By FRANCO PANIZO
LANDOVER, Md. — U.S. men's national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann sat at the table in the press conference room at FedEx Field on Saturday night without his usual cheerful smirk. Instead, he sported a stern look as he prepared to speak to the several dozens of reporters that filled the room for his postgame talk.
The typically optimistic Klinsmann had just witnessed his side suffer a 4-1 defeat to Brazil. And while there were positives to build on just as there had been four days prior following a rout of Scotland, the U.S. head coach was not pleased with how the game was officiated, leaving him to utter the words that are already causing a stir in some U.S. soccer circles.
"We've got to move on, but we need to get an edge more nastier," said Klinsmann. "Maybe we're a little bit still too naive, maybe we don't want to hurt people, but that's what you got to do. You've got to do that at the end of the day, so we've got to step on their toes more and get them more frustrated and make a case with the referee maybe as well for us, not only the opponents."
While some will focus on Klinsmann's choice of words, the overall meaning of what he said was, or at least should have been, well understood. The U.S. team had given too much respect to Brazil, especially at the start of the game, and the Americans lacked a bit of the necessary toughness that is required when taking on a world power like Brazil.
Some of the American players even said so.
"I agree with what he's saying," said goalkeeper Tim Howard. "He's probably talking about more from the opening whistle stamping that authority, ruffling their feathers, letting them know that they're going to be in for a tough game, not just towards the end or when the chips get down."
Added forward Herculez Gomez, who scored the lone U.S. goal: "I think that's a fair assessment. I think at times we came in with too much respect for them, because they were Brazil. Like I said, they bleed the same, they sweat the same, and when we imposed our game on them for certain stretches that second half, you were seeing them being the ones on their heels, tracking back, trying to hit us, trying to play a little dirty."
It is not as if Klinsmann's postgame comments following the Brazil match were the first time he had used the word 'nasty' or tried to talk about the Americans needing more of that type of attitude. He said it in the fall of 2011 when describing the play of German-American midfielder Danny Williams.
Klinsmann was asked to further elaborate on the topic of his team being too naive and not nasty enough later during the press conference, and he responded by saying the players need to be more forceful in terms of making things happen in the game and with the match official.
"It's just in the nature, still, of our game," said Klinsmann. "When you play these type of teams and you play it kind of at a higher emotional level against the Marcelos of the world, the Neymars, or whatever, and things are getting provoked, you also may have to make your case.
"If you watch big teams in the world when there's a call going against them, Barcelona is one of them, they come with 10 guys towards the referee, the referee is confused, he doesn't even know who to show a yellow card to. And I think we just need to be stronger to make our case, to tell clearly that this is not all right and to be more confident in certain moments."
The Americans may not have been as confident as Klinsmann would have liked in specific scenarios, but most pundits and fans would acknowledge there were signs of progress. Unlike in recent meetings against the Selecao, the United States tried to impose themselves by keeping possession and creating chances. The hosts did that well for stretches, but missing those chances and having some subpar moments in defense resulted in the lopsided loss.
Those aspects need to be further fine-tuned and improved before World Cup qualifying begins next week, as does the team's ability to play with the requisite toughness Klinsmann is seeking. But therein lies the problem.
Fixing the defense and correcting poor finishing are coachable, while Klinsmann is unsure if adding that toughness is.
"I don't know," said Klinsmann. "It's something that you certainly discuss, it's something that comes also out of their personalities and we have to develop it a little bit and mention it here and there. But obviously you don't want to change the characters.
"But I think it has a lot to do also with belief, believe in your capabilities and if you start to believe that, we can build something special towards 2014. Also with these games against Italy, against France, against Brazil, we get those experiences how to deal with them. In August with Mexico and later on in the year we play Russia in Russia. Those are the benchmarks. … It needs to be developed. How, I don't know yet."