weaknesses is what Klinsmann has done. So out went Donovan, the name veteran star. In came more dual nationals, including some from Germany, who have been trained in what Klinsmann believes is a European club model that is superior to the American high school and college system.
Every player, no matter how good or experienced, gets messed with and motivated – "We need everybody so that's the point why we have to push everybody," Jermaine Jones said – and the team is constantly being shook up by its coach. No one is truly certain what the starting 11 will be, although that may be coming into focus. "We've kind of seen it in training," center back Matt Besler said.
Of course, with Klinsmann, they never know for sure.
This all sounds good. This all seems right. It all feels like an experiment worth taking.
However, if Klinsmann has spent the time in America studying the preferences of the populace, then he also must understand that the United States is a results-oriented culture, particularly in sports.
Talk is cheap. Plans and promises are just the stuff of press conferences and talk radio. That he was at all surprised by the backlash of saying the U.S. couldn't win – even if it realistically can't – was, in itself, surprising. He should've known better.
The truth is, no one back home – far from this poor, little resort town and its big cashew tree – are demanding the Cup. And no one is pushing harder, or risking their reputation more, to achieve [eventually] a level of greatness of the USMNT that exceeds historical precedent than Klinsmann.
Still, a beacon toward that future would be appreciated. A victory, some goals, proof that leaving Donovan to ESPN was wise … just any kind of sign of that Klinsmann's cage-rattling might work in the long haul is what fans are seeking.
Monday is just one World Cup game for a low-expectation national team.
It is also so much more than that.
- Sports & Recreation
- Jurgen Klinsmann
- World Cup 2014
- Landon Donovan