It’s always a special occasion when USA and Mexico meet. On Saturday 10 October, the two old archrivals of North America will lock horns once more with a place in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup on the line. FIFA.com caught up with American coach Jurgen Klinsmann to take the pulse of his side heading into what promises to be a super-charged atmosphere and a spicy affair in California’s fabled Rose Bowl.
The American coach, a former playing icon with Germany, talks about his team’s troubles at this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, the need for his senior players to lead the fight and, most importantly, what puts USA-Mexico up among the “greatest rivalries in world football.” **
FIFA.com: What’s the biggest challenge of preparing a team for a one-off game, with much on the line, against their biggest rival?*
*Jurgen Klinsmann: **I wouldn’t say it’s a challenge. Our job this week is to get everyone on the same page and understand this is a huge opportunity. They have a chance to win a trophy in front of 90,000 fans against their biggest rival. This is something they’ll never forget. This is about representing your country and giving everything you have for each other. If we do that, I’m confident we’ll win.
What did you learn from this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, where you lost to Jamaica in the semi-finals?
There were so many things that happened in the tournament and decisions that were made that affected the outcome. It was difficult for the players to know what to expect. For Mexico and for Panama it was the same thing. The lesson is that you just have to roll with it and try to control the things you can.
Does that fourth-place finish at the Gold Cup, on home soil, act as a kind of a motivation for the Mexico game?
With all the controversies from what happened in the Gold Cup, there is certainly a bitter taste. But that’s all behind us now and we play for the CONCACAF Cup and the right to play in the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017, which is huge. Any time USA plays against Mexico, there is really no need for extra motivation.
*You’ve been in the top US job for almost five years now and you’ve met Mexico many times. How would you define the rivalry between these countries on the pitch? Can you compare it with others you’ve experienced?
*The USA-Mexico rivalry is one of the greats in world football. For me, it compares to Germany-Holland in terms of the intensity and emotion it brings out in the fans. As USA coach, it was a learning curve to understand how much this rivalry means to our fans. We had won some games against big nations, but the reaction from everyone to when we went down to [Estadio] Azteca and beat Mexico there for the first time was just amazing.
What makes the rivalry unique?
What is unique is that there are so many Mexican-Americans living in the United States, so the rivalry crosses borders. We have seen many times in these last years that younger Mexican-Americans will wear a Mexico jersey to our game, and when we start doing well they take it off and have a US jersey underneath! More and more they’re supporting us, and we hope to continue to win them over.
You had two recent friendles against South American sides – an impressive come-from-behind win against Peru and a heavy loss to Brazil. How have these game helped prepare the way for Mexico?
We always want to test ourselves against the best; it’s the only way to grow as a team. Games against opponents like these are always a good benchmark. Beating a very good Peru team that finished third at the Copa America was a great result, and then you go up against the five-time World Champions [Brazil] and you might get a lesson like we did.
What was the difference between the two teams when you played Brazil?
Players need to get used to playing at the speed and tempo that Brazil can play. When you look at their squad and its full of players who are starting in the biggest clubs in Europe and playing consistently in the Champions League, it’s no surprise they are at another level. We learned a lot about some of our players and where they stand, which is great information going into this big game against Mexico.
The Rose Bowl is a special stadium, the only American ground to host a World Cup final, back 1994. It’s also in the greater LA area, which has a large Mexican-American population. What do you expect of the crowd and the atmosphere?
We expect an amazing atmosphere in the stadium. Last time the US played here four years ago, the crowd was 90 per cent supporting Mexico. Now there will be more than 30,000 fans supporting us, and it just shows you how much the support has grown. Supporters groups like the American Outlaws will be there in full force, and it’s really important they understand how much it means to the team to know they’re behind us. Our fans give us such a big lift during games, and we know they will be there for us Saturday.
How important is it for USA to reach the Confederations Cup, a tournament where they went to the final in 2009 in South Africa?
*Qualifying for the Confederations Cup is an important goal. To be in the host country a year before the World Cup is a huge opportunity to get to know the stadiums and the training sites, get used to the travel and the food and the hotels, and most importantly to make connections. We went to Sao Paulo in January of 2014 six months before the World Cup in Brazil, and when we came back in May it felt like we already knew everyone and they knew us. Organizationally you can solve problems before you get there, so it gives you a leg up. And of course you get to play against some of the best teams in the world, which we don’t get to do consistently. That’s critical.
Mexico won the Gold Cup, but they didn’t always convince with their performances. Now they have a new coach. How do you see their squad now? *
Mexico is a team with a lot of quality and that we know very well. Really at this stage we’re focused on our team. When you go into a USA-Mexico clash, a lot of it comes to mentality and who is the strongest collective group on the day. We want our group to be focused, disciplined and really fighting for each other. That’s what it will take to win this game.
*Your captain Michael Bradley has taken to Twitter to hype the rivalry and Saturday’s game. How important is his leadership in your team right now?
*Michael is one of the leaders in the team who has a ton of experience along with a Clint Dempsey, a Jermaine Jones, a Jozy Altidore and so many others. These guys know what it takes to be in this type of environment and all the things surrounding this game, because they have been here before. We need all these guys to step up and give everything they have.