NATAL, Brazil – Had Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley said it, the reaction likely would have been muted. Had Bob Gansler, Bora Milutinovic or Steve Sampson uttered the words, nobody would have blinked an eye.
But when Jurgen Klinsmann said the United States couldn’t win the World Cup, that nobody should expect them to do such a thing? Well, it quickly became a big deal.
More than two decades after the US finally made it back to the sport’s biggest stage in 1990, Americans no longer seem content to be labeled against-all-odds underdogs every four years.
Klinsmann, to his credit, made it his aim from the start to even the playing field with the world’s elite sides. While he may not think the US can win the thing, the German is not taking any chances, either.
"I booked my flight after the final,” Klinsmann said Sunday. “We want to do well."
It all starts with Monday’s Group G opener against Ghana (6 pm ET, ESPN, match preview), a match billed as an opportunity for revenge for an American team that saw the Black Stars celebrate in front of them after eliminating the US in both 2006 and 2010. In Brazil, there will still be two more chances for redemption should the African side continue to be the US’ bugaboo, but just about everyone in the American camp admits that road likely leads to an early exit.
For Klinsmann and his troops, this amounts to a knockout game, a final of some sorts. Win, and they’ll be in golden position. Draw, and all is not lost, but they would have to slay a Goliath or two along the way. Lose, and the odds of advancement take a noticeable nosedive.
“I think it’s important that we have that pressure on us in that first game,” US goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “We want to win. We want to get three points in the bag. Heaven knows what’s going to happen in the other game, Portugal and Germany. If they draw, we top the group and everyone’s happy.”
Before they even step on the field, the US will know the early lay of the land in Group G, widely labeled the Group of Death for its quality and complexity. Germany and Portugal begin their tournament at noon on ESPN (match preview), a match that Klinsmann said he and his staff would watch over lunch before analyzing later.
But while plenty of American eyeballs will be on Cristiano Ronaldo and the German juggernaut, the real hoopla in the US revolves around the American representatives in the tournament. For many, hopes hinge on this first game. Bring it on, says Michael Bradley.
“As the game continues to grow in our country, so do the expectations, the media, the focus,” he said. “I think we all welcome that. We welcome the pressure of playing in a World Cup.”
After a month in camp and almost three years building to this point, Klinsmann’s expectation is that his team will perform. The squad is ready. The scouting is done. The gameplan is in place. His tickets are booked with an impossible dream in mind. The pressure is on. Now it just comes down to execution when the stakes are at their highest against an opponent that just seems to have the US' number.
“Expectations in the United States are very high,” Klinsmann said. “We are growing. We are getting better, not only on the national-team level. The league is growing. It’s getting more and more competitive. In every area, the game is just growing. We want to drive this as the locomotive, the locomotive as the national team.”