Klinsmann Is Right: US Soccer Can't Win World Cup, and It's OK to Agree

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Klinsmann Is Right: US Soccer Can't Win World Cup, and It's OK to Agree
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If you've watched a U.S. men's national team soccer match over the last dozen or so years, you surely know the popular refrain coming from the loyal travelers in the stands of every game around the world. Say it with me now, folks.

I. "I."

I believe. "I believe."

I believe that we will win. "I believe that we will win. I believe that we will win."

(Insert record player screeching sound here.)

Wait a minute. No I don't. I don't believe that we will win. And neither do you.

Nobody really believes that the United States will win the World Cup, not even the team's head coach. And that is just fine, so let's stop acting like it's not.

The American media are up in arms that Jurgen Klinsmann has said several times—both in December for a now-famous New York Times Magazine piece that ran in June and in his preliminary press conference in Brazil—that the United States team cannot win the World Cup. Because it can't.

I believe that we won't win, and that's OK, because for most countries, the idea of going into the World Cup with a realistic chance to win the event is ludicrous.

Shouldn’t we be happy that our coach isn't delusional? Shouldn't we appreciate the fact that he's not blowing smoke at the American fans—both dedicated and casual—by suggesting this team has a chance to win this tournament when we haven't been to the semifinals since 1930?

This week when asked again about the chances of winning the World Cup, Klinsmann didn't backtrack off his comments, saying the team needs to keep its collective feet on the ground and worry about getting out of the group, then "the sky is the limit."

It's amazing, frankly, that this is a story, and it feels like something only a classically conditioned American sports fan would even bother turning into an issue, but it's an issue nonetheless.

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I've done about a dozen radio interviews in every corner of this country over the last three days, and the first question anyone asks (other than one about Landon Donovan, of course) is why Klinsmann would say the United States can't win.

Alexi Lalas—one of the most famous soccer players in our country's relatively short and pedestrian history—chided Klinsmann on ESPN for saying what he said. Hell, ESPN even got Landon Donovan to go on the air and rip Klinsmann for saying what he said.

Do Lalas, Donovan and the rest of the talking heads around the country really disagree with Klinsmann?

Of course not. 

If anyone with any brain about this game says the United States has a chance to win this World Cup, he or she is lying. And he or she is only saying it to prove a point that's not even worth proving.

Look at the path the United States will have to win the World Cup.

First, the USMNT must get out of the Group of Death with Ghana, Portugal and Germany. Lalas has been on record saying he doesn't think the U.S. will even advance to the knockout stage. At least I believe they will get out of the group, putting Klinsmann's charges in a match against the winner of Group H, which will most likely be Belgium or Russia.

Get past one of them—definitely possible if the U.S. can manage to get out of a group with tougher opponents than either one of those teams—and the side waiting is almost certainly going to be Argentina, home of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero and one of the best attacking forces on the planet.

Sure, the U.S. could get lucky and face France or maybe even Switzerland in that match, but somehow getting through any of those teams would most likely put the United States in the semifinals against Spain, Netherlands, Uruguay or Italy. Winning that match will put the Americans into the World Cup Final, where they would likely face either host nation Brazil or get a rematch with Germany.

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Quite literally, having to face Ghana, Portugal, Germany, Belgium, Argentina, Spain or Uruguay then Brazil or Germany in the final would be the toughest road any World Cup competitor has this year.

Add in the 9,000 miles the team is traveling in the group stage and the fact that, as good as the United States looked at times in the three build-up matches, there are still huge concerns in defence, and it's flat-out disrespectful and disingenuous to suggest to the American faithful that the U.S. can win the World Cup this year.

But that's not what this is about. This isn't about the fans thinking we can win. It's about our coach—a German transplant—daring to suggest we can't.

Some people don't want Klinsmann to be honest about his team's chances. They want him to be a cheerleader.

John Raoux/Associated Press

Of course we can win the World Cup this year, people want our coach to say. We're Americans. We can do anything.

We're Americans, dammit, and admitting defeat before we even have a chance to fight is not what this country is all about.

People who think Klinsmann was wrong to say we can't win are letting this ridiculous "America, f--k yeah" bravado cloud their sense of reality. "Why even show up if you don't think you can win" is the most insane argument ever, and it's the only one people who disagree with Klinsmann can come up with to convince fans that being realistic is a bad thing.

Do you want to know why you show up even if you think you can't win the World Cup? Well, for starters the goal for this team should be to get out of the group, something it can do. Beat Ghana, draw with Portugal and hold on for dear life against Germany and there is a good chance the USMNT will be playing again in the knockout stage. And then, as Klinsmann said, the sky is the limit.

More than that, however, you show up because you worked for four years to earn the right to show up. There are probably only six teams in a very deep field of 32 nations that have a real chance to win the World Cup. Should the other 26 have all just stayed home?

Admitting they can't win the tournament doesn't mean U.S. soccer isn't trying to win each match it plays. The Yanks get three games against tough opponents to prove their World Cup worth. Then—and only then—will they even start to think about winning the entire World Cup. Which they cannot do. And that's OK.

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The reason that's OK is because we knew going into the World Cup that this team isn't ready to compete with the top footballing nations in the world. The USMNT is not as talented as Brazil, as organized as Germany or as accomplished as Spain. It is not as energetic as Belgium, as dynamic as Argentina or as frenetic as Uruguay.

The U.S. is not any of that…yet. And that's why the U.S. should show up, and why we should be watching.

That's also my problem with all of the comments about Klinsmann's statement and all the column inches and several hours of sports talk on radio and TV that have been dedicated to ripping what he said.

We can't just show up to the biggest event in the world and expect to win it. We certainly can't look at the world of international football and expect that after four years with Klinsmann at the helm of a complete overhaul of the U.S. soccer system we will be able to compete with countries that have a history of World Cup success.

Can the United States win a World Cup at some point in the next 20 years? I truly believe it can, and I bet if someone asks Klinsmann that question, he would say it's far more likely than winning this one.

And still, his comments—and the idea of whether the U.S. can win the World Cup—is a story so much so that I had a radio host ask me this week, "If the coach doesn't think the team can win, why should I even bother watching?"

John Raoux/Associated Press

How many sports fans watch games on television and fill stadiums around the country when their favorite major sports teams have little to no chance to compete for a title?

How many college football fans pack stadiums even after their team has lost hope for an elite bowl game?

How many college basketball mid-majors go into the NCAA tournament with a real chance to make it to the Final Four? How many of those Cinderellas have actually won the title?

Do people only watch March Madness if their alma mater has a chance to win? Hell, the U.S. actually has a better chance of winning the World Cup than my alma mater has of even making it to the NCAA tournament—but I watch because it's exciting and fun and because sports are great.

Sports are great, and big sporting events the entire planet can watch together are the greatest.

Leo Correa/Associated Press

We should watch the World Cup for the fanfare and the sense of global community. We should watch it because the quality of the soccer is some of the best you will ever see, and pride for every nation is on the line during every single match—yes, even for the ones with no chance to win the World Cup.

It's OK if the United States doesn't win this World Cup, and it's just fine for Klinsmann to keep saying that. The team needs to show progress first. It has to show it can compete with the best nations in the world before it can worry about beating seven of them in a row.

Sure, winning would be absolutely amazing, but if it doesn't happen, it's not the end of the world, nor will it be the end of the nation's future World Cup dreams.

If you only want to watch international sporting events because you want to see the United States win, the World Cup isn't for you. Wait until the next Olympics, where we pretend to care about swimming and gymnastics once every four years because Americans win a lot of medals in those sports.

As for soccer, maybe we'll see you in four years. Or four years after that. Or maybe even eight years after that. We'll see you at some point, if winning is all that matters to you.

The United States will get to a point where winning a World Cup is realistic. This is not that year, and for most of us who love the game and love rooting for our country, that's just fine for now. It won't be just fine forever, but right now, it's still worth the ride.

 

Follow Dan Levy on Twitter: Follow @DanLevyThinks

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