For the man charged with changing the culture of American soccer, he must understand that he cannot change the culture of Americans.

It really is much ado about nothing, but the firestorm caused by US National Team Head Coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s recent comments about the Americans’ chances in the World Cup, is an interesting flashpoint in the cultural history that make these United States such a curiosity around the world. “We’re not coming in with the arrogance to say we’re going to win the World Cup,” said Klinsmann, “You can’t tell the general public you’re going to win the World Cup – it’s unrealistic.”

Elsewhere these words would have been met with a nod of tacit agreement, as the sentiment would have been echoed since qualifying for the cup, if not even before then. But here in the United States, Klinsmann’s pragmatism has been met with horror, incredulity and outright hostility.  It was as if every apple pie suddenly turned to dust, and ever rock n’ roll album ever recorded simultaneously skipped. A sporting figure in the United States said “can’t.”

Klinsmann’s honesty is not unfounded. Outside of this country, and especially in European soccer, most seasons begin with an honest competition between two to four teams. The rest of the league is left to fend off relegation to lower divisions, or to get earn berths in inter-contentinental competitions of varying prestige.

A top four finish gets teams into the revered Champions League, mid-table teams will fancy their chances at making the Europa Cup, and the bottom of the league fights to avoid being unceremoniously dumped into the pedestrian lower tiers of professional football. The difference between the haves and the have nots have never been as insurmountably stark as they are in European soccer. To most supporters around those leagues, to speak of championships as if they were an attainable reality is an exercise in futility.

But futility in the United States is oftentimes exactly what makes athletic pursuit worthwhile. It is what makes us love Seabiscuit, brag about the youthful exploits of a bunch of college kids who beat the Russians 30 years ago, receive “upset alerts” on our college football broadcasts, and celebrate the Mighty Ducks (movie version at least) as heroes. American obstinacy permeates American culture at nearly all levels. In some respects this is not surprising. America was literally born out of the “can-do” impracticality of defeating possibly the greatest empire in the history of the world to gain independence. So where “can’t” oftentimes refers to a realistic set of variables in the Old World, in the United States, we just do not say these things. It is the reason why Browns fans wake up every morning and the reason that Donald Sterling even has a Clippers fan base to embarrass. The outrage over Klinsmann’s comments has less to do with the US National Team and their chances than it has to do with a foundational notion of American culture.

Klinsmann isn’t wrong. It would be hard to fault the man for having the temerity to suggest that a team that Vegas just gave 100/1 odds doesn’t stand a “realistic” chance of winning. To be clear, the Americans’ chances at the 2014 World Cup are no better than the proverbial snowball’s. This is a fact that must be abundantly obvious to even the most star spangled homer. But the reality of our task has little to do with the way that Americans will approach it. From a cultural perspective, it would behoove Klinsmann to understand this. We are a country born of underdogs and our sports culture is no different. And while Klinsmann has been keen to criticize that sports culture, he would be wise to notice the can-do undercurrent that motivates even our most curious sporting behavior.


Klinsmann recently pointing to Kobe Bryant’s gaudy 50 million dollar extension as proof of American oversentimentality, and a collective disconnect with reality in sports. While Kobe’s contract bends the boundaries of credibility, it is an even more nuanced commentary on American sports culture. While many could see the contract as retroactively rewarding Bryant for his production, there is also the very real sense that the contract is an investment in a player who has defied the odds countless times before. If one believes that the Lakers are indeed attempting to be competitive (a real debate in these post-Jerry Buss days), then Laker brass therefore believe that Kobe will overcome his various ailments and be a contributor, odds be damned. There is no other plausible explanation for tying up so much cap space in one aging star. Is it stupid? Maybe. Is it overly sentimental? Perhaps. But it is undeniably American. It is unlikely that Kobe will be able to turn back the clock, but for all of the times we’ve said what Kobe can’t do, we’ve watched exactly what he has done. That is what Klinsmann should have focused on in analyzing Kobe’s contract, and that is the undercurrent that has motivated the furious backlash against him.

This individualistic and stubborn collective refusal of Americans to accept the word “no” has led to disasters in the sports world on more than one occasion. But for every Tebow who fails to beat the “you can’t do its,” there is a Brady or a Jordan.

To be sure, Klinsmann is the consummate professional and there is no reason to believe that he and his team will not be as prepared as they can be to best any challenge they find in Brazil. Yet while he works to create a truly world class American soccer culture, Klinsmann would be wise to understand the underlying socio-political culture in the U.S. There is no word more taboo than “can’t” and its use will not endear soccer to a tepid fan-base where the sport is finally sprouting roots.

And while it belies credibility to have a population that embraces the NBA yet points to theatrical embellishment in soccer as reason for collective distaste to the sport, the truth is there is something utterly foreign to Americans about soccer. For it to truly become an American sport it must capture the American conscious.  And words matter. “I don’t care about odds,” Miami Heat Forward Chris Bosh recently quipped following his team’s second 20-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs which put them down 3-1 in the best of 7 NBA finals. “Odds are for people that can’t do it.” And while a true inquiry can be had as to whether Mr. Bosh actually believes those words, his is the type of sound bite that resonates with American fans. Klinsmann need not lie. He just can’t say “can’t.”