As World Cup begins, tough love from U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann


(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Sports coaches are legendary for spouting lofty promises, many seemingly irrational at the time, to bring home big wins and championship rings

Not this one.

Jürgen Klinsmann, a veteran German player and coach who is the first foreigner to lead the U.S. men's national soccer team in 16 years, is taking heat for saying Wednesday that “for us talking about winning a World Cup, it’s just not realistic." He went on to say the team was getting stronger, and better, but he didn't back off. "Today, even before the World Cup starts, to say we should win? It's just not realistic."

That's some way to inspire a team on the eve of the game's biggest event. So what's Klinsmann trying to do? Use reverse psychology as motivation? Annoy sports writers who claim he's "apologiz[ing] for losing before the game even starts"? Raise the profile of a second-tier sport in the United States by injecting some controversy? Dial down expectations for the people who pay his sizable salary?

Perhaps a little of all of these. But if one reads a trio of recent profiles in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the New Yorker about Klinsmann's management style, it becomes clearer what the comment reflects. This is a leader trying to inject bold change.

It was the Times article that first caused an uproar over Klinsmann's choice of candid words. In the piece, Klinsmann again chose to be a truth-teller (the odds of a U.S. win are, to be fair, very, very low) rather than a motivational speaker. "We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet," he said, adding that to win the tournament, the U.S. team would "have to play the game of our lives seven times. ... Realistically, it is not possible."

To get to that level, Klinsmann wants to change the makeup of his team, recruiting more Americans who play soccer in Europe, where the competition is tougher, rather than those in the U.S. professional league. He wants to change the control he has over operations, and has begun doing so — building a larger support staff, investing in a pre-World Cup training camp in Brazil, and gaining the latitude to do things like add yoga into practice routines and analyze players' blood work.

He also wants to shift the self-satisfaction that's existed among American teams in the past and the reverence the country has for its sports stars. Klinsmann has said he thought players were too proud for simply making it out of the group stage in the 2010 World Cup. And as he told the New Yorker, "if the players think they’re already higher up than they actually are, then it’s very easy for me to explain to them that they are not anywhere yet."

Klinsmann has taken controversial steps to show they shouldn't get special treatment. In May, he shocked the U.S. soccer world by cutting from the World Cup roster American legend Landon Donovan, who earlier took a sabbatical of sorts from the sport. "He came back, and he was playing M.L.S., and people say, 'Oh, he's playing well,'" Klinsmann told the Times. "I watched the games. What was I supposed to say? That he was good? He was not good. Not then. No way. So he had to wait.”

Will his matter-of-fact approach work? It could potentially heighten the level of play — and the level of interest in U.S. soccer — by injecting a team that has a distinctly American style of play with a more European approach to management. It will be interesting to watch whether a coach whose style has been described as everything from "unorthodox" to "reckless" and even "menacing" can inspire and motivate his team to play at their best.

We won't know how well his leadership tactics work until this World Cup, and likely the next one, gets underway. But if nothing else, we do know that Klinsmann seems unafraid of pushing for real change.

Read also:

Pia Sundhage: U.S. women's soccer's other VIP

The leadership style of Miami Hurricanes coach Jim Larranaga

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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