For Klinsmann, the Gold Cup begins vs. Costa Rica

Posted by Roger Bennett

HARTFORD, Conn. -- "The Gold Cup hasn't started for us yet," Jurgen Klinsmann says shortly after bounding into a Hartford hotel room with sufficient energy to single-handedly dismantle the opponents his teams have faced thus far. "With Belize and Cuba, all due respect to both nations, we got the two weakest teams in the competition."

I sought out the USMNT coach for a "Gold Cup reality check." Five months ago, the sky was falling after his team appeared clueless in Honduras, limping away from its first World Cup qualifier with a 2-1 defeat. The U.S. has not lost a competitive game since. Klinsmann's squad survived the Azteca, found Jozy Altidore's scoring mojo and even mustered the illusion of squad depth along the way.

In this Gold Cup, the U.S. has scored for fun, blasting four goals in three consecutive games for the first time in team history. Yet, if a sense of optimism is beginning to surge, Klinsmann refuses to get carried away. "We're far away from where we should be," he says. "A year away from the World Cup, we're still going through a transition phase."

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As Klinsmann is well aware, Guatemala's FIFA ranking is 93, Belize's 130 and Cuba's 82. "The risk is that it gives you a false picture," he says of the United States' current run. "We need badly this game with Costa Rica [Tuesday, 8 p.m. ET] to see where we are. And then start very, very seriously in the quarterfinal stage."

Talk Gold Cup with Klinsmann, and it becomes clear: The CONCACAF extravaganza is part tournament, part audition, an American footballing version of "America's Got Talent" in which individual players can seek to shine within the confines of a game. When asked who has caught his attention, the German coach deflects for a moment before launching into his analysis. "Mix Diskerud," he says with a twinkle in his eye as he thinks about the Norwegian-born midfielder who looks like Steve McManaman's kid brother. "I think he has a special talent."

Klinsmann is also notably quick to defend the lethargic Brek Shea. "Some people thought he had a very bad game against Cuba," he says. "I didn't see it that way. He is coming back one step at a time." When asked whether Landon Donovan has shown enough to warrant a recall to September's squad, Klinsmann smiles. "I think that he just needs to catch up," he says. "Landon knows that Belize, Cuba and Guatemala are not the benchmarks. It's going to be the upcoming games and hopefully a final against Mexico which everybody hopes to see."

The coach has a similar take on Chris Wondolowski, the scourge of the Gold Cup and the man who has become the USMNT's new goal machine over the past three games. His six-goal glut makes Klinsmann beam, yet he remains realistic even when asked whether the Kyle Beckerman-to-Wondo combination is morphing into an American version of Neymar-to-Fred -- only with better hair. "First of all, we are thrilled for Wondo that he scores goals. He was waiting a long time for that," he says, before putting the achievement into clear perspective. "Is the benchmark Belize and Cuba? No. And he knows that; he's realistic, too. The risk is that it gives you a false picture."

Stuart Holden has talked glowingly about Klinsmann, a "master motivator" whose visits to Bolton during the player's long rehabilitation gave him the confidence to return. Klinsmann has been impressed with Holden mentally and physically. "With every training session he's getting more confident, more his old personality where he wants to get the ball wherever he is," he says. "We will see a lot more from Stuart Holden in the upcoming games, and hopefully we can send him off back to England with a trophy and with a clear signal to his club that he’s back."

When I challenged Klinsmann to choose between winning the trophy or identifying three talent-soaked players who will make the World Cup squad, the German coach eludes my questioning, working out how to have his Gold Cup cake and eat it, too. "You want to win the trophy … because it could get you to the Confederations Cup in 2016, and those are the competitions you badly need in order to grow," he says, before adding with a cryptic smile, "I'm more than confident that more than three players out of this roster will be in the World Cup roster."

Seizing that opening, I ask the coach how much the World Cup plays on his mind: Does he ever dream of Clint Dempsey lifting the trophy at the Maracana? He chuckles and says, "To be honest, no, I don't have those dreams -- yet. First of all we want to qualify -- and then we want to surprise people in Brazil. We want to go down there and kick some backsides."

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