When the World Cup pairings were announced in December, the date U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann circled most prominently on his calendar was June 26, the group-play final against Germany.
That's the country Klinsmann, the player, led to a World Cup title in 1990 and the one Klinsmann, the coach, led to a third-place finish in the 2006 World Cup. So playing against his homeland in his first World Cup as the American coach was something he both feared and embraced.
Now that the game is at hand, though, Klinsmann says he's feeling another emotion: joy.
"This is going to be so much fun," he said Tuesday. "I'm so excited."
Adding to that excitement is the fact the game Thursday afternoon in the port city of Recife will determine whether the U.S. advances to the second round.
The Americans had almost punched their ticket to the knockout stage before Portugal stole two points from them with a last-second goal Sunday, turning what looked to be a U.S. win into a draw. As a result, the U.S. needs either a win or a draw Thursday to be certain of advancing. The U.S. could also move on with a loss but under that complicated scenario, it would need a favorable result in the other group-play finale between Ghana and Portugal.
Despite the high stakes — or perhaps because of them — Klinsmann said Thursday's grudge match with Germany is shaping up as one of the highlights of an already accomplished career.
"It's very special, it's something that doesn't happen every year and probably not anymore in [my] lifetime, so you try to enjoy this moment," he said. "It's going to be emotional, there's no doubt about it. But I also will enjoy it."
Klinsmann didn't leave Germany under the best of circumstances. Although he was celebrated for guiding an overachieving national team to the semifinals of the 2006 World Cup, he declined to stay on as coach after the tournament, turning the team over to his hand-picked assistant, Joachim Loew.
That's something he's still uncomfortable talking about, although in 2011 he began to move on by taking over the U.S. national team. Now that job has given Klinsmann a chance to fire back because with a win Thursday the U.S. would win the group, leaving Germany, if it advances, with a far more difficult route through the knockout rounds.
"The expectations in Germany are very simple; they've always got to win it. Otherwise they are disappointed," Klinsmann said. "That's just how it is. Third place or second place doesn't mean much to the fans and the people there. And they live with that; they get along with that, so they can embrace those expectations within the inner circle as well."
Klinsmann isn't the only one for whom the matchup with Germany offers a chance at redemption. Midfielder Jermaine Jones, 32, one of five German citizens on the U.S. roster, played 12 games for a succession of German national teams. But after he was cut from the German squad ahead of the 2008 European Championships, Jones, the son of an American serviceman, switched allegiances. And to cement that move, he recently had the American flag tattooed on his left leg.
"Of course, Germany is a special game," Jones said before the U.S. team's Tuesday afternoon flight to Recife. "I grew up in Germany. My mom is German. But [now] I try to win and try to bring America to the next round.
"It's not the point to beat a friend. It's the point to come to the next round. This is the important stuff. We want to show the people that we can beat them."
If the familiarity between the U.S. and German teams has bred a degree of contempt, though, it has also bred a great deal of comfort for the U.S. side. Many of the coaches and players Klinsmann worked with are still with the German team. And there are four players on the U.S. roster who play in the Bundesliga while Jones spent 15 years in the German club system.
"It definitely helps that a lot of our players know the players from the German team," Klinsmann said. "They'll be more familiar with them. … Hopefully it's an advantage."