Jurgen Klinsmann: U.S. must develop more attack-based style
Jurgen Klinsmann has ambitious plans to revamp U.S. Soccer's development
Some players weren't called up to face Mexico because of their club situations
Klinsmann would like to install a more attacking approach if it proves feasible
PHILADELPHIA -- The first thing you notice is the shirt. Jurgen Klinsmann is wearing a blue-and-red Nike shirt with the badge of the U.S. national team as we sit down on Sunday for our first private interview since he took over as the U.S. coach. For some reason, seeing Klinsmann in the team gear for the first time rams home the point more than anything else so far. He's here. The World Cup-winning German really did take the job.
Klinsmann's first game happens to be against Mexico, the U.S.' archrival, here on Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Univisión). But more important than the result itself is the new vibe that Klinsmann is trying to create around the national team. He's serious about his new project, but there are plenty of smiles and laughs in our 20-minute talk, which at times seems more like a conversation than an interview.
It's clear that Klinsmann is surrounding himself with staff members, many of them former U.S. players, who also have ideas. As part of his rotating "guest coaches" plan, Klinsmann has brought in former U.S. players Tab Ramos, Thomas Dooley and Martín Vásquez as assistants this week, along with goalkeepers coach Mike Curry and Athletes Performance conditioning guru Mark Verstegen.
Also here is former U.S. star Claudio Reyna, the U.S. youth technical director, who recently released a new coaching curriculum to develop young players. "It's great for me to have [Klinsmann's] support right away," Reyna told me on Sunday. "He sees it is only logical that we work together. He's invited me into every national team camp. It's an open door to come in and sit with the staff and help him as he's looking for people that are going to help and make things happen. I can give him a sense of knowing these guys a little bit more than the current staff that's here, because I've played with a lot of them."
I'm presenting this interview as a Q&A in part because it's interesting and in part because the format helps show how Klinsmann's thought process is working as he takes over the U.S. team. He doesn't pretend to have all the answers right now, but he does have ideas -- lots of ideas. In the course of our interview we discussed a number of topics, including why he didn't call up Clint Dempsey, whether the U.S. has the personnel to play a more attacking style, how he'll pick a captain, whether he'll hire a tactical guru assistant coach and when it will be realistic to think the U.S. could win World Cup.
SI.com: For this game against Mexico you have one of the toughest FIFA dates of the year when it comes to conflicts with European-based players just starting their clubs seasons. Is that part of the reason why Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Alejandro Bedoya weren't called up on your first U.S. camp roster?
Klinsmann: It's basically all based on individual situations. Dempsey got back into his team and is starting to have his rhythm. He also has to kind of clear up things with Fulham in terms of is there a possible move out there? So where I sensed kind of some personal issues on the table that need to get sorted out right away instead of flying over here and being away from the team, I evaluated what options do I have? If I don't call them in, do I want to try something out with other players that are already in-season? Every individual player has his unique situation, and that's how I made my decisions.
With Clint I said: 'You know what? Maybe it's better you sort things out with [Fulham coach] Martin Jol, who I know really well. Then I follow up after our game with the coach and with you and we'll see where this leads.' Michael Bradley, for example, is a different case. Gladbach right now is not planning with him but still acknowledges that he's doing a tremendous job in training. Every training he's sharp, he's fit, he's full of energy. So we need to give him the opportunity to play. At the same time, maybe things change there. Now they have their first game tonight. He's not in the roster. I talked to the coach at length, so what is good for him is to come here and be part of the group. It's a new beginning. And maybe you'll see how they do without you, and maybe after that that changes. [Borussia Mönchengladbach ended up winning 1-0 at Bayern Munich.]
Jermaine Jones is another one. In the beginning they said we'd rather sell him because of whatever roster issues, coming back from Blackburn. He fought his way back into the team and played all 90. So every situation is tricky and different. I go from there and make my calls and say, let's see that guy. Freddy Adu is kind of in no-man's land because of Benfica and their decision not to include him in the roster. The loan was not prolonged in Turkey, but obviously he's eager to play and perform. On the other hand, he can't even join D.C. United for a little bit of training because then Benfica says we can't release you because you're with another team. I said Freddy, you come in, we evaluate you and see where you're at and then we go from there. Maybe I can help you there.
You go through 30 names and then try to figure out what is best for our program to move it step by step forward. Are you going with an experienced older second goalkeeper? Or do you throw in a young one [D.C. United's Bill Hamid] who makes mistakes like he did last night, you know? [Hamid got a red card on Saturday.] There's always a little bit of a risk to it, but you only improve by taking risks. I always say make your mistakes and learn from them. The kid comes in today, obviously he had a tough night (laughs), but it's O.K. I say: Who should be the No. 2 behind Tim Howard? Because Tim is obviously set. We came to the conclusion, the coaches I talked to, let's go with a younger No. 2. Now Brad Guzan is not even playing right now at all. Everybody knows his strengths and weaknesses. I don't know the strengths and weaknesses of Bill Hamid. So I talked to [United coach] Ben Olsen, obviously, but we want to experience him and see the kid. This is how you go from one name to the next to the next.
SI.com: I wanted to ask you about your captain choice. How will you go about naming one? And how much value do you put in the captaincy role?
Klinsmann: I definitely will name a captain. That will be my call. But I will do it based on a lot of characteristics. How is he seen within the whole team? What is his position in the game out there? What are his qualities on the field? Off the field? I think there are great choices. You have Carlos Bocanegra, who's doing a great job overseas. You have Landon [Donovan], who's very experienced. You have Tim Howard. You have a couple of captains, basically, in the team, and that's good with me. For Wednesday I'll go with one name because only one captain can be out there.
But I'd like over the next couple times we get together to give the older players a sense of their responsibilities. This is really important. They have to understand they are almost as responsible as the coaching staff in order to get the program to the next level. Their mentorship of younger players, their leadership, their body language, their words that they choose: Every day when they get together here in the name of U.S. Soccer, they represent this program and they need to grow into a role of being an example.
SI.com: People are looking forward to the U.S. perhaps playing a more attacking style. Does the U.S. have the players to do that?
Klinsmann: Obviously we would love to have more depth in the player pool that is really attacking-minded and has all the options to go into the box and create chances and all that. It is what it is. And I think now getting the team together for the first time, for us it's really important just to get a sense for what they're able to do and what they're not able to do. And down the road I think we're forced into a position that maybe except Mexico, in the CONCACAF region we have to develop a style of play that is more attack-based and more possession-oriented because the opponents would rather react to our style than be proactive. All the other nations are in a more holding-back role when we face them, if it's Costa Rica, Guatemala or Nicaragua, whoever it is. They will sit back and wait and go, what is the U.S. team doing? So you're forced into a position where you have to set the tone as the U.S. team.
I'd love to take that as a starting point and tell the players, in order to set the tone this is what we need to do. We need to fitness-wise be superior to our opponents. We need to have a constant higher pace, not only in the first 20 minutes but throughout 90 minutes, which is a process. It will take time. We will re-evaluate players every time they come into the national program on the physical side. We'll start testing every time they get together to see where they're at.
What rhythm do they play with? It's very tricky with European-based players because Ricardo Clark didn't play, Michael [Bradley] didn't play. So where are they at physically? It's the difference between being in a good training rhythm but also being in a match rhythm. So yes, we'd like to start developing a more forward-thinking approach, but one step at a time. Because it's also an educational process, a tactical process, that whatever player is playing a more forward-minded role has to realize he becomes a defender once we lose the ball. That also isn't happening overnight. All the top teams in the world work on that right now, that 11 guys defend the moment they lose the ball. We can't afford having two players after they lose the ball just standing there and waiting for the next attacking moment. If those players aren't defending right away, we have a problem on the international level.
SI.com: Joachim Löw was seen by many as a sort of tactical guru assistant coach for the German national team when you were the head coach. Are you looking for a tactical guru as an assistant on the U.S. team?
Klinsmann: Jogi, at the time I chose him, he'd been fired by Austria Vienna, and he was available. I'd known him for many years. He has a tremendous talent in implementing things on the training field that is discussed beforehand. We always made the training plans ahead of the sessions. He's a great implementer, a great communicator on the field. So what I did there and what I always do is I try to identify the strengths and weaknesses of all the coaches around me and put them into their strong position. When I see somebody is really strong at implementing the exercises we discussed on the back four, for example, then I want to let him do that.
My philosophy has always been empowerment. That was very new to the German system. Big struggle for Germany! Because Germany is very hierarchy-oriented. They expect the head coach to be all over the place and the assistant coaches just to carry the cones around. So I came in and said for me, an assistant coach is not somebody who carries the cones around. The assistant coach is there to implement our strategy. Not to say yes-yes-yes but also to say no when he thinks there's a better way to do it.
So I kind of crashed this whole hierarchy mentality and said you're in charge this, Jogi, and the goalkeeper coach is in charge of that. I brought in sports psychologists and said this is the way I think it should work. I followed the NBA and American football. I had talks with Pete Carroll, a day with Phil Jackson, Coach K. I studied all these approaches. And then you need to decide when you're in charge what is the best way for you to do things?
When I stepped down after [World Cup] 2006 they sold it in a way, Germany, of 'Oh yeah, it's Jogi doing all of that...'
SI.com: How did you feel about that?
Klinsmann: It was no problem for me, because I have no ego (laughs). It took me a week to push this through, but I said I'm not leaving Germany after the 2006 World Cup until Jogi Löw is in charge of that team. Because politics there, especially media politics, tried to push their man into that role. So I said to the federation -- and at that time there were two presidents, which was unique in world soccer -- I said to both: 'I'm going to step down because I'm going back with my family to California, but I'm not going back before Joachim Löw and his entire staff are able to continue the work that I started over two years.' Because I was in a very strong media position because of the exciting World Cup, they said O.K. It took me a couple days to get that process finished. I'm totally happy for Jogi, because he's a very good friend of mine. We touch base almost every two weeks and talk at length about international soccer, what's going on. He kept everything going the same way we started the process. It's exciting to see.
So now what I'm trying to do here is find the right people next to me -- not under me -- that are strong in whatever they are strong in. Martín [Vásquez, Klinsmann's former No. 2 at Bayern Munich] is a very strong implementer, a very strong communicator on the training field. He has tremendous qualities there. I want to see how Tab [Ramos] and Thomas Dooley are interacting with people. The important thing is we kind of combine a couple things here. One is to learn how to present themselves in the group and on the field. And secondly that they have a relaxed way of being in that environment when it gets to major stress.
Meaning: When we approach qualifying in hostile environments, in Central America and places like that. Once we hopefully are qualified and approaching a World Cup, then it's about staying calm when the wind blows really strong. That's why I think it's important to see what a Thomas Dooley or Tab Ramos can bring because they've played in World Cups. I'd love to look around also in the college game and talk to people there. But still you always have to build a bridge. Can they do the same type of work they're doing very well in the college game on an international World Cup level? Which is maybe then not that intellectual anymore because it's more about keeping your nerves under control, handling people in different circumstances. It's maybe more straightforward than when you talk about the further development of the curriculum of U.S. Soccer, which is a more intellectual topic with a lot of content, like what should be the best 30 exercises for our Under-20s to develop their game? That is more of a thought process that takes a specific part of your brain.
But when I'm there and in two days we play Argentina with Messi and those guys, what do I need in that moment? I need mindsets that are O.K. with that. I'm excited about the process. And going through that process I'm learning a lot from them. Mike Curry, the goalkeeper coach, I know him for more than 10 years. I watched him 10 years ago doing training sessions with goalies and I was saying wow. It was different from the European approach, different from what I'd seen before in the professional game, a very smart person. So I called him up. I said: 'Mike, none of you are confirmed on the staff, but I would like to meet you again and work with you and see where it leads.' It's an interesting process.
SI.com: At what point in time will it be realistic to think the U.S. could win a World Cup?
Klinsmann: Realistically, we need to really dig deep into the U-20 and U-17 programs. Starting with the academy topic. We need to find a way to give the 14- and 15-year-olds a path throughout the next years where they almost are daily in a competitive, positive playing environment, which is not there yet. Then you can see the talents coming through. The biggest challenge is once they are 18, 19 and getting into the MLS Draft or maybe going overseas, what can we give them on tools to break through?
I'll give you an example: As long as the MLS plays seven months a year and doesn't cover another four months with highly competitive training and games, it will be very, very difficult. Now did the MLS already come a long way? Absolutely, yes. But what are the next steps? The next steps are how can we get as close as possible to an 11-month season with MLS and an 11-month season with all the younger U-20 players? Is it a combination of club and college? A combination of full-time academy programs? All the stuff needs to be discussed. People need to sit down and hopefully get a little bit on the same page on that.
But one thing is certain: The American kids need hundreds and even thousands more hours to play. That is a really crucial thing. If it's through their club team, if it's through themselves, whatever it is. The difference between the top 10 in the world and where we are right now is the technical capabilities and the higher pace. In a high-pace, high-speed environment, to keep calm on the ball, to sharpen your minds so you know what to do with the ball before you get the ball. That's the difference right now. You might have technically gifted players here, but once you set the pace two levels higher, they lose that technical ability because they're getting out of breath or their mental thought process isn't fast enough.