Klinsmann pulling out all tricks for US
SALVADOR, Brazil -- Jurgen Klinsmann is never shy about offering his opinion. Say whatever you want about the U.S. coach, but the one thing you can't deny is that he usually speaks his mind.
That was the case again Monday, at the end of what had been to that point a sleep-inducing prematch news conference, when Klinsmann was asked if perhaps the appointment of Algerian referee Djamel Haimoudi for Tuesday's round-of-16 match against Belgium (4 p.m. ET, ESPN/WatchESPN) was any cause for concern.
Klinsmann didn't hesitate. "Well, we hope it's not a concern," Klinsmann said.
"Is it a good feeling? No."
Klinsmann then went on to list the reasons why having Haimoudi manning the middle might put the Americans at a disadvantage against one of Europe's most dangerous teams.
Haimoudi's mother tongue is French, meaning many of the Belgian players would be able to communicate with him on the field without American players knowing what was being said. His home country faced the Belgians in the first round. Finally, he mentioned that Algeria was seconds away from advancing to the knockout round for the first time in their history (a feat they accomplished here in Brazil) at South Africa 2010 before Landon Donovan's iconic stoppage-time goal sent them home instead.
Was Klinsmann implying that some measure of payback, subconscious or not, could come into play?
Or maybe was it just Klinsmann being Klinsmann? Or perhaps it was just another touch of gamesmanship from a coach who has already taken every opportunity to stack the deck in his team's favor over the past few weeks.
There was the time the coach trotted out backup strikers Aron Johannsson and Chris Wondolowski to speak to the media, then proceeded to start neither in place of the injured Jozy Altidore against Portugal.
And on Monday, just before Klinsmann took the stage at Arena Fonte Nova, U.S. Soccer announced that Altidore suddenly was fully recovered from his hamstring injury and "ready and available" to play, which anyone who has been paying attention understands may or may not be true.
That's not to say Klinsmann's mind games are a bad thing.
Like U.S. players, national team coaches have long been almost naively honest in their approach. Veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard has spoken about this admirable but ultimately self-defeating trait before and even during the tournament, saying that this time around the Americans have to be smarter about taking whatever advantage is available to them.
At the World Cup, the difference between winning and losing is negligible.
U.S. vs. Belgium: Tuesday, 4 ET (ESPN and WatchESPN)
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- Doug McIntyre: Klinsmann pulls out the tricks
- Jeff Carlisle: Altidore's role vs. Belgium
- Jeff Carlisle: Klinsmann justified so far
- Roger Bennett: How far can the U.S. go?
- Doug McIntyre: Beasley's U.S. rebirth
- Read: Tim Howard assesses Belgian attack
Games are decided by the slimmest of margins. Klinsmann, a former world champion, knows this as well as anyone. As a player, he was known as a diver. But instead of denying it, he embraced the role, famously launching himself to the turf after scoring his first Premier League goal with Tottenham Hotspur in 1994 and instantly endearing himself to English fans and media in the process.
So really, it was no surprise that Klinsmann jumped at the chance to put Haimoudi in the spotlight on Monday, to guarantee that the official's performance will now be scrutinized more closely than it would have been otherwise.
It's a tactic iconic managers Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho use as a matter of course, and it's not even limited to soccer. Some of the most successful American coaches, guys such as Phil Jackson and Bill Belichick, do the very same thing.
Like Klinsmann, they know sports at the highest level have nothing to do with honor. What matters -- the only thing -- is giving your team every possible chance to win.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @DougMacESPN.