ZURICH – Mark Geiger and Jurgen Klinsmann are in similar spots as they prepare for the World Cup. Both need good opening matches if they want to make it to the knockout rounds.
Geiger is trying to become the first American referee to advance from the World Cup group stage. Klinsmann coaches the U.S., and his first challenge is June 16 against Ghana. Germany and Portugal complete Group G.
Geiger is the first American official at the World Cup since 2002. His assignment could be any match from the other seven groups. The 39-year-old former high school math teacher from New Jersey won't know which until days before kickoff.
"If you don't do well there, the tournament is done," Geiger said Thursday after a training seminar at FIFA for World Cup referees and assistants. "We need to focus on that first game wholeheartedly, make sure we nail that and get it right."
If he does, a big step follows.
"It's like any team, any player, any coach, you want to be in the final," Geiger said.
This is Geiger's seventh year on FIFA's international list of officials approved for national team matches. The governing body has monitored him on a candidates list for two years. Midway through the process he made refereeing in Major League Soccer his full-time job.
"Timingwise, it couldn't have been more perfect," he said. "I've seen improvements in myself. I don't have that stress while I'm at the tournament worrying about what my students are doing back home."
Geiger's commitment aligns with FIFA President Sepp Blatter's long-held wish that World Cup referees be free of day-job distractions.
Four years ago in South Africa, World Cup final referee Howard Webb was one of few professionals, having left his career as a police officer in England. Not all the 25 doing duty in Brazil will be full-time referees.
Still, Geiger had admirers at FIFA even when he worked at Lacey Township High School in Lanoka Harbor, N.J.
In 2011, at the Under-20 World Cup played in Colombia, Geiger and his regular assistants Sean Hurd and Canada's Joe Fletcher were rewarded with the final.
"Up to this point it's the highlight of my career," Geiger said of Brazil's 3-2 extra-time win over Portugal, featuring three goals from playmaker Oscar, now starring for Chelsea.
FIFA took Geiger's team to the 2012 London Olympics and the Club World Cup last December in Morocco. A few weeks later, Geiger was picked for the World Cup in Zurich.
"The email came at 2:24 a.m.," he said. "I woke up to an email and a couple of text messages from friends. An outstanding experience just to wake up and see that email."
A four-day training event this week with colleagues from Africa and South America was their last session before reporting for duty June 1 in Rio de Janeiro. Officials from Europe, Asia and Oceania met in Zurich last month.
"It's a great group, a lot of humility. We don't have guys with super egos which is good," Geiger said.
FIFA director of refereeing Massimo Busacca urges his teams to study how the game is played.
"If we understand the team tactics and where they're going to put the ball next, we start moving in that direction and we increase our chances of having a good match," said Geiger, who watches games from across the world. "YouTube is a great tool for us."
Geiger still has time for school work, helping his brother Steven coach track and cross-country, between twice-monthly trips to Dallas for training and briefings with other MLS officials.
The spotlight is about to burn brighter, with fans and media often unforgiving of World Cup errors.
"We're reminded of how much scrutiny there is on every decision we make," Geiger said. "We need to go in there with the confidence and the physical ability to be in the right place, at the right angle to see the play properly and then have the confidence to make that decision."