One of the best players of his generation, Jurgen Klinsmann is no stranger to overheated rivalries and the fever pitch of top competition. In an exclusive interview with FIFA.com, the current USA coach and former FIFA World Cup™ and UEFA EURO winner with Germany talks about what makes USA-Mexico games “so hot” on the eve of the latest installment of the CONCACAF clasico this Friday.
The former goal-poacher, runner up for the 1995 Ballon d’Or, also touches on the specific challenges of the six-team Hexagonal, the aura of home-field advantage in Ohio and why he is as excited as any USA fan about Dortmund-based phenom Christian Pulisic.
FIFA.com: You’ve faced Mexico seven times as USA coach now. What makes the rivalry so special?*
Jurgen Klinsmann:* It’s very unique. It’s a confrontation that’s about a lot more than just soccer. But it’s also part of a tradition in the game worldwide, where you have teams that define themselves in relation to their biggest rivals. You have Argentina-Brazil and Holland-Germany and Italy-France and so many others. And that’s not even considering the club rivalries and derbies.
There seems to be a special intensity to games between the Stars and Stripes and El Tri…
It really is a special thing. In our region, it’s the big one. It’s the two big boys going at each other for a lot more than just the result. There’s a lot of heat involved, but also there’s a lot of respect. This can’t be ignored. In my five years in charge, every game between the two of us has been played with intensity and respect. It’s never boiled over.
Is it a challenge for you to keep players calm in the locker-room? Is it possible to be too pumped up?
I think the players are just really excited about the opportunity. They’re eager to get out on the field and to prove a point. Mexico is such a big football country that some Americans, players and fans, think that they’re not there yet. Not at that same level.
So, American players have a point to prove when they play Mexico?
They [Mexico] have more history and more players in top teams throughout the world than we do. They have a deeper culture in the game. Every game against them, we have a point to prove. And I think that’s a cool thing. My players know how big this game is. They know that everyone at home is watching. It’s a big stage. It’s a special occasion, especially in World Cup qualifying. It’s the moment American players all wait for.
If you were arranging the calendar, would you rather face Mexico and Costa Rica later in the Hexagonal?
Maybe if it were up to us, we would have tweaked the calendar a little bit. But we have no control and we’re happy to take things as they come. It’s cool with me, really, to start right away with Mexico and then, a few days later, on the road in Costa Rica, which is another huge challenge. It comes pretty fast, our biggest rival and then our second-biggest rival. But I’ll tell you, they have to do the same thing!
My players know how big this game is. They know that everyone at home is watching. It’s a big stage.
Columbus, Ohio has become a fortress. You’ve won the last four qualifying clasicos there and the fans seem to play a big part in it. How important is the venue?
This place is hugely important for us. It’s a smaller venue where we have 90 to 95 per cent of the fans behind us. At the bigger venues in the US, that’s not always the case. You end up having more Mexico fans than USA fans. This is normal, and I totally understand. But in Columbus, it’s different. There is an aura built up here over the years. We’ve won so many times, and by that 2-0 scoreline, dos a cero, that you have a sense there’s something magical about the place. It feels good – for the players and the fans and the city of Columbus. Against Mexico, there’s a sense that this is our real home.
How important is it to start the Hexagonal strong?
It’s crucial. Early results matter. Last time around, you saw Mexico have some bad results early and then they switched coaches, and kept switching, and in the end they needed a play-off to reach Brazil 2014. We also lost our first game against Honduras and it caused some doubts. If you slip up, of course, there is plenty of time to recover, but we want to start strong.
*2015 was a poor year for USA in terms of results, a fourth-place finish as hosts of the CONCACAF Gold Cup being the lowest point. What is your opinion of that year? *
It was a very important transition year. It was a year to introduce players and give them chances. It was a year for players to have the opportunity to break through, and sometimes that’s not always smooth. You’re always preparing for the next World Cup and sometimes you have to take a few bumps while you try to get the balance right.
But 2016 seems to be quite a bit steadier…
The Copa America [Centenario] helped us in a big way. The learning curve was huge. We understood after playing in that tournament what it takes to play the big teams. We learned what makes them in the top-ten of the world ranking and what we have to do to climb up there. From there, we’ve built forward.
I think it’s rare in America for a player to be so developed at such an early age, but in Europe if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.
The only game you’ve lost to Mexico was a year ago, a one-off contest at the Rose Bowl with a place in the FIFA Confederations Cup Russia 2017 on the line. What did you take away from that game?
It was a fantastic game. Very competitive. In the stands, it was amazing. It was a bummer for us because the crowd was mostly for Mexico. And really, in the end, the Mexicans played at a higher standard than us and deserved to win. You have to swallow defeats like that, but you keep them with you and build for the next one. There are always reasons for it when you lose, but you have to make sure you don’t repeat the mistakes.
You joked early on in your tenure about finding a ‘hidden Messi’ in America. Have you found him in Christian Pulisic?
This player’s potential is limitless. I’ve always said, you need to write your own story and he’s doing it right now. I think it’s rare in America for a player to be so developed at such an early age, but in Europe if you’re good enough, you’re old enough. He’s taken things in his own hands. He’s the piece of the puzzle we were hoping for this year and he’s a great example to other young players about how to go for it – to play at the highest level and prove yourself.
He’s broken into the starting XI for Borussia Dortmund and seems totally comfortable. How important is that?
It’s huge that he’s playing for Dortmund in the biggest Bundesliga games and starting in the Champions League. A year ago, who would have thought it? No one.
Some of your veterans like Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Jermaine Jones and Tim Howard are going through great moments in the heat of the MLS play-offs. Is this a positive when they get to the national team?
For them, absolutely. Those guys are flying and you always want your players coming in feeling high. You want them to have confidence and a positive spirit. But you have the other side too. There are guys coming in who’ve been knocked out of the play-offs and have been virtually on holidays for a week. So, I have to deal with both sides of the coin.
Can you describe the challenges of the Hexagonal to someone not familiar with CONCACAF?
In some ways, it’s a straight-forward competition. Out of the six teams, you want to be in the top three. But you have very tough away games. Logistically, it’s hard. The travel is hard. You go into five away games where the fans are literally burning. So you get taken way out of your comfort zone in every away game. The system is simple: win at home and try not to give away three points on the road. Over the decades, this has worked and we’ll try to make it work again.