In between planning tactics and carefully selecting his side for a crucial pair of upcoming qualifiers, Stars and Stripes coach and Germany legend Jurgen Klinsmann spoke to FIFA.com about the realities and stresses of playing in CONCACAF, points dropped on the road during 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying, and just exactly what it takes to win a position in his side.
Tangled on seven points with Jamaica and Guatemala, there is cause for concern, but Klinsmann - the picture of optimism - says he can handle the pressure.
FIFA.com: You’ve been in charge for four World Cup qualifiers in the CONCACAF Zone. What have you learned about football in this part of the world?
Jurgen Klinsmann: I learn with every game. It’s very difficult here in CONCACAF, very tricky. I expected this. There has been incredible improvement in so many CONCACAF teams in the last 10 or 15 years, it’s a hard thing to imagine.
What does this mean for the US, where football has also grown dramatically in the last two decades?
All of our opponents are better than they were a few years ago. Central America’s teams are very technical and difficult to play against; there is great athleticism, speed and ambition in the Caribbean. And for every one of those teams, it’s a big deal to play against the United States. It’s the game of their campaign and it has great meaning. They do everything they can to beat us.
You drew a qualifier in Guatemala, conceding a late equaliser, and you lost to Jamaica on a bumpy pitch in Kingston. Can you talk about the particular challenges of playing on the road?
You have to be spot-on on the road in CONCACAF. There can be no mistakes, no mental errors. You also have to be ready to adjust to any environment because it’s unpredictable here. If you take a team too lightly and don’t adjust to the small things, you pay for it.
Did this happen in Guatemala and Jamaica?
Yes. In Guatemala and in Jamaica we gave away a stupid free-kick too close to our goal, instead of making them fight their way in. This is a certain crucial thing we did wrong. I sound like a broken record when I talk to the players about these things [laughs]!
What is it that you have to repeat to them?
Against Jamaica I told them ‘we need to match them physically.’ If we do, we will get our result. If we don’t, we won’t. In Kingston we paid for our mistakes. When you lose points on the road unnecessarily, it makes you angry and you have to repair the problem.
Not matching Jamaica physically was the main reason for the loss then?
Some of our guys matched up physically and some didn’t. It’s a hard lesson to learn. You can’t switch off. Some people in Europe and South America think CONCACAF is easy, but it isn’t. I’ve always understood that. We were prepared, but we didn’t execute, and so we got our lesson. I think we are still the team to beat, but we have to give everything all the time.
You made many changes to the team that lost in Kingston in the return leg against Jamaica (a 1-0 win) in Ohio. Why?
The circumstances were different. We came back to the States, to Columbus, to a gorgeous pitch and a great crowd. We needed to stretch the game wider. Some of the players didn’t play the way I wanted them to play in Jamaica, so I made changes. You need to make adjustments based on what the players give you.
What do you consider when picking your starting team?
All the players need to prove that they should be in the starting eleven. They have to prove it every day, from game to game. You have positions where competition is intense, and the players have to take the opportunities to show they want it. There are no guarantees. I rely on what I see right now, the last couple of games, not the distant past – not last year. This is what a national team is about, internal fighting, competition.
Does this apply to the big stars too – to the likes of Tim Howard, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey?
We have a core of established players that are always there, but that’s not because they’re special in some way or treated differently. It’s because they always show it! They always prove it!
Now might be a good time to discuss the friendly win over arch-rivals Mexico at the Estadio Azteca in August, the first ever win for the US at that venue. What did it mean to you?
I was pleased for the players, coaches and soccer fans in America who were all waiting so long for that moment. I had so many texts and emails that I couldn’t believe it. That moment had just been hanging in the air for so long. It meant something big, and maybe I was less aware because I didn’t grow up here.
Things are tight now in qualifying for Brazil 2014. There are only two games to go and you are in a three-way tie with Guatemala and Jamaica in your group. Do you feel the pressure of potentially missing out on the final Hexagonal round, missing out on the World Cup?
There is pressure, but pressure is not a problem. I remember from when I was a player, pressure gives you a feeling of importance, an urgency – which is a term I use a lot with my players. This is really necessary. It’s great that we’ve qualified for every World Cup since 1990, but it doesn’t give you a guarantee for tomorrow. You have to get through the games, those nasty games especially. It’s not an automatic thing. I look at urgency, not pressure. You learn about your team at these times.
Can you talk about how you’ll approach your next game, on Friday on a cricket pitch against Antigua and Barbuda? They are playing only for pride but they have impressed so far.
This will be extremely difficult. For Antigua, it’s the game of their lives. They will run and fight until their lungs burst. I tell my players ‘put yourselves in their shoes!’ If they win, they write a huge chapter in their history, much bigger than we did in Mexico in our friendly. I’ve made it clear that they need to be switched on from the first second, and never let go. I hope they hear this.
What challenges, in particular, do the Antiguans pose?
They are organised and very tricky to play against. They have good speed and a very interesting striker in Pete Byers. It’s all there for them to take. They had chances to score in their games against Jamaica and Guatemala – they could have won those games if luck had broken for them. We have to play them hard.
When we last talked, six months into your post, you said you wanted the Americans to play more proactive, less reactive, football. Are they?
We can see the first signs of us becoming more proactive. It’s not as consistent as we’d like, but we’re trying to push higher up the field and combine better. Certain elements are much better, and I always said it wouldn’t happen overnight. It’s a process.
Is it difficult to balance the need to get results, qualify for Brazil 2014, and make the kinds of bigger, more systemic, changes you’re talking about?
Right now, we have a tricky balance because we need to get the points to go to the World Cup, but we also want to improve the way we play. The players are getting it. We want every player to move up to a higher level, and you can see that with the likes of Michael Bradley (Roma) and Clint Dempsey (Spurs), playing at big clubs
Let’s talk about your ace striker Dempsey, who just moved to your former club, Tottenham. Are you worried he won’t get as much playing time, and might get caught up in squad rotation?
Every national team coach wants his players to play as much as possible for their club. At some of the bigger clubs, the squads are larger and they rotate a bit more. But all coaches, at big or small clubs, will choose the players that give them the most success.
Dempsey is one of these players?
Clint will fight his way in and become a constant starter at Spurs. Real players don’t want to rest. They want to be in every game; they are hungry. You can already see that Clint is getting a rhythm and Spurs fans see that he is a special player. He’s making history too! He scored at Old Trafford for Spurs’ first win there against Manchester United since 1989.
Some journalists and pundits have criticised you for not changing your formation enough. Can you clear the air about the difference between style of play and formation?
There is some confusion about this. System has nothing to do with style. I need to tell people this all the time. Style is how you want your whole team to move around the pitch, from back to front. It has nothing to do with a system. Look at Spain, they play in the other team’s half, and their line-up doesn’t matter at all. Whether it’s 4-4-2, 4-3-3, 3-5-2, it really doesn’t matter.
What style do you want your US team to play?
We want to push the game higher. We want to have more presence in the other team’s half, instead of reacting to them. This is how confidence grows and it’s part of a long-term plan. We want to play with the best in the world some day.
Does this all happen on the field and the training pitch, or are there other components?
I want my team to work on making opponents adjust to us, not the other way around. If you make the other team adjust, you put them in a mental battle. We need to throw out the past and believe we can be eye-to-eye with the big teams. We want Mexico to be worried about playing us, not the other way around. This moves them away from what they want to do on the pitch. We want our players to be connected on the field, to move together. We want the whole team to defend together and attack together.
You’ve experimented with many new players in your time in charge. Can you talk about what you’re looking for and why you’re looking at so many?
I am taking the opportunity bring up more players and to educate them in the system, and the pride of the national team…what it all means. We work with the MLS [Major League Soccer] guys and show them what it means to compete at this level. It shows them what they're missing and what they need to work on. Look at Geoff Cameron [Stoke City and US defender] – he saw it, answered the call and now he’s in Europe. He stepped up his game and got better.
How long does it take to determine who’s up for the call and who isn’t? Is there a formula?
Over the years, you will see how players handle it. Some will fall out and some will go forward. We want more competition in the team, in the program and in the individual players, to push themselves. The door is always open to the national team, but it’s the player’s decision to walk through and battle and improve, or not.
It seems that you put a lot of the responsibility for a player’s inclusion at his own feet…
More work is always needed. Look at Juan Agudelo [Chivas USA striker]. He is one of the most talented young players in this country, but he fell into a big hole of form and now he has to learn to fight his way out. If I call a player in to camp, I am telling him something. If I don’t, I am also telling him something. A coach can’t play with you on the field; he can’t hold your hand. The coach can’t score goals for you. You need to keep fighting, to do more than the other guy. The players are realising that it’s down to them. They’re getting the message.