Klinsmann, the Pragmatic Alchemist

After day one of the Group of Death, the U.S. is already well-positioned to advance

No, Jurgen Klinsmann is not performing magic tricks. But the U.S. coach is displaying hints of the alchemist in the land of Paulo Coelho, transforming the U.S. into a team with a very real chance of advancing in the World Cup.

The U.S. entered the tournament as major underdogs in Group G, but after its 2–1 win over Ghana, and Portugal’s 4–0 defeat to Germany (and loss of Fabio Coentrao to injury and Pepe to suspension), the Yanks should now be considered favorites to go through .

There is little mystery to Klinsmann’s formula, though. In fact, pragmatism is among his coaching attributes.

Klinsmann had to do a few things to make this his team: He recruited heavily from the Bundesliga; demanded and got a contract extension through 2018; cut Landon Donovan—akin to lopping off the head of a rival, warlord-style; and he won games.

In many ways, Klinsmann is building on the accomplishments of Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley. But Klinsi has also refreshed the squad’s spirit, instilling his own bubbly personality.

The hiring of Klinsmann in 2011 was a no-brainer. There were no other candidates who had won the World Cup as a player, guided a team to third place as a coach, and lived in the U.S.

The major negative on Klinsmann’s resumé is his dismissal from Bayern Munich. Judging from postscripts provided by Philipp Lahm and others, Klinsmann lost the locker room, and so his firing was inevitable. But it takes a different set of skills to stay in command of a national team. There are fewer matches, and you don’t have to win a league title, just finish high enough to qualify for the next tournament.

Maybe Klinsmann is better suited for national teams than club teams. With Germany and the U.S., his tasks have been relatively simple. He did not have to do anything complicated tactically in 2006, and if he did, Joachim Löw, who succeeded Klinsmann as Germany coach, was there to help devise something. With the U.S., Klinsmann’s strategy has been similar to those of his predecessors. Keep things simple. Continue to emphasize the team’s attributes of endurance, mental strength, organization, and persistence. And hope the one or two special talents will produce something on their own.

The U.S. did not play much coherent, attacking soccer against Ghana. Clint Dempsey simply ran through the defense to score off a throw-in and John Anthony Brooks headed in a corner, the result of a Fabian Johnson hustle to the endline.

And the U.S. might not have to do anything more than that against Portugal. The Americans will not be able to match Portugal, or any elite team in this World Cup, technically. This has been the story both times the teams have met, yet the Americans defeated the Portuguese in a 1992 friendly in Chicago and in the 2002 in the World Cup. Those were pre-Cristiano Ronaldo days, but Portugal did have a 19-year-old Luis Figo in ’92, plus Rui Costa, Fernando Couto, and Figo in ’02.

In the ’92 defeat, Portugal appeared to be intimidated by the physicality of the U.S. In ’02, it was unprepared for the Americans’ first-half onslaught. This Portugal team could struggle against the U.S. for similar reasons. The Portuguese appear uncomfortable against overly-physical foes, plus they seem to be on the verge of self-destructing, judging by their lack of composure against Germany.

The message of Coelho’s The Alchemist is that if you can affirm your desires strongly enough, the universe will fulfill them. That is basically the message of U.S. supporters, who tirelessly chanted “I believe” in Natal. And, thanks to Klinsmann, their wish came true.