HOUSTON — The U.S. soccer team has built its summer revival on a siege mentality, an in-house idea that the world is against them. The concept is contrived to the point of being laughable, but nevertheless seems to be reaping rewards.
Jurgen Klinsmann and his players go into Tuesday’s Copa America semifinal against world No. 1 Argentina carrying the same bristling mood that has been in place since things began to improve two weeks ago.
Before facing the challenge of Argentina superstar Lionel Messi and his cohorts, Klinsmann has manufactured a scenario in which he has gotten his troops believing they are the victims of unfair criticism and judgment from the news media and the American sporting public.
“Obviously the players read the papers and they are online, too — people say whatever and the (players) are free to take it the way they like to,” Klinsmann said. The U.S. was uninspired in its opening Group A game, falling 2-0 to Colombia to kick off the tournament and put Klinsmann’s long-term job security in jeopardy.
“The reaction to the Colombia game was completely exaggerated,” he said. “The feeling came across that we had a disastrous game that was not the case.”
Casting the media in the role of bad guy is an age-old managerial tactic in soccer, and Klinsmann’s group seems more than willing to accept the theory. Goalkeeper Brad Guzan and defender Geoff Cameron spoke of how being doubted had fueled their motivation and contributed to an impressive run of three consecutive wins that culminated in a semifinal spot.
Klinsmann did something similar when taking his native Germany to the semifinals of the World Cup staged in that country in 2006, following strong criticism before the tournament that his squad was not competent enough to go deep.
Such an approach typically only works once — there are only so many times you can convince a group that no one likes it, especially when the opposite is palpably true.
But, hey, whatever it takes. No matter the means, the way Klinsmann has lit a fire in the camp to set up Tuesday’s date with destiny is mightily impressive.
And if the alternative to having their guard up would be a more timid and potentially fearful approach against Argentina, the former is clearly preferable.
Captain Michael Bradley is on board with the closed-ranks mentality, suggesting that the media were to blame for building the perception that Messi and his colleagues are overwhelming favorites against the Americans.
“I think you guys are probably worrying more about Messi than we are,” Bradley told reporters Monday. “He’s a very good player — that’s probably understating it — but it’s still a soccer game. It’s still 11 of their guys against 11 of our guys.
“In the last five minutes of me standing here, look at even just the questions that you guys all ask. So much of it is dictated from you guys.”
He could be right. Maybe the media really are making everyone think Messi has skills never before seen and that the U.S. will be outmatched. Or maybe it could be that it is a combination of Argentina’s soccer history, the fact that the South Americans have better players, the FIFA world ranking list, Las Vegas oddsmakers, basic logic and, oh yes, a decade’s worth of Messi highlight reels that suggests that while the U.S. has a fighting chance, it will go in as a firm underdog.
Regardless of the legitimacy of either argument, and, in all honesty, it doesn’t matter much, the fact remains that the U.S. has an opportunity to pull off one of the most remarkable achievements of its soccer history.
Making the final of the Copa America, a tournament featuring all of South America’s star nations and five of the top 10 in the world ranking list, would elevate this group into a cherished position.
It would be the kind of thing that would be celebrated across the country, especially by those who hold soccer dear. Even those nasty folks in the media might even get on board.
But don’t tell the players that, because this is a team that likes being disliked, even when it’s not.
Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter @mrogersUSAT.