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Mar 20, 2006

Germany at a crossroads

Nobody is certain what to make of German soccer these days. The Germans have had to go to California to find a coach, and there is a feeling the game is disintegrating from within. The predominance of imports into the Bundesliga has contributed to a drop in competence by domestic players. And betting scandals -- also originating from foreign agents -- have tainted the country's referees and are threatening to spread to prominent players.

Germany has certainly fallen off on the soccer field, as evidenced by 5-1 losses to both England and Romania two years ago and a 4-1 thrashing sustained against Italy earlier this month. A week after the loss to Italy in Florence, mighty Bayern Munich was buried by Milan 4-1 in the Champions League. But a country with Germany's tradition, bolstered by the world's largest sports body -- the 6.3 million member Deutscher Fussball-Bund (DFB) -- cannot be underestimated.

So, again, almost nobody knows what to expect when the Germans face the U.S. in a friendly in Dortmund on Wednesday.

Will the German players be scuffing their passes, blowing scoring opportunities and tripping over each other as Americans go flying past them, with Oliver Kahn reduced to a benign nonpresence in goal? What has happened to German precision, the intimidating qualities of mental and physical strength, the undying confidence?

Or will this be an example of the new Germany -- energetic youngsters such as Philipp Lahm, Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger; relatively recent immigrants Gerald Asamoah and Patrick Owomoyela; a team built around a superstar Ossi (East German-born) Michael Ballack?

Coach J├╝rgen Klinsmann has indicated that most of the experimenting is over -- though he couldn't help but try out Manuel Friedrich, a defender from Mainz 05 -- and he intends to spend more time in Germany than in Huntington Beach from now until the June 9 World Cup opener against Costa Rica in Munich.

Klinsmann has hardly inspired the confidence of his countrymen. But he also inherited a team in decline. Though the Germans reached the 2002 World Cup final, it is generally accepted that they have not defeated a top-class European opponent since 2000 (a 1-0 win over England) and that their road to Yokohama included a fortunate victory over the U.S.

Indeed, Klinsmann and assistant coach Joachim Low are doing precisely what must be done in a transition situation. They are revamping the squad and injecting new ideas as well as players. Klinsmann has said he has taken direction from American sports and even from the German women's team, and this seems to have taken the concept of German open-mindedness too far for many Germans. But Klinsmann will distill all the research, get the best 11 German players to perform together before the home fans and be ready for what appears to be the easiest World Cup group. (On March 1, every Group A team lost: the Germans to Italy, Costa Rica to Iran, Ecuador to The Netherlands, Poland to the U.S.).

Meanwhile, Klinsmann will have to weather some storms.

Borussia Dortmund followers are said to be upset about the exclusion of 33-year-old defender Christian Worns from the German team, so they might not provide a warm and cozy greeting for Klinsmann at the 81,000-capacity Westfalenstadion. But the loss of Sebastian Deisler is more disconcerting for Germany.

The list of the missing for both teams has grown quickly in recent days. For the Americans, Clint Dempsey was suspended for fighting with a New England Revolution teammate, and Landon Donovan fell ill. For the Germans, Deisler tore knee ligaments during a Bayern Munich training session, and then Torsten Frings and Mike Hanke were injured in Bundesliga games (also, Robert Huth was not immediately released by Chelsea).

The U.S. will have a difficult time finding direction without Donovan or Claudio Reyna in midfield and without DaMarcus Beasley as a reference point. Brian McBride might be better off missing this game, since U.S. forwards will not likely receive more than a minimum amount of service against the Germans. In fact, this might have been a good test for someone like Dempsey to prove he could set the pace and provide midfield leadership for the U.S.

The U.S. defense has not been tested recently, but it could be against Germany if the midfield struggles. The U.S. has been able to set the tone and to pressure opponents this year. But it has been a long time since the U.S. has had to react to being on the other side, of having to withstand long periods of opposing pressure. In recent games, U.S. defenders were seldom pinned back in the penalty area, but if that happens against Germany, it could be a good test for them -- and especially for Cory Gibbs, who is with the team for the first time this year.

There already is growing speculation about who will replace Klinsmann as German coach after the World Cup -- led by the daily Bild, which has apparently become Klinsmann's antagonist because he has broken a tradition and refused to give the newspaper preferential treatment. Ottmar Hitzfeld and Matthias Sammer top the list.

No such debate has taken shape in the U.S. But, someday, Bruce Arena will depart, and there is no surefire successor for the position of U.S. head coach. The answer, possibly, could be right here in California, though.

Klinsmann is apparently intent on being in the U.S., and nobody else residing here can come close to matching him for international experience, as a coach or player.

A Klinsmann hire for the United States would be about globalization and the modern workplace. Klinsmann can reside 6,000 miles away from Germany and still do the job for the German national team. Another coach (Guus Hiddink) can reside in the Netherlands, coach a team in Eindhoven and lead Australia to the World Cup. Chalk it up to experience. Klinsmann learns lessons in this World Cup, then he leads the U.S. to the World Cup finals in 2010 or 2014.

Frank Dell'Apa is a soccer columnist for The Boston Globe and ESPNsoccernet.