World Cup 2014: Does America really have no chance?
World Cup 2014 begins Thursday in Brazil. The US coach has said his team has no chance to win the tournament. Ironically, it's a sign of how far US soccer has come.
World Cup 2014 is upon us. Host Brazil will play Croatia to open the month-long tournament on Thursday at 4 p.m. Eastern time.
Samba music will play, Neymar will dance twinkle-toed across the field, and the beautiful game will get its most sumptuous stage.
But here in America, we have insisted upon concocting perhaps the most ridiculous controversy in the history of ridiculous controversies.
To recap: America's coach, German Jürgen Klinsmann, a World Cup winner and a man who, as the German national team coach in 2006, essentially reinvented the way that historic country plays soccer, has said the United States has no realistic chance of winning the World Cup.
To which every sentient human being on the face of planet earth would say, "Duh!"
Here's a news flash. The United States isn't the best soccer team in the world. To be honest, it isn't even particularly close yet. That's not to say what we're not getting better. That we haven't made some pretty impressive strides. That we're not on a clear upward arc.
But those are not the questions Klinsmann was asked to answer.
If the question is: "Can the United States win the World Cup in 2014?" The unassailable answer is: No.
Klinsmann, being the coach, wasn't so blunt. "For us now talking about winning a World Cup, it is just not realistic," he told reporters Wednesday.
Presciently, he added: "If it is American or not, you can correct me."
No, it is not American.
His own players could correct him. "Let the doubters doubt. That's why Americans are Americans," said US defender Geoff Cameron. "We like to be the underdogs and challenge big things."
That is what an American is supposed to say. Cameron is right. It is that spirit of boundless optimism that has defined America and its sports teams.
The 1980 Miracle on Ice and the 1950 US World Cup victory over England are arguably two of the biggest upsets in sports history. And they were possible because Americans think like Cameron thinks.
Could the US beat Brazil or Spain or another of the best teams in the World Cup? Absolutely.
But can they emerge from one of the toughest groups (with Ghana, Portugal, and, yes, Germany) and then win four consecutive knockout stage games against the top teams in world soccer? Well, they've never done it before in a World Cup or elsewhere, and while signs were positive in the weeks leading up to the World Cup, there's no rational reason to think they could now.
Which brings us back to Klinsmann. The real question is: Should he either A) lie, or B) work himself into a state of self-delusion for the good of the team and American soccer?
First of all, he would never do that, because he's German, and that's just not the way Germans roll. They tell you what they think, and if you don't like it, deal.
But second, and more important, Klinsmann is right not to participate in a charade. American soccer has gotten past the point of having to put a happy face on everything. Klinsmann is not in Brazil with the US as a publicity stunt – to try to "sell" soccer to Americans. American soccer is not so insecure now that it has to pretend it is better than it is.
If Klinsmann gets Americans' hopes up, what happens when America fails even to advance out of its group, as is likely, according to forecasts? US Soccer, which runs the men's team, recognizes that the next step for American soccer is a real step. It has to get better. It has to start producing world-class players. It has to start beating the best teams in the world with regularity.
That is what will begin to change many Americans' minds about soccer.
Perhaps it's coming. That's Klinsmann's plan for 2018. But the US is not there yet. And uttering that fact aloud is not an aspersion against his team. It is evidence of how high Klinsmann has set his sights.