Welcome to the Jungle

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Last Friday, a 20-year-old American snowboarder named Sage Kotsenburg won the very first gold medal of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. And although he’s a Utah native, Kotsenburg’s press conference lingo featured more than a trace of Southern California circa 1982. When asked how he invented the soaring improvisations that pushed him from obscurity to the medal podium, Kotsenburg replied, “I kept going and kept it weird.” Despite the baggy snowsuit, he mostly sounded like a surfer dude.

Americans have several good reasons to celebrate Kotsenburg’s victory. The snowboarder’s utter lack of triumphalism is refreshing, for one thing. Also it’s reassuring to hear an athlete insist that extemporaneous freestyling is the key to victory (we might feel especially relieved to hear this given the way the games have been curated in Putin’s Russia). And it’s reasonable to expect that Sage Kotsenburg was only the first of many Americans who will win medals this winter. When the Sochi Olympics are over, and the various nations participating in the games have tallied whatever they tally in golds, silvers and bronzes, it’s likely that American Olympians will cart a drawer or two full of precious metal back to the States with them. Americans who enjoy rooting for their own nation’s athletes during glitzy international competitions will be able to think to themselves, “All right, at least some people in our frigging country still know how to excel in winter sports.” But such moments of chilly smugness can only briefly distract American spectators from the soupy, humid, jungle-heat doom of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

I keep thinking about the upcoming World Cup whenever I read about the Sochi Olympics because while tuning into ski jumping or the biathlon provides, for me, a worthwhile diversion, these events don’t engage my sports-hungry mind the way a game of soccer does. Soccer is the sport I played the most, it’s the one I’ve watched most as an adult too. Yet for some reason this familiarity only makes soccer more able to amaze me when I watch it played at the highest level. And whenever the Winter Olympics begin, that means the World Cup is only four months away.

The problem is, the U.S. has always fared a lot better at the Winter Olympics than at the World Cup. A lot better. And although the U.S. Men’s soccer team has been playing well of late, the sense of hope that had been gathering around the team over the past year or so was cruelly punctured on a cold day last December. On that day, the just-released World Cup draw revealed that the U.S. Men’s soccer team had been placed in one of two “Groups of Death” in the 2014 tournament. Needless to say, the term “Group of Death” is imprecise and un-Olympic-sounding, more likely to evoke images of an old Bruce Lee movie than memories of sunny Sunday afternoons spent on the soccer pitch. But unfortunately, in this case, the phrase is apt because the U.S. has been placed in the same first-round group as Germany, Portugal and Ghana. While none of those three nations is kicking ass in slopestyle snowboarding in Sochi right now, all of them will be heavy favorites over the U.S. soccer team this summer in Brazil. And for good reason.

Generally speaking, a Group of Death is part of a World Cup draw laden with more than its share of international football powerhouses. To use a wintry image (one that won’t make much sense in Brazil come the month of June), a Group of Death is kind of like a tree branch overburdened with snow and icicles. While the tree itself might be perfectly strong and supportive enough for a good climber, that one icy branch is a dangerous place for anyone to test. So this Group of Death business is not only bad for the 23 players who will travel with the U.S. team to play in Brazil—it’s sure to be a difficult group for the German, Ghanaian and Portuguese teams, too. While two teams will advance from each first-round group in the World Cup, the Americans are, by most sensible soccer metrics, the weakest team in Group G. So, not to put to fine a point on it, but the U.S. men’s soccer team will most likely not be the ones to prove that “Group of Death” is a misnomer.

You might think that the head coach of U.S. men’s soccer, Jürgen Klinsmann, would be downplaying all the “Group of Death” hullaballoo and insisting that his team has a fighting chance to survive the tournament’s first round. But, no, Klinsmann has been openly gloomy about the Americans’ prospects. Coach Klinsmann, formerly a potent striker for the West Germany team that won the 1990 World Cup, has bluntly opined that the U.S. team’s first-round group “is one of the most difficult groups in the whole draw.” He went on to say that the Americans’ game schedule is “the worst of the worst. Every coach said, ‘Anything but Manaus’ and we got Manaus.” (Manaus is a notoriously humid Amazonian jungle city far away from most of the other Brazilian World Cup venues, where the U.S. will face World Footballer of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo and the rest of the superbly talented Portuguese team on June 22.) This brand of clear-eyed truth-telling is nothing new for Klinsmann, whose history as an elite international scorer gives him the authority to tell it like he sees it. But he’ll need to find a more inspirational register before the start of this summer’s international soccer extravaganza.

Klinsmann has been coaching the U.S. men’s soccer team for over two years now. Although he intends to sing both the German and the American national anthems at the World Cup this summer, Klinsmann spends most of his time in Southern California. And his adopted home on the West Coast may provide some clues about how best to approach his players on the eve of their Group of Death game play. I doubt that gold medal snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg is available for a trip to Brazil this summer, and I know for sure he won’t be hired as the U.S. team’s fitness coach (according to Kotsenburg, his pre-Olympic-competition diet included “chocolate, onion rings, chips, and stuff”). At any rate the heat of Manaus might melt a young man who makes his living in the snow. But Kotsenburg could help Jürgen Klinsmann remind the overmatched American soccer team to value the process, improvise and remain open to surprises. If Klinsmann needs an inspirational catchphrase to shout from the sidelines in Manaus, it might be this: Hey, U.S.A! Keep going, and keep it weird.

Yeah bri! Keep that shoveling weird

— Tyson    Feb 13, 10:02 PM    #

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