Jurgen Klinsmann keeps it real. That's why he said it's "not realistic" for the U.S. national team to win the World Cup. While such a quote will always find its way to infamy, it was the second half of his realness spree that gets to why his honesty struck such a raw nerve. Upon dismissing the chances of a team he was brought in to save, Klinsmann said, "If it is American or not, you can correct me." Dude, telling uncomfortable truths is so not American.
Boston Globe columnist Christopher Gasper let Klinsmann know what's up when he wrote that the coach's comments are "not the American way." Freshly minted ESPN personality Landon Donovan -- whom Klinsmann had left off the national side -- offered, "We believe that we will win," as his analysis of Klinsmann's supposed broadside. Donovan's pettiness here is only enhanced by his pointed use of "we" in relation to Klinsmann, a native German who has accomplished more than any American ever has, both as a player and as a coach. Tellingly, both Donovan and Gasper resorted to stroking the American ego, rather than stating a truth unfavorable to their nationalism.
The truth is that the history of the U.S. men's national team is best told as Sideshow Bob slowly navigating a field of rakes, cringing every step of the way. A third-place finish at the inaugural World Cup in 1930 remains the team's best result, and in the decades since, U.S. men's soccer has become the sport's easiest punch line. At the same time, within the U.S., soccer itself became the punch line. The insecurity of seeing the U.S. side so routinely embarrass itself on the world's biggest sporting stage manifested as a xenophobic superiority complex. The problem just can't be America, of course, so the problem must be everyone else.
Delusions aside, the problem is America, and it's one that Klinsmann is hell-bent on solving, no matter how it makes anyone feel. Out of context, a coach discounting his own team's chances seems self-defeating, but Klinsmann is dealing with a historically sub-mediocre team whose best two current players, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey, abandoned promising international careers for easy stardom in the vastly inferior MLS. While the politics of Klinsmann's role have tempered his past criticism of the MLS, Klinsmann remains pointed in his belief that MLS players are at a fitness disadvantage in the World Cup. True or not, there should be no controversy in saying that elite players come out of elite leagues, which explains why Klinsmann is rebuking the precedent by Bradley and Dempsey. That precedent, if followed by the team's younger players, would set back the progress Klinsmann has made by doing things his way.
When Klinsmann became the U.S. coach in July 2011, he took over a team that was stuck playing a dull and dreadfully unimaginative type of soccer, one that simply doesn't work at the world level. In less than three years, Klinsmann's stewardship has seen the U.S. show flashes of legitimately world-class play. The hopeless long balling of old is fading away, as the U.S. develops the disciplined, aggressive style of play common to elite teams. For this, Klinsmann has been criticized every step of the way. The same man who led an overdue youth movement, transforming a sagging German side, now struggles for any good will from an American media and fan base wary of his foreign leadership. This is the doctrine of American exceptionalism in the sports realm, where binary outcomes so easily bruise the world's largest ego -- the American ego.
It should be no surprise that the U.S. was ranked as the world's most patriotic country by the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. This despite the fact that the U.S. has the world's highest incarceration rate and a below-average school system. We're only the world's 17th happiest population, but we believe America is the best country in the world, because that's been the core American belief since day one. If the enormous and as-yet-unpaid debts of colonialism and slavery couldn't break that belief, then clearly there's no shame too great for the American consciousness. American exceptionalism is a mask of superiority, hiding the insecurities of a culture unwilling to reckon with itself. Why else would there be such a need to mock the world's most beloved sport?
Any number of recent articles demonstrate America's soccer envy, but none mock Ghanaian children dying of malaria quite like Clay Travis' column for Fox Sports. His other punch lines involve World War II sex slavery, the Greek economic collapse and an on-the-fly fable about a monkey stealing the crown of Cameroon's non-existent king. The piece is, of course, a half-assed try at satire, written by someone who sees satire as a free pass to vent racist insecurities. To his credit, Tim Cavanaugh of the National Review sets aside any pretense of humor in declaring soccer "the official sport of terrorism," even as the U.S. conducts an extralegal drone program that has claimed more than 2,400 lives in the last five years alone. Either way, these xenophobic messages are necessary to maintain American self-perception. If anything, Klinsmann is lucky no one's found a way to blame him for the crash of our housing market.
An expected failure in the "Group of Death" may provide tinder for such claims, but Klinsmann is playing a long game against America's insecurities. He's under contract through 2018, and it's the next World Cup, not this one, that will decide his place in American soccer history. Seven years is an awfully short time to remake a national team that hasn't done much of anything in 84 years, but any measure of trust in Klinsmann is something of a revolutionary act, in a culture that values itself to the point of self-harm. To his credit, Klinsmann gives no deference to the insecurities he inflames. American exceptionalism is foreign to Klinsmann's mind, thankfully, which is why he's willing to be more honest than many of the Americans who cover and cheer for the national side.
After decades of empty promises and false revolutions, it took a German to state the obvious: "We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet."
The sooner the U.S. side accepts its ignorance on matters of world-class soccer, the sooner it will become a team capable of competing at that level. To what extent that is even possible will come down to Klinsmann's ability to foster a counter-culture, one that rejects American standards of unchecked self-confidence and middling results. Still, not even a World Cup will do much to make us as happy as the average Canadian, and they're terrible at soccer.