German-Born U.S. Soccer Coach Flusters Fans With Charm And Menace

German-born coach Jurgen Klinsmann is leading the U.S. soccer team into the World Cup this week. Sam Borden recently profiled Klinsmann for The New York Times, and Borden explains how the European-American hybrid may help the team advance.

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The U.S. team arrived in Sao Paulo, fresh off a few weeks of its own controversy. At the center of it is the U.S. coach, the former German soccer star, Jurgen Klinsmann. He baffled and infuriated U.S. fans when he cut star player Landon Donovan from the roster, even though Donovan was the national team's all-time leader in goals and assists. And in a New York Times profile this week, Klinsmann drew still more criticism when he said, we cannot win this World Cup, because we are not at that level yet. Sam Borden wrote that profile for the Times, and he joins me now from Sao Paulo. Sam, welcome to the program.

SAM BORDEN: Thanks very much. Nice to be with you.

BLOCK: And let's start with those comments from Klinsmann, who's coaching his first World Cup with the U.S. team. Now even if he's saying what pretty much everybody is thinking, isn't he violating a taboo to say it so bluntly, out loud, to a reporter?

BORDEN: You know, to be honest, I was a little bit surprised by the reaction. It seems to me like in soccer, there's, like, a little more harsh truth than in a lot of the American sports. You know, even the Jacksonville Jaguars think they can win the Super Bowl at the start of training camp every year. And I think, in soccer, it seems to me that there's a little more sort of realistic expectations. And I think he was just trying to set a reasonable bar for what the team, you know, can accomplish.

BLOCK: Sam, the headline for your story is - how Jurgen Klinsmann plans to make U.S. soccer better and less American. Why don't you explain that? Has he brought a European style of play? Is there something visible on the field that's changed?

BORDEN: With soccer, there is a lot of credence put into sort of national identities and how teams play. Brazil is known for a certain flair. Italy has traditionally been known as a defensive team that can really kind of strangle a game. He's trying to drill into them a little bit more attention to short passes - control the ball, control the pace of the game - which is generally a European sensibility.

BLOCK: And apart from the style of play, is there a European sensibility overall - a European culture that you think he's brought to the team?

BORDEN: That's one of the things, I think, it's a little bit harder to say, one way or the other. In a lot of ways, the stuff that he does is very American. And when he was the coach of Germany, he was called out by sort of hard-core German fans for bringing in a psychologist. Whereas, in America, generally, you know, teams often embrace new innovations in sports science. He is very much into that. You know, the players have their blood analyzed. His sort of personal approach to dealing with the players and his expectations is European, but the way that he activates them often times can be American.

BLOCK: How have the U.S. players responded to that approach? The blood analysis that you mentioned. He's pushing yoga, looking at their diet. Things like that. How did they respond?

BORDEN: There have been a number of instances where Klinsmann has tried new things that players were not particularly enamored with. I remember Tim Howard, the goalkeeper, told me, you know, at one point Klinsmann brought in sort of this brain doctor or a guy that studied sort of the way brains handle stress situations during games. And Howard said to me, you know, that was, like, a little more analysis than any of us wanted. But, in general, I think the players react well. You know, they treat their bodies as temples, generally. And so the nutrition and the bloodwork is just more information to help them figure out what's best.

BLOCK: Do you figure that Jurgen Klinsmann is thinking well beyond the 2014 World Cup? He's thinking about the long-term future of the U.S. national team?

BORDEN: I do. I mean, you know, he would say otherwise, and I think other people have said otherwise. No, no, no, he's really focused on the task at hand. But, you know, the reality is that very few World Cup coaches have guaranteed contracts beyond the World Cup at hand, and Klinsmann does. And I think that's not an unreasonable move from the U.S. Soccer Federation, because they're looking to, you know, really establish an identity. The federation has decided, OK, Klinsmann is the guy that's going to sort of craft our path here. And so they gave him the security of knowing that he's going to be around for a little while.

BLOCK: That's Sam Borden. He's the European sports correspondent for the New York Times, and he's in São Paulo covering the World Cup. Sam, have a good time. Thanks so much.

BORDEN: Thank you. Really appreciate it.

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