Klinsmann the optimist looks forward to 2014

Posted by Roger Bennett

SANTA MONICA, CA -- Jurgen Klinsmann is typically a high-energy kind of guy. So when we meet last week at the beginning of the U.S. team's January training camp, it is no surprise to find him in crackling form with the World Cup five months away.

"I'm excited [2014] has started, a World Cup year is the most special kind you can have in professional soccer," he declares as we sit down. Yet one month after being drawn alongside Ghana, Portugal and Germany in the Hammergruppe of Group G, the coach's natural optimism has become tinged with a detectable touch of realism. Spirited and focused one minute, he becomes relaxed and almost laissez-faire the next.

As Klinsmann talks about the emotions he will experience singing both the American and German national anthems ahead of the two nations' final group game in Recife on June 26, the reason for this fluctuating approach becomes evident. The coach has tapped into the two sides of his identity, fusing the rigorous planning of a German with a Californian's "go with the flow" spirit.

The approach makes perfect strategic sense. Having been dealt a trifecta of cruel challenges by the Gods of the World Cup Draw -- brutal opponents, a soul-grinding travel schedule, and unforgiving climates ranging from "hot" and "swampy hot" to "searing" -- Klinsmann knows success as an international manager revolves around his awareness of exactly what can, and cannot, be controlled.

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"I call this tournament the 'World Cup of Patience,'" he reveals. "Because of the Brazilian style of life, there will be a lot of surprises waiting. ... It's not going to be a perfect World Cup for anybody."

Klinsmann has determined that being ready to roll with the punches is what Brazil 2014 will be all about, but the good news is that the U.S. coach remains confident.

"I'm pretty sure we are going to make it through to the [knockout] round," he says. "Nothing will be laid out perfectly. Nothing [in Brazil] will be kind of the German way of 2006 where everything was on time and ironed out. There will be delays and logistical challenges with the hotels, fields, stadiums or whatever."

A competitive advantage will exist for the U.S. because of this chaos, not despite it. "We have an outsider role in our group because Portugal and Germany are the big favorites," Klinsmann admits before adding, with a beaming smile:

"I think it is still possible for us to go eye-to-eye with the big nations and give them real games even if it is difficult climate zones or circumstances. The more we are able to adjust quicker than the other ones to those circumstances... to prepare ourselves on a higher level physically and mentally, the more we have a chance to beat them."

The Mindset: "Cristiano Ronaldo will have to deal with it too"

As Klinsmann discusses logistics in Sao Paulo, the task of monitoring players across the U.S., Mexico and Europe while also lining up tactically appropriate African and European opponents for three pre-tournament friendlies, the meticulousness of his approach becomes clear: what is being established is a complex, multi-continent operation.

"The real challenge is how to put the pieces together and build this parcel," Klinsmann explains enthusiastically. "We are already working on logistical solutions. Maybe we won't be going back to our base camp and going straight from one game to the next to cut down travel. Any big sport coach will tell you 50 percent of everything is to be prepared."

Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty ImagesKlinsmann and the United States face Ronaldo's Portugal in Manaus on June 22.

I wonder how one goes about preparing to play an unprecedented game of World Cup football in Manaus' rainforest conditions -- as the U.S. will against Portugal -- causing Klinsmann to smile.

"I asked my friend [former Brazil coach] Carlos Parreira right after the draw," he admits. "He told me 'you can't prepare for the Amazon. You just have to live it and know ... Cristiano Ronaldo will have to deal with it too.'"

Klinsmann laughs at the surreal nature of this predicament before revealing his rainforest gambit. "We’re going to prepare the best way possible but know at certain moments we will just have to take in all the humidity and heat and say [to our opponents] eye-to-eye, 'We're going to beat you now.'"

The Opponents: "On a God-given day we can beat big nations"

Klinsmann talks enthusiastically about the opposition research in which his coaching team has become immersed, and allows himself a chuckle when asked how he plans to analyze the Germans.

"The staff I'm going to face now in the group stage is basically the staff I built," he says, referring to the coaches and squad he led to the 2006 semifinals. Why then, I wondered, has Germany failed to build on that success and win some silverware?

"Once you reach the final four of a big tournament, it’s a mental game about who is more hungry ... and who has a player who wants to make a difference and put his stamp on the tournament -- [Zinedine] Zidane in 1998 or Ronaldo in 2002," he says. "So far Germany did not have that one player or collectively the real hunger."

As a player, Klinsmann scored 11 World Cup goals in 17 games, and he taps into that experience when asked to comment on the 39.9 percent chance that ESPN's Soccer Power Index calculates his team has to reach the elimination round in Brazil.

"In the World Cup, you need to be ready to go through two months of extreme stress, problem-solving and high tension, to be a team that is ready to go through thick and thin," he explains.

"It does not matter if your odds are 40 percent or 10 percent. We know on a God-given day we can beat big nations. We just have to time it extremely well so it happens in June 2014, and that’s why I am not scared about Ghana, Portugal or Germany."

"I am focused on how do I get these players really primed, mentally and physically, so the odds turn towards our favor."

The Squad Selection: "A puzzle that must be pieced together"

With his players scattered across the globe with their domestic clubs, I wonder exactly how much preparation Klinsmann is able to do day-to-day.

"Based on the FIFA calendar there is not much we can do, especially with the European players," he acknowledges. "We get them once for three days (in March) so regular communication is key."

The coach does not hesitate when asked what his message is, responding almost by rote: "Whatever you do today already has a little, tiny influence on what happens five and six months down the road. That includes your life off the field, not just on it."

I enquire whether the coach has yet told any of the players they are going to Brazil? "Nope," Klinsmann replies, tight-lipped, pausing for a beat before repeating the word again with a giggle.

"There are 14, 15, or 16 players [I] have a clear picture of [up from the 10 he revealed in Panama City three months ago] but there is a lot of movement, and we have until May to decide."

The coach consistently refers to the selection task as an evaluative "puzzle that must be pieced together." Players starting in the Norwegian or Belgian Leagues must be compared with those who are Bundesliga squad players or returning from injury in Mexico.

"You have to balance it out and ask yourself: What does he bring to our team right now?" The German draws out the possessive pronoun to reinforce the sense of collective.

"It is very tricky. Someone who is not playing in his Bundesliga team may have a lack of fitness coming into our team, but he will have qualities in another front that we really miss here."

The "puzzle" is further complicated as it takes place at a time of reverse migration when many of the United States' most experienced players have chosen to leave Europe and rejoin MLS.

In the past, Klinsmann has repeatedly stressed how important it is for American players to test themselves in the crucible of Europe’s elite leagues, yet Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley have recently returned and Jermaine Jones is rumored to be eager to follow them.

The net effect of exilic return en masse is a concern. "You want your players to be standouts in their club teams. You want them to be clearly defined as international players in their club teams," he says before hinting at his central preoccupation: to get his players challenged on the highest level possible over the next five months.

Jozy Altidore is one of the few who is living this experience, and despite the striker's lack of goals, Klinsmann talks positively about a recent visit he made to Sunderland.

"[Jozy] knew the jump from the Dutch league to the Premier League is huge, especially because the way [Sunderland] play their games, he does not get many chances to score. He will fight his way through ... his goals will come in the Premier League, and I feel very positive we’ll have such a hungry Jozy Altidore going into the World Cup."

Jamie McDonald/Getty ImagesDempsey has started two games for Fulham since returning to his former club on loan.

Clint Dempsey is another player to receive praise. The National Team captain may have only scored once in five months for Seattle and Fulham, yet Klinsmann claims to harbor no concerns:

"I am not worried about Clint at all. I am happy he is not at January camp. He made the right decision to challenge himself, go back on two months' loan to Fulham and get a Premier League schedule in for the next two months to get a rhythm, come back with match fitness, and start on the right foot with MLS and lead into the World Cup."

The Opportunity: "Show the world how good you are"

Klinsmann had previously made a point of urging his MLS players to follow Dempsey's example and seek a loan experience in Europe, and the coach is candid when asked why none did.

"There is no demand," he says curtly. "Players like Graham Zusi, Matt Besler or Omar Gonzalez, they have to work harder to get the opportunity to be in that picture with teams in Europe for a short period of time and maybe later on for a long period of time. It is just a sign of reality. The demand is not there."

Such honesty stings, yet the coach quickly recovers his upbeat tone. "I also see how working in camp with MLS players is a great positive,” he explains.

"To have them be fresh going into the World Cup [when] other nations will have players who have a 10- or 11-month season behind them and have to pump themselves up again."

The coach appears to lose himself momentarily as he finishes his point, switching pronouns as if suddenly in the locker room addressing the players about an opportunity he calls "the biggest of their lifetimes."

"Show the world how good you are ... surprise a lot of people, make a name for yourself during a World Cup in Brazil, the five-time champion. It does not get better! Take that opportunity!"

They do not have long to wait. I ask the Goppingen-born Klinsmann how he expects to feel when the Americans take on Germany?

"It will be a special day," he smiles. "We will be playing my old team. Hopefully by then we will have a couple of points already and looking really good. I will sing both national anthems but for me it is about competition. I love to compete."

As if reveling in the moment, Jurgen Klinsmann drags out the words "I would love to beat Germany." The width of his smile suggests few in America want that more.

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