USA coach JurgenKlinsmann speaks exclusively about the new, eye-to-eye style for football in America. The German boss, a FIFA World Cup winner in his playing days, touches on what it takes to match the big boys in the international arena and why the Stars and Stripes need to become a ‘tournament team’ if they are to reach his publicly stated goal of a semi-final appearance at Russia 2018. Join FIFA.com for a frank chat with USA’s headman, whose enthusiasm for the game in his adoptive nation is nothing short of infectious. Excerpts:
You promised a new style when you took over the USA post in 2011 – more proactive and less reactive. Have you achieved it?
We started the transition from a reactive style to a more eye-to-eye, proactive style, because that’s what the best teams in the world do. In order to progress you have to look at the best teams and try to get closer to them.
In what ways have we seen it?
We’re not sitting back on our heels. We’re trying to play with the big teams. We moved the whole game a little farther up the field. We pressure high now. Step by step, we’re learning how to play out of the back. All these elements are part of a more proactive style. But we’re still in the phase of piecing it together. It’s likely to take years.
We saw you successfully take on some big names at the World Cup last year. How do you rate a win over Ghana and a draw with Portugal in the group phase?
Some people were surprised to see us go right at Ghana and Portugal and try to implement our style on those games. We got out of the Group of Death and that is a big achievement. We fell back a little against Germany and Belgium; we fell back to the older way of doing things. We had a little too much respect for them.
Do the changes you’re talking about come only on the pitch?
It’s also a mental transition. You have to give players the belief to play against the bigger teams and get them to say ‘let’s give it a go.’ So this process, this mental process, takes years too. We’re in the middle of it and it’s exciting.
Do you need a new style of player to play a new style of football?
Not really. Every coach in the world works with the players they have. These players have strengths and weaknesses and you try to cover the weaknesses and build on the strengths. The formation doesn’t matter; it’s how you connect every piece together on the pitch. And this is a learning process. We need to teach everyone to be connected, all the way from the goalkeeper and his defensive line, up to the strikers. There’s a collective movement that you see with teams like Germany and Spain – with the big teams. You notice how close and compact they are when they have to defend and how fast they open up when it’s time to attack. You try to teach these elements. These are the things you need to teach to players no matter what system you use.
You’ve experimented a lot with players, bringing in new faces from new places. Players are coming from Europe and from Mexico, the NASL, even some university players. What are you looking for?
We have a responsibility to win our big tournaments. Like the Gold Cup this summer, that will hopefully take us to the Confederations Cup in 2017. But you have your development situations too. Right now we’re in a more developmental period. Of course we want to win all of our friendly games, but they give us the opportunity to develop players too. I can ask the question ‘how good are you?’ ‘Do you understand what it means to play at the international level?’ We have players in Europe and South America and Mexico too. The only way to meld them together is to bring them in and let them swim in the cold water.
Has the football culture changed in America since the World Cup in Brazil?
It gave us a huge boost. People saw it could be so exciting and so emotional. We had public viewing events all over the country for the first time. Sports bars were packed with people sneaking away from work to watch the games. The locomotive of that increased attention in our country is the national team. It means a lot emotionally. That’s what we’re building on…we’re trying to find our own niche and that niche is growing very, very quickly.
You’ve publicly stated that it’s your goal to reach the semi-final in Russia in 2018. Is this realistic?
We set the bar very high because we want to explain to the players what it really takes to get to a semi-final. We left Ghana and Portugal behind us in Brazil 2014 and we almost drew with Germany and almost beat Belgium too. These are all big names. So the players understand they can actually beat big nations if everything goes well on that particular day. Now we need to educate the players what to do when the Round of 16 is over. We have to examine what it takes to win a quarter-final, to get into a semi-final. A lot of consistency is required. The path over the next three and half years is to explain constantly to the players that anything is possible. You can do this, but you have to learn to become a tournament team.
You’ve not only been to a semi-final, but you won the World Cup in 1990. How important is that for you as a coach?
Experience always helps. You can tell the players not to get nervous about certain things and not to worry too much about other things. I lived through it. It’s not just the good side either, but the bad side of it I can pass on too. I lost two World Cups. I won one but I lost two. I can explain why I failed in certain moments in a big tournament. If they understand that, they trust you. It helps a lot when you can give them examples of why they failed or why they made it through. And the margins, of course, are very, very small.
You were criticised for making negative comments about Major League Soccer. Can you clarify your feelings?
I never made negative comments. It was written that way in the media, but I didn’t. I said that I want our players to get to the highest possible level… A lot of people thought this was negative to our own league. I never meant that to be the way. MLS is growing with tremendous speed and it can’t be denied. They’re building toward the big leagues in Europe. This couldn’t be more important to us in the national team. I’m the biggest supporter of MLS – and if you look at the team I had in Brazil, there were 11 or 12 players from the league.
But you still want your players striving for the highest bar?
I have a responsibility to tell the individual players to go for the highest goal. No fan or coach would argue if we had an American playing for Bayern or Real Madrid or Barcelona. You have to try for these things as a professional.
What are the best qualities of American players?
The players are open minded and hungry. They want to learn. They are like sponges. They are good listeners…
You still seem to show a lot of enthusiasm on the touchline. What’s your reaction to that?
A coach wants to help. To give the players a little input. You don’t know how much they actually take in because players are emotional and nervous out there. They’re pumped up and in the middle of a fast paced thing. A lot of times your message will drift into the air. At the end of the day, they have to play their game.
What qualities do American players still need to work on?
Reading the game ahead is something we still need to work on. Tactically understanding certain elements like playing a high line and shifting quickly from defence to attack and back again. Staying always connected with each other. The mental alertness, to not switch off – this still needs work. But this comes with experience and competition. So the more experience and competition they get, the faster it will come. The more they will become consistent. It’s only matter of time before these areas get better too. We will catch up. The positives are outweighing the negatives. The game is on the rise in America.