With a beer in one hand, the U.S. fan wearing a Landon Donovan jersey walked down the stands, closer to shouting range. A few feet away, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati stood on the field before an exhibition game against Turkey at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J.
“He’s a legend,” the fan said, his voice rising. “How do you sleep at night, Sunil?” The twenty-something fan raged on about coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to cut Donovan from the World Cup team before shouting, “They don’t even speak English!”
They are the dual nationals, most notably the five German Americans on the team — Jermaine Jones, Fabian Johnson, Timmy Chandler, John Brooks and Julian Green. Four are the sons of U.S. servicemen. All were raised in Germany, and English is their second language.
Then there’s Mix Diskerud, who has an American mom but grew up in Norway, and Aron Johannsson, born while his parents were studying in the USA and raised in Iceland.
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Countries relying on players who grew up elsewhere is not a new, or American, phenomenon. “It’s a process other nations went through 10 to 20 years ago,” Klinsmann said, citing France, the 1998 World Cup champion, as well as Germany in the previous two World Cups. “Now it’s happening more and more with the United States. It gives us a new dimension.”
Look through the rosters of the 32 World Cup teams in Brazil, and dual nationals abound. Mexico has two players born in the USA on its squad. Iran has an American-born defender who plays for Vancouver in Major League Soccer. Spain, the defending World Cup champ, features Diego Costa, who made the controversial decision to pick La Roja over his native Brazil.
Though three of the seven dual national players were courted before Klinsmann took over the program, there has been a subtle, and not so subtle, undercurrent about the Germanification of the American team throughout his tenure.
When Klinsmann cut Donovan, the face of American soccer, and added 19-year-old Green, a promising unknown with 31 minutes of U.S. game experience, the critics took aim on social media and soccer message boards.
The crossfire, and the code words, sounded like a debate between Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow. Should a player with little connection to the country take the spot of someone who came up through the American system and helped the team qualify for Brazil? Will a player raised elsewhere fight for the flag and care as much as someone raised in red, white and blue?
“I understand the point. I don’t agree with the point,” Gulati said. “What would one do? Say to the coach, you can only pick players who have been here for 25 years and have certain roots? Well, I’d be talking to a coach who has roots somewhere else if I made that sort of statement.
“My very strong comment about it is four of the five (German-American) players we’re talking about here are American citizens by nature of having an American serviceman father. If Bruce Arena or anyone else wants to tell me they have less of a right to play for the United States, we strongly disagree.”
Arena, who coached the 2002 and 2006 World Cup teams, doesn’t think relying on dual nationals is good for the growth of the game in the USA.
“I’m a big believer in the American player and producing them out of our system. I think that ultimately is what will develop the sport in our country, not on the field but with the consumer,” Arena said. “When they can recognize our players and who they are and where they came from, they’ll be more supportive of the sport, and that’s a big plus in terms of marketing. When we do it with randomly selecting people from all over that really have no connection, I don’t think it hits home with people we want supporting our sport and our national team.”
ESPN host Michael Wilbon raised the nationalistic volume last week, ranting about comments Klinsmann made to The New York Times Magazine. In the article, Klinsmann took issue with the concept of paying stars for what they’ve done in the past, citing Kobe Bryant as it relates to Donovan.
“I mean seriously, Mr. Klinsmann now wants to tell all of American sports how to work. Get the hell out. Get out of America,” Wilbon said. “When did Klinsmann become an expert on American sports?”
So Klinsmann, after 16 years in this country, hasn’t lived in the USA long enough to understand its sports culture? The irony is rich. Before Klinsmann coached Germany’s 2006 World Cup team, some German critics thought Klinsmann’s methods were too American.
UNITY AND A WILL TO FIGHT
In the previous three World Cups, the Americans were defined by their team spirit. Though they weren’t the most talented team, they fought for each other, and their unity was a defining characteristic. With so many newcomers on the team, from disparate places around the globe, will this World Cup team have such cohesion?
“On the cover of it, you think it’s a necessity to have a tight group willing to fight for each other,” said former U.S. forward Brian McBride, who played in three World Cups. “You need players trusting of each other, willing to work for it.
“What will be the outcome of the continuity of the group? In ’98, after our first game we imploded. We didn’t have that togetherness that’s so important. There wasn’t the community in the team that you sort of needed.”
In 1998, McBride said he almost lost his spot to France-born David Regis, so he is well aware of the possible issues. “One, are they deserving, are they better than what we have?” he said. “Two, will they have the heart and the fight — not only the guys on the field but the country? If they have that, I have no problems. Then they’re deserving of it. If you’re taking a player because he’s technically more gifted and talented and that person’s not fighting the same way the rest of the guys on the team are, then you’re in trouble. It’s a weakness, not a strength.
“That will be the big question,” McBride said about the U.S. team in Brazil. “If we don’t start strong, what happens?”
The USA will face Ghana in a must-win game in its opener next Monday in Natal, and games against powerhouses Portugal and Germany follow.
U.S. players, those born here and elsewhere, say that unity exists, and they celebrate a team full of hyphenated Americans.
“For me, America, that’s who we are,” midfielder Kyle Beckerman said. “We’re a mixed bunch. We’re from all over. The guys who live in Germany grew up there. We feel they’re just as American as we are. So they play with pride, wearing the crest and supporting our colors. It’s just who we are.”
There are four first-generation Americans on the team, with parents from Mexico (Omar Gonzalez), Colombia (Alejandro Bedoya), Haiti (Jozy Altidore) and Hungary (Tim Howard). Chris Wondolowski is half Native American and a member of the Kiowa Tribe. This diverse group is Jewish and Christian, biracial, bald and dreadlocked. They speak with New Jersey accents and German accents.
Jones, a midfielder, is one of the most important players on the team — a leader no matter the language. (And by the way, all the German Americans speak English but lapse into their native tongue among themselves.) Jones grew up in Frankfurt and has played nearly all of his career in Germany, with little connection to his American father. Still, he bought a house in Los Angeles several years ago. When his playing career is over, he says he’ll move his wife and five children to the West Coast — just as Klinsmann did in 1998 after he retired as a player.
FIFA rule changes have increased the number of dual-passport players allowed across the globe. In 2009, FIFA eliminated the age limit of 21 for players requesting a one-time switch of federations after having participated in official competitive youth matches for one country. Once a player appears in a senior game in a FIFA or confederation tournament, he cannot change his allegiance.
Never before has a player with Green’s potential chosen the U.S. team at such an early stage of his career. Green, a Bayern Munich reserve, could have waited and perhaps moved up the German national team ladder with one of the world’s best teams. Instead, he chose the USA because of Klinsmann and the players who made him feel so welcomed.
In his first camp, before he had pledged his allegiance to the USA, captain Clint Dempsey gave Green a jersey with his name on it. The gesture made an impact on Green. Most significantly, choosing the USA gave Green the quickest path to the sport’s biggest stage.
If he doesn’t play a minute in Brazil, will he regret his decision? “No. I like this decision. It was the right decision,” Green said. “It didn’t matter whether I was on this World Cup squad or not. It’s the country. I’m born in this country; my dad lives here. The team is good, and players are very good to me.”
Green didn’t directly take Donovan’s spot, but the perception is there. As U.S. women’s soccer star Alex Morgan tweeted during the game June 1 against Turkey: “I really want to like Julian Green. I really do.”
If those who grew up elsewhere help the USA defy expectations and advance out of its group, expect reluctant fans to come around. Winning, after all, is what it’s all about.
“If it helps our team, by God do it,” four-time Cup vet DaMarcus Beasley said. “If they’re a good player and have an American background, bring ’em. We want guys who will help our team.”
As much as the U.S. Soccer crest that rests over their hearts means to some, the World Cup is not about patriotism. Players fight for their teammates, for personal and team glory, not necessarily for the millions watching at home.
The dual nationals might not have American accents, but they do have American passports, as well as American tattoos. Brooks has a map of Germany on one elbow and Illinois, where his father’s family is from, on the other. Jones has a stars-and-stripes tattoo on his knee.
“I have two parts,” Jones said. “One half German, one half U.S.” And when the Americans play Germany in their third game? Jones wants his U.S. half to win. But it would be nice if both teams advance out of the group, he said.