In late March, just before Jurgen Klinsmann, the coach of the U.S. men’s soccer team, went into the meeting in which he demoted Martin Vasquez, his longtime assistant, he asked a staff member with U.S. Soccer to knock on the door and interrupt after about five minutes.
Klinsmann wanted the meeting to be as friendly as possible; after all, the two men first worked together in 2008. Yet Klinsmann never wants to linger over a decision either, and this move – reassigning a top deputy just three months before the World Cup – was no exception. Klinsmann was kind with Vasquez, but after a short conversation, Vasquez was gone.
Decisions like that, and the calculating, surgical way in which Klinsmann has executed them, are the back story to the United States’ captivating run at the World Cup. Despite being roundly picked to crash out in the tournament’s first round, Klinsmann steered the Americans to a win, a tie and a narrow loss against stout competition: Ghana, Portugal and Germany. That was enough for the Americans to escape one of the most difficult groups in the tournament and advance to the knockout rounds in consecutive World Cups for the first time. They will play Belgium in the Round of 16 on Tuesday in Salvador, Brazil.
The team’s progress has fascinated fans around the country. Television ratings have spiked past levels typically reached by the NBA Finals and the World Series. Watch parties in bars and public spaces have boomed, and impromptu celebrations have broken out in American cities.
Sunil Gulati, president of U.S. Soccer, said getting to “continue this ride for another week, and hopefully longer, is huge for the sport.”
Klinsmann, as the leader of the national team, has received much of the credit. He was hired in 2011, given a contract extension in 2013 through the 2018 World Cup and was handed, along with a base salary of about $2.5 million a year, the responsibility of taking the national soccer program to the next level.
The important signposts along the way to this surge vary in size and scope, but all are rooted in choices that Klinsmann, 49, a former German star player, made to shake up the team.
Some were big: Landon Donovan was cut from the roster. Others were smaller: The United States was one of few teams to hold a full training camp in Brazil six months before the tournament so players could get used to their surroundings. As one federation official said, “It was a very, very expensive acclimation experience.”
Still other actions seemed small but turned out to be considerable. Shortly after being hired, Klinsmann accelerated the recruitment of several dual national players – players who were eligible to play international soccer for multiple countries. One of these dual-nationals was budding defender John Brooks, the son of a German mother and a U.S. serviceman father. Klinsmann and his assistants scouted Brooks, stayed in touch with him and wooed him, then persuaded him to join the Americans.
On a trip to Hoffenheim, Germany, late last year, Klinsmann went to see Brooks and another national team player, Fabian Johnson, play in a German league match. In warm-ups, Klinsmann pointed out Brooks to one of his companions and said excitedly, “He is a big player and he is going to be a big player for us someday.”
Klinsmann could not realize how prescient he would be. Brooks, 21, came on as a halftime substitute in his first World Cup game against Ghana and delivered the game-winning goal with four minutes remaining.
“When that young boy scored the goal, he was lying on the ground and I said something in German and hit him on the back of the head,” Jermaine Jones, a German-American midfielder, said. “I said, ‘That’s how you have to do it, my friend.’ ”
While not all of Klinsmann’s moves have paid such obvious dividends, the guiding principle for Klinsmann is always a desire for progress. Roland Eitel, one of Klinsmann’s longtime friends, said Klinsmann, who won the 1990 World Cup with West Germany as a player and coached the 2006 German team to a third-place finish, differs from most of his countrymen in that he does not like to reminisce about glory days.
Eitel recalled a reunion of the 1990 team at which most of Klinsmann’s teammates raucously relived the tournament in Italy while Klinsmann mostly sat quietly. “He has no use for the past,” Eitel said.
With the Americans, Klinsmann has force-fed that forward-thinking philosophy into the program even as there have been moments of turbulence. Klinsmann was criticized by many observers when he questioned, in a New York Times Magazine article, the tendency in American sports to cater to star athletes regardless of their performance.
That opinion stirred much emotion from television and radio commentators, but Klinsmann has been consistent in his approach. Over the past three years, each of the veteran players on the U.S. team was tested by Klinsmann: Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore were benched at various points during the qualifying cycle; Clint Dempsey was criticized by Klinsmann for some of his career choices; and Carlos Bocanegra and, later, Donovan, were flat-out cut.
In each situation, it was difficult not to wonder if Klinsmann was overreaching. Instead, the buttons he pushed seemed to help the United States fit together even more strongly as the dual-national players, which include five German-Americans, have blended well with the rest of the group at just the right time.
All of Klinsmann’s decisions, including the more intricate tactical ones, like having DaMarcus Beasley and Geoff Cameron play a position with the national team that is different from the one they play with their club teams, has led the United States to this fevered point. On Thursday, Klinsmann pulled Cameron from the starting lineup and inserted Omar Gonzalez, who had played just a few minutes in the first two games; Gonzalez delivered an outstanding performance, helping a sturdy U.S. defense keep the Germans to a single goal.
There are still plenty of questions for Klinsmann, including whether he can continue this run against a very difficult Belgian team, which won Group H. But through three games of the World Cup and with his team cresting, it seems that the coach has found the right combination.
“It is huge for us getting out of this group that everybody said, ‘You have no chance,’ ” Klinsmann said. “We took that chance and now we move on. We really want to prove a point.”