DAVENPORT — Ahead of the opening exhibition match for the Florida Cup, coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his Hertha Berlin team were enjoying a simple pleasure on Sunday — an escape from the German winter during a sunny morning practice at ChampionsGate.
Central Florida was a top destination for Klinsmann when he was the coach of the United States men’s national team. Now, it offers his Bundesliga club the best winter conditions to prepare during the league’s midseason break as they prepare for a friendly match against Eintracht Frankfurt at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg on Wednesday.
“I would like to use this to build the base for the second part of our season,” Klinsmann said. “For us, it’s very important to have top training fields and top training conditions. We can do quality work with the players, and the players are happy to get some sunshine.”
The club’s Florida trip will serve as a continuation of its Tear Down Walls campaign that began with the team’s matches against MLS and USL League One teams last May. The tour celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall while promoting Berlin soccer.
The series of American exhibition matches serve as an opportunity to spread the brands of both the club and its league.
“I think for German Bundesliga teams, it’s extremely important to have a presence in the United States,” Klinsmann said. “It’s a market that is still growing at a very high pace in soccer. For a club like Hertha Berlin which is the capital club in Germany it’s important for us to have a presence outside of Germany.”
Even overseas, the early morning practice on Sunday drew a small crowd of faithful fans. Karin Jung flew to Orlando with several members of the club’s supporters section to watch the team play in the Florida Cup.
The group had plans for other activities while they stayed in Orlando — a speedboat excursion, tickets to SeaWorld — but Hertha Berlin trainings and games were the highlight.
Jung has been a fan so long that she can’t remember a time that she didn’t follow Hertha Berlin. A 13-hour transatlantic flight was simply another worthwhile sacrifice to make to watch her club.
“I don’t know exactly how it happened, but some years ago I told somebody it’s like you fell in love with a guy,” Jung said. “You suddenly fell in love and then you just have to support it and follow it, wherever it goes.”
American fans also made cross-country treks to watch their club play in the friendly. Four years ago, Todd Fitt took a trip to Berlin from his home in Austin, Texas, and attended a match at Olympiastadion Berlin. He was already a fan of soccer and a supporter of the English club Arsenal, but seeing Hertha Berlin play live converted Fitt into an immediate fan.
Fitt has spent the years since waking up early to catch Bundesliga matches each weekend. When he saw that the club would come to Florida, he made plans to attend every open practice and match. Fitt spent the morning excitedly pacing the sidelines to watch the players in training, grinning when Klinsmann walked past.
Hertha Berlin isn’t a typical team for an American fan to back. That unique element is part of what makes the connection special for Fitt.
“They were the first team I ever saw play in Europe, and that was it, I was set,” Fitt said. “They’re different. Most people in the United States, they’re gonna cheer for Bayern Munich or Dortmund, but that’s okay. I like my team. They’re mine.”
The Florida Cup will kick off with a friendly between Eintracht Frankfurt and Hertha Berlin Wednesday at 7 p.m. at Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg. Admission is free. The tournament shifts to Orlando City’s Exploria Stadium for matches on Jan. 15 and Jan. 18. For more information, visit FloridaCup.com.