In the second instalment of FIFA.com’s two-part interview with USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the former striker chatted candidly about Mexico having the edge in the most hotly disputed of North American rivalries. The former Germany and Bayern Munich boss also discussed players needing to improve themselves, the peculiar complications of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™ through the CONCACAF Zone and his hopes of finding a ‘hidden Messi’ on US soil.
FIFA.com: Jurgen, you have been experimenting with many new faces in your first six months in charge. What do you look for most in assessing a potential national team player?
I look for consistency and hunger. I can only tell the players to believe in themselves; I can’t do it for them. Every performance needs to be at the same level, like it is at Barcelona. It’s doable with the right mindset. The mental part of the game is very important. I can see a lot of my players taking this on. Some players we will lose along the path, I know this. You have to suffer to get to the top, I don’t care what field you are in: journalism, business, sport. The players need urgency. They can’t wait for things.
Can you give an example?
[Edson] Buddle was having trouble getting in the team with his German club Ingolstadt, so he was just hanging around, taking a break. I got on the phone and arranged for a fitness coach to work with him in Munich. He drives an hour and gets worked out hard and then he drives back to Ingolstadt feeling tired. There are no breaks at the top levels of football. It’s why I am sending some players from MLS over to Europe to train in the off-season (Brek Shea, Tim Ream, Juan Agudelo to name a few). There is no off-season.
So, they need to make themselves better players?
It’s about empowerment. You can only get people to do better if you leave it up to them. Soccer is driven from the inside. It's a player's game no matter what the level. This is something that is hard for Americans to understand. Baseball, American football and basketball, to a lesser degree, are driven from the outside, by coaches and managers. You have playbooks and timeouts and all manner of things.
Do you think there is a problem of sporting culture to work past?
In football, there are 11 quarterbacks on the field, so to speak, and they need to improvise and change things all the time. And that’s why I need to develop players who push themselves. You have to go out and work on the things that you are weakest at, over and over, hundreds of times every day. Then it will become automatic.
You have much experience in world football, but CONCACAF is different. You have never been to ‘The Office’ in Kingston, Jamaica or played on a bumpy cricket pitch or in the hostile environs of Central America. Are you ready for it?
It’s true, I am not totally familiar with the way things are over here in CONCACAF, but I will be. This is one of the main reasons that we will go play a friendly in Panama later this month. This way I can get a sense of the atmosphere in Central America, where there is great animosity and passionate feeling toward the USA.
I don’t think the Mexicans like to play us. The US players are fighters and they put everything on the line and never give up.
When USA play in Central America and Mexico is it about more than just football?
The US is seen in a special way in Mexico and Central America. I know from my playing days what it is to play in hostile environments and on tough pitches, in South America and Africa and big derbies, but this is a special case. I have good people in my coaching staff, like Martin Vasquez (Mexico-born former USA and Mexico international), who have a foot on both sides. We will do a great deal of preparing.
Friendlies are one thing, but FIFA World Cup qualifying is a whole different animal...
The goal becomes very practical once qualifying starts: get the points you need to take you through.
Mexico are USA’s arch-rivals and they currently boast one of their best teams in recent memory. Is there pressure to not only qualify for Brazil 2014, but also to beat Mexico along the way?
The rivalry with Mexico is big and you have to respect it. I have an admiration for what Mexico have done in the last ten years or so. The youth system at national level and the academy system at their clubs has been amazingly productive. They have all done a great job and their style of play is very creative, mainly because they have the kind of players they need to play that style. This is something we’re aspiring to.
Your first game in charge ended in a draw with Mexico, but before that the US were beaten badly in the Gold Cup final. Is this is a bad time for USA in this rivalry?
I would love to play Mexico every day. When you play teams like this, good teams, you play up to their level. Mexico are a notch above us on the international scene, there is no denying that. At the same time, we know we can beat them and we’ve proven it.
What do you think makes the USA-Mexico divide so great and so interesting to players and fans?
I don’t think the Mexicans like to play us. The US players are fighters and they put everything on the line and never give up. There is a psychological component to the rivalry. I had a taste of it after only one week in the job and it was great. We drew Mexico, but we should have won and it was a great moment to show my players what happens when you make a silly mistake against a strong team. CONCACAF needs five more Mexicos and it’s games like this that will get us to the level of the bigger teams. They bring out the best.
How important are experienced veterans like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey to the fortunes of the current US team?
Guys like Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are very important because they carry my message. As a coach you need the support of players like this on and off the field. Also, it is good because it can move them out of their comfort zone where they will have to challenge themselves more. There are also times where they need to step back and give the younger ones a chance to breathe. I couldn’t be happier with the way these players are going about their business as leaders.
You joked early on in your tenure about finding a “hidden Messi” somewhere in this very large USA. Do you think there are pockets of unknown players who might have what it takes to go all the way?
There is definitely talent in the US that is not being tapped. I think most of them are to be found in the Hispanic areas, in places like Southern California and Texas and Florida. We are trying to get our heads and hands around that. We are doing great work in building bridges and getting these players over to our side early, so they don’t get pulled toward Mexico.