Following the 4-1 defeat to Brazil, we saw for the first time same a very different Jürgen Klinsmann. Gone was the always positive and optimistic demeanor. There sat before us a national team manager that was, by his own words, “pissed”. Klinsmann then went on to say the need for his team to have “more of an edge-more nastier.” These comments sent reverberations through the US soccer media. Many voicing their disapproval, stating that the US shouldn’t have to resort to gamesmanship to win, that Klinsmann is ignorant of American culture, that that isn’t in the American players DNA, and that if the US turned to the European tactics of diving to win penalties or arguing with the ref, that it would somehow turn future fans of the game away. But what did Klinsmann mean when he uttered those words?
For beginners, Klinsmann wasn’t asking for antics akin to Maradona’s Hand of God or Luis Suarez’ hand ball in South Africa. Klinsmann wants his players from the opening whistle to let the other team know that they are playing in their house. He wants his players to let the referee know that he is calling a game in their house. Hard tackles, like what Jermaine Jones did to Neymar, should happen in the first half, not in the second half with the game already decided. Brazil was allowed to ease into the game, they should have been uncomfortable from the get go. Perhaps the US showed too much respect for Brazil, but if you go through the US roster and list their accomplishments, for club and country, they deserve to be respected too. Brazil made the US look like pushovers. How could you let Marcelo, a player who can’t get regular time with his club, disrespect one of your veterans like Steve Cherundolo? There is a need to play nasty, not by cheating, but you do the same thing Marcelo was doing, as a matter of fact, you do the same thing that Jürgen Klinsmann did as a player. You become a nuisance, a pest, a difficult player to play against. Every interaction you have with the other team should make them uncomfortable. Think of players like Ben Olsen and Pablo Mastroeni, they are evidence that you can be nasty without cheating. Many find it unfavorable to surround the referee to protest bad calls, like Barcelona, but the bottom line is that referees are human and they will second guess themselves. Perhaps with more protests from the US, the referee may have given more thought to the two possible penalties that the US had in the game against Dempsey and Gomez. There is a fine line between playing nasty and cheating. It’s a line that players like Roy Keane, Claude Makelele, and Gennaro Gattuso have struggled to walk all their careers, but they have done so with success. And naturally, with this type of play there is some risk, but also reward. A question to all soccer media and fans, if a US player crossed that line like Luis Suarez, would you enjoy the results any less, for Suarez advancing his team to the World Cup semi-finals? How about Roy Keane, or more recently Ramires and Raul Meireles of Chelsea? Players whose yellow cards got them suspended but propelled their teams to Champions League finals and ultimately victory.
The US does have and enforcers like the in Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley, but given that the current squad is technically further back than teams like Brazil, Holland and Spain, it may call for the whole team to have such an attitude. The outrage by the media is baffling to me, because the nastiness that Klinsmann asked for is the same type that we have seen the US display in victories against Italy this year and Spain in the Confederations Cup. Klinsmann’s contention may have been that this capitulation happened at home. At times, I feel that the US players put too much stock into the fact that because the US is such a melting pot, that there may be equal numbers of supporters in the stands. Perhaps they feel every match is an away match and play accordingly. As most things in life, it boils down to balance, the US has the players and the correct mental makeup to play nasty, they just have to learn to display it for 90 minutes, against every opponent ,at home and away, and apparently for them to be accepted by the soccer media and fans, never cross the line.