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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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...'
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.
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.