Gil LeBreton

July 13, 2014

World Cup lessons should translate for U.S.

Klinsmann-made German team showed the soccer blueprint.

Soccer speaks many languages. Don’t let the 2014 World Cup get lost in the translation.

Oft-criticized, and rightly so, for favoring shtick over substance, ESPN deserves huge applause for the month-long job it did in Brazil. Anyone can shout, “Goooooooalllll!” when a soccer ball reaches the back of the net. But ESPN, skillfully anchored by Bob Ley and Mike Tirico, gave us an international cross-section of analyses, biased and sometimes nervous, but always insightful.

The network didn’t dumb it down for the U.S. audience, even though many viewers were watching the world’s best futbol-ers for the first time. Instead, the ESPN crew talked strategy and storylines, never better than it did Sunday before and during Germany’s 1-0 triumph over Argentina.

It was the German Mannschaft, the ultimate team, against the world’s ultimate player, Argentina’s Lionel Messi. Teamwork and depth, we were reminded, translates well in any language.

If the American audience was listening, the post-match laments from the losers might have sounded familiar. The Argentines “had their chances” but didn’t take advantage. They were worn down by Germany’s technical skills and superior depth.

That’s not to say that the U.S. team is as good as the World Cup runners-up. But both sides did lose to Germany 1-0.

If a nation such as Argentina, rooted in soccer tradition, can’t match roster depth and stamina with Germany for 120 minutes, what hope lies ahead for the United States?

The answer is Jurgen Klinsmann, at whose hand the German World Cup program began its philosophical overhaul in 2004. Klinsmann wanted players who ran the pitch with instinct and passion, not just seasoned Deutschlanders who knew where to stand on set pieces.

Klinsmann’s top assistant on Germany’s 2006 World Cup team, Joachim Loew, hoisted the trophy in Brazil on Sunday night.

My point is, if the groundwork that Klinsmann laid in Germany paid off in Brazil, who’s to say he won’t make the U.S. team a more legitimate global force by 2016?

His system, his players, his team.

“He was the first coach to place his trust in a very young generation, and in that respect he was a breath of fresh air for the [German football federation],” veteran Per Mertesacker said on the team’s website.

Klinsmann is under contract to coach the U.S. team through the 2018 World Cup. His progress is going to be worth watching.

Another lesson from Sunday, however, should linger. One man, even if he is the greatest soccer player of his generation, can’t beat the best team in the world.

As ESPN discussed frequently, Messi’s legacy in his homeland was on the line. It’s likely that his losing effort — unspectacular, capped off by a final free kick high over the bar — will not be judged kindly by native Argentinians.

But it was Gonzalo Higuain, not Messi, who bricked a sure chance early Sunday after a poor German header clearance, and it was Rodrigo Palacio, not Messi, who failed to chest and score in extra time.

Instead, in the end, Messi became a part of the month-long story, the saga of the world’s greatest single-sport event.

A superstar without a championship supporting cast? We Americans certainly can identify with that.

A team that was rebuilt for a new generation and rode the momentum to a world championship? That translates, too.

As the Brazil World Cup slips into the back of our sports consciousness, it’s going to be up to Herr Klinsmann to keep the U.S. soccer story alive.

No need any more to dumb it down.

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