Coaching the United States National Team in 1998 must have been equal parts liberating and frustrating for Steve Sampson. Yes, it’s hard to believe now, when seemingly a new World Cup micro-site pops up daily ahead of kickoff Thursday in Brazil, but a Harris Poll from 1998 revealed only 52 percent of Americans knew the World Cup was a soccer tournament while just 19 percent watched a game. (Most of those who watched a game didn’t like it, because you know, soccer is BORING.)
Heading to the World Cup in France, Sampson probably wished his countrymen were paying attention. He did, after all, coach the U.S. to an impressive 0-0 draw at the Estadio Azteca vs. Mexico in qualifying. Even so the team didn’t merit appearances on Good Morning America with 50 Cent or pep rallies in Times Square attended by thousands. The American public’s feeling toward the 1998 World Cup were — at best — a very Gen X-worthy “meh” or, more accurately akin to cartoon tumbleweeds.
If anyone in America — be it the media or general public — paid attention to soccer in 1998 would Sampson have been afforded the impunity to make the following insanely questionable choices on the eve of the tournament?
- Booting captain John Harkes off the team before leaving for France. (It was revealed years later he’d allegedly had an affair with teammate Eric Wynalda’s wife.)
- Fast-tracking Frenchman David Regis for citizenship, relegating veteran defender Jeff Agoos to the bench.
- Deciding to implement a bizarre 3-6-1 formation that the world of soccer had never seen before — or again after the U.S. went 0-3-0 in France.
- Starting the immortal duo of Chad Deering and Brian Maisonneuve ahead of Tab Ramos in the opening match against Germany.
Sampson made all these ill-fated choices and it barely created a yawn outside of primitive Internet message board sites. Blogs didn’t exist. The 24-7 newscycle on ESPN was still in nightmare pipe dream status. Nobody in 1998 was calling up talk radio to bitch about the U.S. National Team coach. About the only time you’d even see soccer on the highlights was if an anchor wanted to imitate Andres Cantor’s “Goooooooooooooooooooooooooool” call.
Jump ahead 16 years and the climate is much, well, hotter for U.S. National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann on the eve of the World Cup. Much like Sampson, the heat is mostly of his own creation.
In May the German-American coach opened himself up to all sorts of first, second and third guesses on his jaw-dropping decision to leave U.S. all-time leading-scorer Landon Donovan off the final 23-man roster for Brazil. The news was chewed up and consumed by SportsCenter and trickled into every form of debate show on ESPN. People were talking, tweeting, Facebooking, snap chatting, etc. about it. American sports fans had opinions — why is Julian Green on the team!?!?!? How could Donovan not be one of the best 23 players in America?!?!?!?!
The reactions were both raw and real. They were unlike anything we’ve ever seen in American soccer, save for perhaps the euphoria Donovan’s last-second winner vs. Algeria in 2010 created.
Friends of mine who are casual, if that, soccer fans texted me saying they just don’t like Klinsmann. My father spent a solid three and a half minutes ranting on the phone to me (without taking a breath) that Klinsmann was a “piece of … (you know what)” for disrespecting Donovan.
Klinsmann’s media hot seat cranked up to Tebow-like levels last week in the wake of comments published by the New York Times in a story written by Sam Borden. In the piece, Klinsmann — quoted from a lunchtime conversation with Borden in December — produced this eyeball-catching line: ““We cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet.”
The coach is probably right, although publicly admitting as such is a questionable decision given the rah-rah American sports ethos. You’d think he’d be media-savvy enough to realize that a quote such as that — honesty or accuracy aside — could blow up in his face down the road.
Klinsmann, in the Times piece, stepped on another third rail — or at least one of Mike Wilbon’s personal third rails — when he decided to namedrop Kobe Bryant as an example of American sporting culture rewarding aging star players with contracts based on past performance.
“This always happens in America,” Klinsmann told me, waving his hands in the air. “Kobe Bryant, for example — why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”
The result? Wilbon using his forum on PTI to theatrically inform Klinsmann no less than twice to, “Get the hell out” of America.
We can quibble over the merits of Wilbon’s argument another time. Klinsmann’s resumé does, after all, include a World Cup win as a player with Germany in 1990. For whatever it’s worth he led his homeland to a third place finish at the 2006 World Cup and did take home the CONCACAF Gold Cup last summer. Although Wilbon’s rant had the feel of a wrestling promo, Klinsmann certainly isn’t some ham-and-egger jabroni. Rather he was naive using Bryant as an example whereas, say, Justin Verlander–owner of a 4.19 ERA and $28 million per year salary–might be a more apt comparison, or at least one less likely to draw the ire of someone like Wilbon.
Perhaps Wilbon’s rant made Klinsmann feel nostalgic for his time in Germany when he was routinely ripped apart in the media ahead of the 2006 World Cup, only quieting them — briefly — with a third place finish. The feeding frenzy on Klinsmann continued during his ill-fated spell in charge of Bayern Munich in 2008-09. Current German captain Philipp Lahm took time to criticize him in his 2011 autobiography, no less.
Klinsmann got a dose of this last February. The Sporting News published using anonymous sources to paint Klinsmann in a bit of an Emperor’s New Clothes scenario following a loss to Honduras in the first match of the CONCACAF Hexagonal. This got a narrative about Klinsmann going, although he was able to turn it on its head last summer and throughout the rest of qualifying.
Nostalgic for the German press corps or not, Klinsmann has placed a target squarely on his back. Maybe this is all a plan by Klinsmann to put the pressure on himself rather than the U.S. team itself, which, if we’re being honest is in a transition cycle as it moves from the Donovan/Clint Dempsey/Tim Howard era into a future which may or may not include the 19-year-old Green. However we look at it, the U.S. (or any nation) was going to have trouble advancing from Group G against Germany, Portugal and Ghana.
That’s only a thought.
However these three games pan out, Klinsmann will face genuine, honest criticism from the American media, not just the devoted soccer media. Say what you will about his predecessor, Bob Bradley, there wasn’t exactly one concrete thing you could criticize him for. His personality, which sometimes came across on television as vaguely aloof? Playing Ricardo Clark in the 2010 Round of 16 loss to Ghana? If anything, Bradley’s one true crime in the hearts of many U.S. Soccer fans was that he wasn’t, ironically, named Jurgen Klinsmann.
For good measure, in a pregame interview with Julie Foudy that aired on Saturday before the U.S.’s 2-1 win over Nigeria Klinsmann criticized American players opting for college soccer, rather than joining the professional club system at an early age like many of the German-Americans on the World Cup squad such as Green did. Saying they lose years of development.
While picking a fight with NCAA soccer isn’t going to get people like Wilbon to scream on national television, it’s yet another instance of Klinsmann opening himself for a backlash on his own prompting.
Klinsmann — still under contract through 2018– has been tasked with transforming U.S. Soccer and putting it in line with the rest of the world. While we await evidence that he is on task there — and basing an opinion on three games over the next two weeks on whether or not he’s accomplished that goal might not be the smartest thing to do –one thing is certain: Klinsmann has brought the U.S. in line with the world when it comes to increased media criticism and second-guessing. His string of bold decisions and declarations have ensured that.