Jurgen Klinsmann mixes German, U.S. experiences to lead U.S. team at the World Cup

The U.S. national team has a good chance of making it to the round of 16 of the World Cup. It's tied for the lead in Group G with Germany, who it will play next. Both teams have four points. Portugal and Ghana each have one point. Here’s how the Americans can advance to the knockout round. (Tom LeGro and Marissa Payne/The Washington Post)

The soccer analysts can debate the finer points, but the style and demeanor — that stern look, that tuft of blonde hair — is neither German nor American. The U.S. men’s national soccer team coach can be icy and serious in the heat of competition, but after a big win, everyone knows who’s coming into the locker room and cranking up the music.

“Sometimes Germans can be a little bit cold, don’t really smile, don’t seem like they’re having a good time,” U.S. midfielder DaMarcus Beasley said. “But Jurgen is a whole different breed.”

Jurgen Klinsmann is living the American dream with a German accent, and if Norman Rockwell ever did soccer, Klinsmann would’ve made for a fascinating nouveau Americana subject. He can stroll around the boardwalk back home in Newport Beach, Calif., and barely draw a curious eye. His English is fine, his mannerisms unremarkable. His wife is a former model from California, and his son is committed to playing soccer for California-Berkeley starting next year.

But despite his address for the past 16 years, Klinsmann is most definitely German, a fact especially inescapable this week as the U.S. coach prepared to face his former team. He played soccer under the German flag, winning the World Cup in 1990, and returned to coach the national squad in the 2006 World Cup. And now, at the precipice of 50, there’s nothing he wants more than for his adopted homeland to defeat the country of his birth. The United States’ chances at advancing in this World Cup hinge largely on Thursday’s result.

“My family will be a little bit split,” he said Wednesday, “the folks in Germany and my folks in the U.S.”

But for him, there is no identity crisis or internal conflict. As with most things, Klinsmann seems confident and at ease. He is, after all, someone who’s been comfortable having a foot in two continents — who for a stretch commuted from his home on the West Coast to his coaching job nearly 6,000 miles away in Germany. A younger Klinsmann drove a German car — a 1967 Volkswagen Beetle — and famously had a sticker affixed that featured Snoopy in a rowboat. Ist es noch weit bis Amerika? it read — “Is it much farther to America?”

After just three years, his players don’t see him as a former German star or a successful German coach. There are no cultural gaps left to bridge.

“He’s American now,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said.

When Klinsmann’s decorated playing career ended in 1998, he moved to Orange County. He was able to lead a much more anonymous life there, and when it came to soccer, the pressures were wholly different.

“The expectations in Germany are very simple: They’ve always got to win it,” he said. “Otherwise, they are disappointed. That’s just how it is. Third place or second place doesn’t mean much to the fans and the people there.”

He continued coaching in Germany and, with the national team, instilled a disciplined, attacking brand of soccer. He was the one who hired Joachim Loew, the team’s current head coach, as an assistant in 2004.

Klinsmann helped stabilize the German squad, leading it to the World Cup semifinals in 2006 before stepping aside.

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Loew took over and built on the foundation his predecessor had laid, taking Germany to the finals of Euro 2008 and the semifinals of the 2010 World Cup. Among German fans, Loew was largely credited with being a tactician and Klinsmann the motivator, a characterization the U.S. coach has never been particularly fond of.

“I hope by now I know a little about tactics,” he chuckled this week.

Back home in the United States, Klinsmann became a big target on the U.S. Soccer Federation’s radar, and when Bob Bradley was shown the door in 2011, Klinsmann was given the reins to the national team.

“I’m extremely proud to have this role to lead the U.S. team into this World Cup and also into the future,” he said Wednesday. “It’s great times for soccer in the United States.”

U.S. soccer officials became so enamored with Klinsmann that they surprised many in December by extending his contract through the 2018 World Cup, a big vote of confidence considering the 2014 World Cup was still six months away.

“It’s not just about a game or the result or we wouldn’t have made the decision in December,” explained Sunil Gulati, the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation. “It’s about everything we’re seeing, where the program is heading, the message that’s going out from top to bottom. It’s about player development, and you’ll see Jurgen more involved in those sorts of things in this next cycle.”

Twenty-four years after winning a World Cup for Germany, Klinsmann has in many ways become the face of U.S. soccer, his profile surpassing most American players. He recently made waves when he told a New York Times reporter he didn’t think it was realistic for the U.S. team to win this World Cup. On the eve of the tournament, he doubled down on his comments, telling a packed room of reporters, “It is just not realistic,” troubling U.S. fans and sports analysts back home.

“If it’s American or not American, I don’t know,” Klinsmann said. “You can correct me however you want.”

Klinsmann’s U.S. bosses didn’t seem fazed. They said their head coach communicates more subtly.

“He exudes confidence,” Gulati said. “The comments that he made about, ‘We can’t’ — finish that sentence in any way — that’s not what he ever believes. That’s not the sort of guy he is. . . . He never says you’re going to win the World Cup. He’s just so confident about it. I think that’s extraordinary.”

Gulati said Klinsmann brings three things to the table that other coaches may be lacking: confidence, exuberance and experience. The German team is certainly aware of these qualities. Klinsmann and Loew remain close friends. They share meals and phone calls, talking about life on the field and off.

“It’s more than just a working relationship,” Klinsmann said. “It’s a very close friendship with a lot of admiration.”

Despite much speculation, each coach scoffs at the idea of gentlemen’s agreement that would result in a tie Thursday, which would automatically send both teams to the tournament’s next round. Both coaches say they haven’t been chatting or texting in the days leading up to the game. There will be plenty of time for that later.

“For me personally, this is a game against another national team, just like any other national team,” Loew said. “It’s the third match in the group phase, and it’s a decisive game. Will we go forward to the next round or not? That doesn’t have much to do with the coach.”

Klinsmann is more reflective. Thursday’s match encompasses who he is and who he was, connecting the mile markers of his professional and personal lives. It also, he hopes, provides a road map of sorts for the future.

“There is no doubt that it’s a special moment,” he said, “because it’s the team that you start building, the group of people that you got around and they are all in place still. So I will give them big hugs before the game and then leave to the side. We’re going to get the job done, and we’re going to give a farewell hug again after the game.”

Rick Maese is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.
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