Sports Nut

We Are Soccer Adults Now

How Jürgen Klinsmann helped the American team come of age in Brazil.

Jürgen Klinsmann
Jürgen Klinsmann celebrates the greatest loss in U.S. soccer history.

Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

RECIFE, Brazil—It is said that you can’t get a bad meal in Recife, one of Brazil’s gastronomic centers. Yet an eating of hats occurred here on Thursday when it became clear that Team USA would escape its Group of Death. Skeptics had called Jürgen Klinsmann’s squad too green, too shallow, and too Donovan-less to worry Germany, Ghana, and Portugal. They were wrong. The United States worried them all, and before the match in a flooded-out Recife was over, naysayers like Alexi Lalas, who midfielder Jermaine Jones conceded had ticked off the team, were mea culpa-ing on Twitter.

What a fantastic loss! Getting out of the group stage validates Klinsmann’s overhaul of the national team (thank heavens for Kyle Beckerman) and his desire to attack opponents like the big boys do, with speed on the flanks and the occasional press or high defensive line. We’re soccer adults now. And this latest result buys Klinsmann as much leeway as he needs to continue the maturation process. It doesn’t matter if it was a defeat. Everyone in the 46,000-seat, 116-bathroom Arena Pernambuco was singing in the rain.*

“I’ve never felt better about a loss,” said Michael Addonisio, a U.S. fan from Tampa, Florida.

“A really good game for you,” one German journalist told me.

Another German I spoke with was more effusive.

“This is a great victory for American football,” said forward Lukas Podolski. (He was not referring to the NFL.)

That a “victory” happened at all in this crime-ridden, poorly planned town, which has magnificent beaches, albeit ones where bull and tiger sharks prowl offshore in another gastronomic zone, was incredible. Like other places I’ve been to in the northeast of Brazil, civilization crumbles when it precipitates hard here. Streets flood. Taxis vanish. People march great distances through the rain to reach a stadium moronically constructed many miles from the city without access to the metro, which also floods. It took me seven hours to reach the arena yesterday. After the game, it took me six hours to get back to my hotel. For much of that spell, I was stuck on a bus in an enormous traffic jam. An Israeli journalist with me, a combat veteran, joked about being on an episode of Survivor. A German journalist, absent any humor, demanded a police escort.

These are first-world problems, of course, but ever since arriving here I’ve been wondering how much time the average Brazilian wastes simply trying to ambulate. It’s not that parts of Brazil can’t handle the World Cup after seven years to prepare. It’s that parts of Brazil, logistically, can’t handle much of anything. One mishap and the center cannot hold. Those infrastructure improvements the tournament was supposed to bring? Nowhere to be seen.

Even for people with their own planes, travel in Brazil has been an issue. The United States had the toughest itinerary in the tournament, bouncing from Natal to Manaus to Recife from its home base in São Paulo. In its last group stage game, the U.S. also had to play the toughest team in the tournament. But here we are, moving on with a glorious loss to meet Belgium on July 1.

Thursday’s game offers a reasonable template by which to prepare. Like Germany, Belgium has a firm defense and one of the sport’s best midfields. They are a physically imposing side that dominates possession and pins opponents inside their own half. In the World Cup, they have played with “more Germanic efficiency than French flair.”

We should be concerned. For all the talk about how Germany came out to attack us, the Germans did far less onslaughtering than they could have. Their coach Joachim Löw took a conservative approach that guaranteed his team wouldn’t lose. German midfielders controlled the game. They owned the ball. They passed and passed and patiently set up chances. Germany had plenty.

For all the talk, too, about Omar Gonzalez’s goal-saving tackles, why is he making those? Here’s why: Any attacker with a burst leaves him for dead. Those are desperation tackles. Sure, Geoff Cameron shanked a clearance in the Portugal game that led to an easy goal, but Eden Hazard will have a (slightly) harder time tying him in knots than he’d have with Gonzalez.

Still, it’s hard to fault Klinsmann’s lineup changes. He has unearthed a super sub in DeAndre Yedlin, who came on again in the waning moments and lit up the right wing with his speed. Yedlin helped create two excellent scoring chances in injury time. It was the most dangerous the U.S. looked all afternoon. For most of the game, Klinsmann also favored a conservative approach, not wanting to risk giving up too many goals by sending numbers forward. Jones made a few daring deep runs that Germany struggled to track, but the U.S. didn’t push the action.

That strategy, too, is to Klinsmann’s credit. Although he was cheerful yesterday, several Germans I spoke to believed he must’ve wanted to win the game desperately. Klinsmann has a curious relationship with his former protégé Löw. Where the passionate Klinsmann is viewed in Germany as a great motivator, the cold Löw is seen as a great tactician. Most Germans consider Löw, not Klinsmann, the brains behind their country’s third-place World Cup finish in 2006, a reputation further enhanced when Klinsmann washed out at Bayern Munich in 2009. Last year, Klinsmann also had to deal with a Sporting News article in which numerous anonymous national team players questioned their coach’s strategic savvy.

“He needs a team of coaches,” said Matthias Beinhoff, a fan I spoke to from Berlin.* “But I think he functions quite well because he knows the whole picture.”

Klinsmann knows enough to bring in former Germany coach Berti Vogts as a special adviser. And he’s ruthless enough to drop his right-hand man, Martín Vásquez, a few months before the tournament, not to mention leave the best player in American history at home. (Might be nice, though, to bring Donovan off the bench for Brad Davis instead of calling on Alejandro Bedoya.)

From the start, Klinsmann’s hunger to prove himself has been in service to a greater good: forging a winning American style. This approach felt a little like motivational whimsy when Klinsmann took the job in 2011, but it also inspired hope, perhaps unrealistically.

Or maybe the chant that American fans have embraced in Brazil, the one that booms through the bars and the buses and the stadiums before, during, and after games, isn’t just a lot of noise. Maybe it’s a sign that things have changed: “I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!

Read all of Slate’s World Cup 2014 coverage.

Correction, June 29, 2014: This article originally stated that the U.S. and Germany played at the Arena Beira-Rio. The game was played at the Arena Pernambuco. This story also incorrectly stated that Germany fan Matthias Beinhoff “traveled from Berlin.” Though he is from Berlin, he no longer lives there. (Return to the first or second correction.)