PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Jurgen Klinsmann couldn't be more relaxed as he sits poolside in the warm Central American sun speaking with the three traveling reporters who made the journey to cover U.S. Soccer's backup team in a friendly against Panama.
The coach, who is still considered new to the national team since signing last July, answers questions about the young players in January’s camp, the negative attention surrounding Jermaine Jones and his expectations for the following day's matchup at the Estadio Rommel Fernández Gutiérrez. He speaks as if he doesn't have a care in the world, when in reality he knows the pressure is already on.
“It’s definitely expected of me to do a good job and get the results and get things done,” Klinsmann says. “I know that, and that’s totally fine.”
Although soccer isn’t close to as main stream in the U.S. as it is in his native Germany, there will come a time when American sports fans begin to demand that their team be the best. Just ask Bob Bradley, who was canned after over four years despite winning a Gold Cup and beating top-ranked Spain in the Confederations Cup.
The real evaluation begins in June when the U.S. fields its best squad to host Antigua & Barbuda and visits Guatemala during qualification. If Klinsmann’s offensive philosophy doesn’t work then, he will surely hear it. If he makes the wrong personnel moves, he will be questioned.
“The bottom line is to get the [World Cup] qualification in, and then to get as far as you can in the World Cup. Now, that’s the bottom line,” he says. “You can decide [my success] game by game, that’s cool with me. No matter who I have at my disposal, it’s totally fine with me. That’s part of the game as well.”
In January, Klinsmann had names like Chris Wondolowski and Geoff Cameron at his disposal. With Brek Shea and Jermaine Jones as the only players on the 20-man roster who are essentially guaranteed a spot on the senior team this spring, Klinsmann doesn’t have much to work with. The Panama trip must not be too stressful.
The 30-minute media session at the pool ends and Klinsmann leads a group of 20-year-olds (with the exception of goalkeeper Nick Rimando, 31) to a coach bus parked outside the team hotel. Escorted by police, the bus and two other cars weave through the Panama City traffic, running red lights and driving the wrong way on one-way streets. Thirty minutes later, the convoy arrives at the Panama Canal.
The players and staff, dressed in matching Team USA gear, walk through the crowd as they surprise vacationers from all around the world. An older couple from the States asks Shea and Bill Hamid to pose for a picture they would like to send to their grandson. Klinsmann chats with team personnel, as the water rises in the canal.
During a private educational video session about the canal, Klinsmann asks questions about the history of the incredible engineering project. He seems genuinely interested, but it was clear he was also trying to educate his players, many of whom have never experienced a road trip like this one.
"That was amazing," striker C.J. Sapong says. "I knew nothing about it before coming here."
And the education that day doesn’t end in that theater at the canal. The team has an intense practice to attend a few hours later, where they will run a 9-on-9 scrimmage for most of an hour-long session. Klinsmann roams the sideline as if he were a linesman, yelling instructions at his players with each step.
Game time is just over 24 hours away, and no one knows what to expect.
“The more we can play away, those games – if they’re not here [in Panama] they would be in Venezuela or would be in Costa Rica – are an experience,” Klinsmann says. “At home, you still are a bit in your comfort zone. Here they’re not anymore in that comfort zone. That’s what we need.”
The crowd at the newly renovated stadium is loud. Drums play throughout the entire 90 minutes, and fans are certainly into the game as their team applies constant pressure on the young American squad. But the U.S. holds on for a 1-0 victory despite defender Geoff Cameron getting sent off with a controversial red card early in the second half.
"It was almost impossible to hear and tough to communicate," goalkeeper Sean Johnson said afterward. "But it's good to learn how to communicate in loud situations. It's great for me experience-wise to take this moving forward and learn from it.
The team left the stadium as soon as possible. It was less than an hour after the game when the team loaded the bus. Panama deployed dozens of military personnel to block off fans looking to get a glimpse of the Americans.
As the bus rolls away, players from the back seat open the window and hand what appears to be autographs to the Panama fans in red replica jerseys. The team arrives at the hotel one last time and is set to leave for the airport in the morning.
"Overall, I think it really paid off doing this, not only playing a game in the U.S., but coming down here," Klinsmann says. "A lot of the young players learned their lesson.
"We wanted to introduce the players to those difficult games in different environments, especially away from home outside of their comfort zone. We wanted them to come here and experience this atmosphere and a different way of doing things. I think they did very well with all that."
It was fun while it lasted, but June's games won't be so friendly.