Can Klinsi Escape the Friend Zone?

Jurgen Klinsmann is really good at winning friendlies. Now he has to earn his paycheck.

After the U.S. win against Nigeria on Saturday, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men are a perfect 3–0 heading into Brazil. This year his team is 4–1–1 in friendlies. In 2013 the U.S. had an exhibition win over Germany, the team Klinsmann used to coach, and another, away against Italy, in 2012. Klinsmann has been great in friendlies. And he’s been pretty good in CONCACAF, winning the 2013 Gold Cup and qualifying for the World Cup without any real drama or trauma. Now it’s time for Jurgen Klinsmann to prove himself in the main event.

To date, Klinsmann-coached teams have underperformed. In 2006, his Germany team, playing at home, won praise for making it to the semifinals. Qualifying for the semis would be an achievement for most national teams, but it isn’t for Germany, especially as host.

Making the top four is a matter of course for Die Mannschaft. Since 1954, West Germany (and then Germany), has reached the semifinals in nine of 13 World Cups, an extraordinary string of performances. (In the other four tournaments, the Germans fell short in the quarterfinals three times and in the Round of 16 once.) The team finished second in the World Cup preceding Klinsmann’s semifinal run and replicated his performance in 2010. Its record in the European Championships has been just as consistently outstanding.

So it was a hardly a shock in 2006 when the Germans found themselves once again playing for a spot in the final. The match took place at Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, known as “the opera house of German soccer.” It is dramatically steep and loud, especially the Südtribüne, the stand behind the south goal that holds 25,000 fans. The German national team was undefeated there, with 11 wins and a draw.

Against this Wagnerian backdrop, it was the Italians who controlled the game, especially in extra time, when the Azzurri hit the woodwork twice in the first two minutes. By the second period of extra time, Klinsmann seemed to be playing for penalties, which would have made sense—on the surface. Germany had an ice cold 4–0 all-time record in World Cup shootouts while Italy had been eliminated in three of the last four World Cups on penalties.

In the final 15 minutes, it was Lippi—stodgy and white-haired, a museum-piece like his namesake—who played more aggressively, with four out-and-out strikers on the field. It paid off in the 118th minute, when Andrea Pirlo’s no-look pass found the left foot of Fabio Grosso, who curled a shot past German goalkeeper Jens Lehmann. Alessandro Del Piero added a second on the counter. Klinsmann’s Germany was out, but the team was lauded for making the semi-finals, even though it pretty much always does.

U.S. Soccer became infatuated with Klinsmann, and the desire only grew after he rebuffed the federation’s initial advances. When he finally signed on in 2011, it had been almost two decades since the U.S. had been coached by a foreigner. South Korea, a baseball country with a similar soccer trajectory as the U.S., had made the 2002 semifinals under the Dutch coach Guus Hiddink.

But Klinsmann’s coaching resume was comparably thin: aside from those two years with the German national team, he had just one season at Bayern Munich. Make that less than a season—he was fired with five games remaining after he clashed with the notoriously traditional elders of Bayern. When he left, the club was three points off the top spot, eventually finishing the season two points back and in second place. In the Champions League, Bayern was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Barcelona, the eventual champion. A decent club record, sure—but as with Germany, Bayern expected more.

It has been some time since Klinsmann last brought a team into a truly meaningful game. U.S. fans should hope to see signs that he’s grown as a coach in the eight years since the biggest failure of his coaching career. The good news? Group G presents plenty of chances to prove it.

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