Jürgen Klinsmann talks shop with Eight by Eight about tournament mentality, the United States’ priorities in Brazil, and the future of football stateside.
Describe the mentality of the American player, compared to his European counterpart. Where is he stronger? Where is he weaker?
The U.S. player has a winning mentality. They are always willing to give 100 percent, and they always strive to be the best. When you talk to coaches in Europe, they always appreciate the attitude that American players bring to the table.
Having coached both the German and American national teams, is there a discernible difference in “tournament mentality” between the two? Is there a way to instill in the American nationals the same killer instinct that’s seen in world champions?
The measure of how teams can be successful in a tournament is how much they are willing to “suffer,” how much they can push themselves, and if they can continue to grow and get stronger as the tournament goes on and not the other way. They are plenty of good soccer nations that aren’t able to win a trophy because they can’t sustain the effort over two months.
What is your mentality going into your first match against Ghana.
In this so-called Group of Death, we think of the Ghana game as our World Cup final. It’s critical that we get a result in the first game and set the tone. Therefore, our main focus right now is getting ready for June 16 in Natal.
With so much pressure on the squad this tournament, how do you prepare your players to deal with success or respond to failure?
We tell them to embrace this opportunity, which for most players is once in a lifetime. You may never see another World Cup in Brazil, and this is an amazing moment. They will be very prepared, and then we go out and give it our best shot.
How do you ensure your players are prepared for a speed of play that they may not be used to?
We have spent the last three years now trying to play against the top nations to give them a sense of what to expect. Having said that, the World Cup is three or four times faster than what they experience throughout the year. The World Cup preparation camp will be about pushing them both physically and mentally to get them prepared. The biggest challenge for any team is can you maintain the focus and effort for 90 minutes.
There has been a lot of talk about the advantages and disadvantages of the MLS schedule. Are there any pluses to being in the middle of the season, or is it a calendar that ends up negatively impacting Americans in both domestic club play and in the World Cup?
There are positives as well as challenges. As it relates to the World Cup, the players in MLS are coming into mid-season form and will still have some freshness, which certainly helps us. For all of the players, regardless of where they play, we are going to have to raise the level of fitness for what is necessary in Brazil.
Let’s talk a bit about philosophy: Soccer is a different kind of game compared to the American stalwarts of football and baseball. It’s intuitive, and improvised. Can you talk about the importance of empowerment and expression of play, especially in the context of coaching American players?
What makes soccer so special is that it’s a player’s game. In other American sports there is so much impact that a coach can have on the game; in soccer, it’s the opposite. I remind coaches all the time that their job is to be a guide for the players. At the end of the day, it’s the players who are making the decisions on the field.
What challenges have you faced as a foreign manager to this regard? How much “undoing” of long held beliefs and methods has occurred?
It’s going to be a long process, but it’s an important one. It’s very different from the coaching model in other sports. It’s a fascinating topic, and I enjoy that side of the work.
In previous interviews, you’ve said that Americans need to play abroad, in more competitive international leagues. However, for some players, is just making it out of the United States an achievement that can lead to complacency? How can you ensure that just making it to Europe isn’t enough?
We always tell our players that they constantly have to strive to reach their highest level possible. If you do go to a better club, are you a starter? Are you making an impact on your team? Can you now move to the next level? We are here to help them in any way we can, but the message to them ultimately is that it’s their career and they must take control of it.
Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley are two players who will be closely watched this World Cup. They are also two players who left careers in Europe for more playing time in MLS. How do you approach this tradeoff as the manager of the national team? If a young player has the opportunity to go to a European club, but cannot expect regular playing time, is it still a good move?
Clint and Michael both had their reasons for coming back to MLS, and I respect that. It’s obviously huge for the league. From a purely soccer perspective it’s not perfect, but our job as coaches is to help them as much possible maintain the level they need to compete in international soccer, and we will do that. For younger players, they have to gauge the situation and see what makes sense in the moment. Yes, we want them to play at the highest level, but is the club a good fit? Is it the right time in your career? All these things must be evaluated. There is no one right answer.
You have pledged to manage the Men’s National Team, and serve as USSF’s Technical Director, through the 2018 World Cup. In your grand vision for the development of the sport in America, what role does this competition play?
The World Cup is an opportunity to measure yourself against the best teams in the world, and when the spotlight is the brightest. The interest from media and fans is bigger than it ever has been before. We want to show that we are making progress in our ability to compete eye to eye with the best teams in the world. We know it’s a difficult group, and we also know that you get judged on results.
If you were going to describe the concept of the game you’re attempting to imprint upon American soccer culture, what would it be? What direction are you moving in? What makes American football recognizable as such?
I believe that the style of soccer should reflect the culture of the country. America is a country that wants to be the best, that likes to be proactive, and is willing to be innovative and open-minded to new ideas. This is the approach we bring to the U.S. team. We want to be proactive, play high pressure, keep possession, and attack. That’s the direction we are going, and I am happy with our progress.