DENVER — As a 20-something captain with the Colorado Rapids, Pablo Mastroeni had a saying he often shared with teammates.
In soccer, he told them, there are two types of players: piano players and piano movers. A heady, relentless player, Mastroeni built a star's career on the strength of his work rate and desire to win. "I was definitely a piano mover," he said.
The piano players? They are the lovely ones, made-for-marketing goal-scorers and playmakers who wear No. 10 and juggle soccer balls on Coca-Cola commercials.
Which brings us to Jurgen Klinsmann. Thursday's game against Germany, his home country, is all about the coach of the U.S. men's national team.
Aside from the patriotism that turned the U.S.-Portugal match into the most-watched soccer game in American TV history, I want the U.S. to advance for another reason. So Klinsmann can smile into the camera and say it without saying it:
How ya'll like me now?
Klinsmann was the one criticized before he coached a game in this World Cup. While soccer heads mocked his decision to cut Landon Donovan, he's the one who valued future results over past performance. If the U.S. doesn't advance through group play, he's the one who will face blame from a national media that ignores soccer for years, only to become futbol experts when there's a controversy to attack.
Most important, Klinsmann is the one who built the U.S. roster on a foundation of piano movers. To succeed in Group G, I think Klinsmann sought players who were open to his style of coaching and play within their limitations: piano movers.
What did Mastroeni, an original piano mover, think of this theory?
"I don't think it's a stretch. I think it's the way soccer, as a whole, is going," the Rapids coach said. "Back in the day you had a special number of 10s. These were elite playmakers, true luxury players. And everyone else worked to get the ball to them. Now, even Cristiano Ronaldo is working his tail off just to get the ball."
With personnel decisions that hurt the hearts of American soccer heads, Klinsmann had to know the backlash he would face. He did it anyway. This U.S. team showed guts before it stepped onto a Brazilian pitch.
"The decisions he made," Mastroeni said, "Were ballsy."
In a group with the wowing athleticism of Ghana, the precision of Germany and the star power of Ronaldo and Portugal, the U.S. needed a niche. The Yanks needed a quality that would separate themselves and even the playing field.
That niche was a roster built on piano movers - grinders - who would absorb his coaching out of respect for the man who trusted them enough to make the team.
Of all the factors that make this U.S. side utterly likable, an understated one is the lack of entitlement.
The swipes at Klinsmann remain nonsensical. Do you really think a man who led West Germany to the 1990 World Cup title would put his soccer reputation on the line by constructing a team that wasn't as sharp as it could be? It's as if soccer heads think they have a better grasp of the U.S. training room than its head coach.
"This guy has a lot more insight than we do. It's easy to question his opinion, but only after the tournament," Mastroeni said. "While we might think his decisions are strange, he had a reason for it. It's his (backside) that's on the line."
Here's a lesson that can be applied to armchair analysts across all sports: a good coach always knows his locker room better than the rest of us.
"At the end of the day, if he gets through this, he's going to look at the world and say, 'I told you so,'" Mastroeni said. "To everybody."
That's what I want to see.
Soccer heads loom with torches to roast Klinsmann if the U.S. doesn't advance through group play. But in their minds it will be the players, not the coach, who should earn praise if the Yanks advance through.
Sorry, you can't have it both ways.
Mastroeni played for the U.S. in a pair of World Cups. Count him among the sharp soccer minds who scrunched their eyes when Donovan, a close friend and former teammate, was left home. But Mastroeni admitted we aren't privy to the inner workings of the locker room.
"Even in my situation, people will say: 'Why are you playing that guy?' Because I see him every day in training," Mastroeni said. "I see him around his teammates. I see his commitment to the team. I know his mood, his level (of play), his fitness level.
"The fan takes it purely from what they see on Saturday. But coaches are working 270 days a year with these players."
The beauty of Klinsmann's plan is in the details. Clint Dempsey, the star forward, never should be confused with a piano mover. But I believe the coach named Dempsey the team captain to encourage the 31-year-old to lead by better example.
The U.S. didn't deserve a win against Ghana but got one. It deserved a win against Portugal and was stung with a draw. These things tend to even out over the long haul.
But what's with the animosity toward a coach who led the U.S. to its first win against Ghana in five meetings and came within 30 seconds of a historic win against Portugal?
The U.S. continues to improve its status on the international stage. But it isn't and never has been on a level in which a draw against Portugal can be taken for granted.
Four points after two matches? This was the heavy lifting of piano movers.
And a coach who deserves his share of credit, too.