SAO PAULO – Few storylines have loomed larger for the US national team at this World Cup than the inevitable connection with their do-or-die opponent in the Group G finale on Thursday (noon ET, ESPN).
After all, the Americans’ ties to Germany run deep. Beginning with the tricky scenario for former German player and head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and trickling down though the five US players either born there or raised in the country’s impressive youth development system, there’s no denying this match comes with an unusual set of emotions.
“It’s something that doesn’t happen every year and probably not anymore in the lifetime, so you try to enjoy this moment,” Klinsmann said on Tuesday. “I’m looking forward to seeing all of them. The staff is pretty much the same as I left it, when I stepped out in 2006. It’s gonna be emotional, there’s no doubt about it.”
Klinsmann’s story is well known by now. A World Cup winner with Germany in 1990, he amassed 80 caps with the team before he eventually took the helm as head coach between 2004-06.
That run culminated with the Germans finishing third in the World Cup in 2006, an accomplishment that undoubtedly tantalized US Soccer and helped make their decision to hire Klinsmann in 2011 one of the most celebrated moves in the program’s history.
But Klinsmann and the US drawing Germany in the group stage three years later? That felt like fate. And after the Americans’ late collapse against Portugal on Sunday left their hopes of reaching the knockout round hanging in the balance of the next result, there’s more than just national pride on the line in Recife.
“If we wouldn’t have ended up in a tie in the last 30 seconds of the game against Portugal, it obviously would be a lot easier,” Klinsmann said. “But now as we set out for the game, we have to do it the hard way, the tough way, and that’s what we’ve been preparing for.”
None of the team’s German-American players have played better in this tournament – or have a deeper connection to Germany – than midfielder Jermaine Jones. After a steady and scrappy performance in the US team’s 2-1 win over Ghana in the opener, he put together one of his best games in American colors against Portugal, providing both distribution and demolition on the left side of the midfield.
But it almost never happened this way for Jones, who thought he was destined for a career with Germany as late as 2008. But when Klinsmann replacement and current German boss Joachim Löw made it clear that Jones was on the outside looking in after just three appearances in friendlies, Jones made the switch to the United States in 2009.
Just how close was Jones to playing for Germany? He said Tuesday that the coaching staff told him he would be part of the team that eventually finished as runner-up to Spain in the 2008 Euros, a tournament he says he almost couldn’t watch because of the disappointment of being overlooked.
“I was OK after maybe two, three days and I was there in the final when Germany played Spain,” Jones said. “I try everything and hope that Germany win that. I can’t say bad stuff about Germany. I have a lot of friends and everything is good, and everything happens for a reason.
“So, I play for the United States and I’m happy to play in this World Cup.”
Jones told reporters earlier this month that he wouldn’t celebrate if he scored a goal against Germany, a scenario that seemed altogether unlikely anyway, considering Jones’ history. He had only scored two goals in his international career before the stepped on the field against Portugal in Manaus, but his blistering right-footed shot in the 64th minute was one of the premier strikes of the tournament so far, and threw the Americans a lifeline to stay afloat in Brazil.
It also chopped down some of the last remaining Jones critics who clung to the idea that his German ties to Klinsmann – and perhaps not his abilities on the field – seemed to keep him in the lineup day in and day out.
“Always people talk and you know, ‘kick the guys’ or ‘you’re the bad boy,’ sometimes it’s crazy,” he said. “So, for me it was always the point. I was saying, ‘You have to work. I have to work and I will show the people.’
“Now it’s the point that you play the World Cup, you pay against the best players and you can show your best. I think I’ve shown the people that I can play against them – it’s Cristiano [Ronaldo], it’s [Lionel] Messi, I don’t care. I want to have fun on the pitch and the last two games gave me back the fun.”
While Klinsmann has said in the past that he’ll likely sing both the German and American national anthems on the field in Recife on Thursday, Jones said he’ll likely be more introverted and introspective when national pride kicks in.
“I will close my eyes and let it all go through,” he said, “and then will play my game.”
Said Klinsmann: “I will give [the Germans] big hugs before the game and then leave to the side. We’re gonna get the job done and we’re gonna give a farewell hug again after the game.”