It is hardly a surprise that USA have made considerable progress since Jurgen Klinsmann took charge of the side over two and a half years ago. Under his stewardship, the Stars and Stripes qualified with some ease for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ and have backed that performance up with notable friendly wins against the likes of Italy, Mexico and Bosnia.
The former Germany boss is now facing the biggest challenge of his tenure stateside. With Germany, Portugal and Ghana lying in wait for his team in the group phase at Brazil 2014, the inimitable Klinsmann will seek to steer them into the knockout rounds, a daunting task he discussed in an exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
FIFA.com: You scored your last FIFA World Cup goal against Mexico at France 98 and now you’re in charge of another CONCACAF team. How do you feel the zone has developed over the last few years?
Jurgen Klinsmann: It’s developed a lot. The teams get more recognition and respect now, and I think the region has come on leaps and bounds. You only have to look at what Costa Rica did in 2006 and Honduras in 2010. And then there’s Mexico, who show what they can do every time they take part, and USA, who have been consistent performers.
What do you think has been the biggest improvement?
They have always had skilful players, but they’ve been light years away from the most powerful nations in terms of pace and intensity, and that’s where I think the gap has closed. Beating a CONCACAF team is no easy task any more. They always make it hard for the opposition. Mental strength also comes into it at the World Cup, and the zone still has to show that its teams have what it takes to reach the quarter-finals or the last four.
Since your time as Germany coach you’ve always been regarded as a great motivator. Tell us about the work you’ve done with USA in trying to get their mental approach right?
We started to work on it as soon as I took the job on and we went into the final phase of qualifying for Brazil 2014 convinced that we’d have to score late goals to get results and away from home too. In football you need to have special players to get special results and if you don’t have those players, like Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, then you have to look for a way of compensating, by working as a team and having a winning mentality. We went to Russia and Bosnia and got good results there, and we won in the last few minutes in Panama when the game looked to be over. We’re making progress.
Do you think you can make the team as mentally strong as Germany?
It’s a mental approach that takes years to develop. It’s not something that happens overnight. I think the confidence Germany has comes from years of success. They’ve won the World Cup and the European Championships three times each, and they’ve turned games around in the last minute time and again. That confidence is not down to coincidence, though. It’s the result of a lot of hard work. It doesn’t always work out, but it comes about through dedication and experience and that’s what we’re trying to achieve with USA.
How close are your team to achieving that?
It’s a process and we still have a lot of work to put into it. Looking your opponent right in the eye at the start of a game is no easy task because you see the names and you can get overawed. We’re going to face the same challenge every time. You can do all the physical and tactical preparation, but you never know what’s going through the minds of the players, whether they’re nervous, overawed or worried about what friends, family and the media might have to say. Every player handles all that differently, and in response to that we try to prepare them in the best possible way.
Generally speaking, though, USA are used to winning.
The American mentality is really very impressive. They always want to be first. They know they haven’t made it in terms of football just yet but they’re making their way. You’ve got lots and lots of children playing the game now, you can watch league football from all over the world, and the local TV rights are worth so much more now too. The game is growing from top to bottom. The ambition has to be to reach a World Cup semi-final, and what we have to do is work to create the right kind of atmosphere for that to happen.
Do you feel then that you’re under the same pressure as the big teams?
Not really. We haven’t reached the semi-finals in an awful long time and nobody’s expecting us to do it now, which means there’s a lot less pressure on us. That said, you still have to set goals for yourself and ask yourself: ‘How far can I go?’. If you’re Brazil, Argentina or Germany you have to reach the Final, and if you don’t, then you’ve failed. That’s the way it’s always been. USA have to try to go further than they’ve ever been before.
You’ll be up against some very strong opposition in Brazil. What can we expect of your team there?
No matter whom we play against, we’ll always be a team that gives 1,000 percent, and even when we take on stronger teams, we’re not going to sit there and just wait to see what happens. The only word that matters to us is ‘winning’.