FIFA.com caught up with Jurgen Klinsmann to discuss his first six months in charge of USA. A legendary former player who dazzled for Germany, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan and Tottenham Hotspur, the 47-year-old spoke candidly about his hopes to transform American soccer from floor to ceiling.
Calling Southern California home for the past 13 years, the ex-Germany coach talks affectionately of his “special relationship” with the USA and his hopes to overhaul the country’s football. Tactics, individual responsibility, technique, nutrition, fitness, philosophy – it is all on the table for the energetic Klinsmann, who pulls no punches. “No spot is guaranteed” in his team, he warned in the first instalment of this exclusive two-part interview.
FIFA.com: Jurgen, can you describe your first six months in charge?
Jurgen Klinsmann: This is a transition period. We are moving away from a reactive style of play to a proactive style. We want to play with the big teams; we want to take on the bigger nations and play like they play. This requires a different way of working from the top to the bottom. There is the physical side, the technical side, the fitness side, and the tactical side. We need to improve all areas of the game and this doesn’t happen overnight.
This seems a tough task. How are the players reacting to your new approach?
I think they’re getting the message. They’re taking to the idea of training harder, doing double sessions. I ask a lot of them from a tactical perspective, but also things like nutrition and lifestyle. It’s important to show them that they need to go further all the time, that it is up to them to drive themselves forward.
Can you talk about your friendly results so far? Two wins, four losses, one draw and only five goals scored - this can't have been exactly what you were hoping for?
The results have not all been great, but changes like the ones we’re talking about take time. Here and there we have been unlucky, but that’s OK. It’s part of the process, part of the transition. Also, I would say that we've put in some very good performances so far and are working toward something bigger.
You’ve taken over from Bob Bradley, who had his own approach. How do you make changes in a national team?
The most important part is to work and train the way you want to play. It’s not done in words or on a blackboard, but out on the training pitch. You have to work on the fast transitions, getting back behind the ball when you lose it. [You have to] bang these impulses home so that they become second nature.
What is the philosophy behind the way you coach?
This is not something I have come up with in my brain, or on a wish list. It is something dictated by the global game and those teams that play at the highest levels in Europe. Spain are a prime example, and FC Barcelona perhaps the best example. Germany and Holland are doing it to a lesser extent – they are driving the game forward, changing the way it’s played. I was in Brazil recently and it’s amazing that there is this sense that maybe they missed the boat a little bit in the kind of development that is going on in places like Spain. And here we’re talking about a five-time World Cup winner. The trends are set in Europe and especially in the Champions League. Now we must analyse that and figure out how best to get to that level and that way of playing.
So the theory is to not just bunker in and hope for results against the bigger teams, but to be one of the bigger teams?
If you play Spain or Barcelona ten times and try to stay back and defend, you might win one out of those ten games and maybe get one draw, but they will beat you, probably badly, seven or eight times. Maybe they will have a bad day and you will get lucky, but this is what I mean when I say the USA needs to be more proactive and less reactive. My goal is to show the players that the way to compete with this kind of football is to improve every element of our game.
Your best result so far was a 3-2 win in Slovenia in November. Did you see the kind of football you’re talking about then?
It’s not good enough to have a 45 good minutes like we did against the Slovenians. We need to be tactically more aware and awake all the time, to play the game the same way, totally tuned in, for a full 90 minutes. Little mistakes are not allowed at the top level, and we saw that against Ecuador (a 1-0 loss in which the Americans looked decidedly flat).
Can you keep players from making mistakes?
All the elements need to improve. As the players get better and hungrier, the team gets better. There’s more competition. Along the way we will lose some players. When I was a player, there were countless times when a team-mate had more skill than anyone out on the training pitch, but you just knew that he wouldn’t make it because his mentality was wrong.
You spoke in an early press conference about trying to unearth new talent in this very large country. How do you do that?
There’s still a long way to go in finding the best kids at an early age. This is crucial. Technical development of players happens in many ways between the ages of six and 12, and we’re not there yet. We need to get the young ones to play more soccer, every day, in a fun and positive environment, to develop like they do in Europe and South America.
There are not many American players, aside from goalkeepers, playing in big-name European clubs. Does this need to change?
Yes. A decade or so ago, you had American players playing overseas, but they were at much smaller clubs and they weren’t playing. They were sitting on the bench. Now 80 per cent of my team is overseas, and playing too, not sitting on the sidelines. Now we need to connect the dots, to find players in different backgrounds, to tap the immigrant communities. I see the US team as a team that will represent the United States as a whole entity, as a country of variations and different influences.
Perhaps a USA national team that is a little more diverse?
My job is about finding an American style, an exciting style that is American in its essence, and then allying it with the methods used by the biggest and best teams in the world. There is a blend that we need to get right.
Are there many differences between American players and those produced in the rest of the world?
The American player grows up in a country that is driven by the big three sports (baseball, basketball and American football). Soccer is not a social binder here like it is in other countries. This is important to understand. If you have a bad game for your MLS club, no-one will come up to you in the supermarket the next day and [criticise] you about it. This happens in Europe, in Germany and Italy for sure, I know from experience. It is from this that you get a sense of responsibility. I want my players to experience this.
Is it possible that some of the players in the national team feel a little too safe in their position?
It’s even more important as a national team player to feel the responsibility, the weight. As a national team player, you have to work harder and do more than any other player at your club. You need to get to training 30 minutes early. I push my players to adopt this attitude. It is about today and tomorrow, not yesterday and yesterday’s triumphs. My players have to work for their places and no-one is guaranteed a spot.
How have the players reacted to this?
They’re curious about the new approach. It’s a lot of training for them, a lot of change and a lot of work. But they are beginning to notice that the harder they train, the fresher they feel.
You seem very focused on more intense and rigorous training for your players…
We are teaching their bodies to work hard and teaching them to eat right. Think about it from a nutritional standpoint - junk food and fast food are the enemy. You wouldn’t put diesel in your Ferrari, would you?
What is the next step for the top American players?
I want them to get to the next level, the highest levels. The Champions League is where the music is played, and I want my players to feel that and to know it and be a part of it. The players need to get to the big clubs, get to the Champions League. I tell them that they have the skills and they have the ability. But now it is only about their hunger and their drive. No coach can teach that. No coach ever taught me that. I had to work myself and have the desire to get to places like Inter Milan. You have to do the work. You have to run more, score more goals, fight more and be more consistent.
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.
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.