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Gedion Zelalem

U.S. Under-15 Boys' National Team
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Jurgen Klinsmann Q&A: Taking U.S. Soccer to the Next Level in 2015

ussoccer.com: What do you think were the most important developments for the National Team in 2014?
Jurgen Klinsmann: “2014 was a big benchmark. It showed us there’s a lot of talent coming through our environment and it makes us very positive going into 2015, seeing younger players breaking through and hopefully having a deeper and deeper pool to draw from. The game overall is just going in the right direction. It’s important that we take all the energy, all the enthusiasm coming out of the World Cup in Brazil and take it to another level. 2015 is full of big events: there’s a U-17 World Cup, an Under-20 World Cup and obviously the Gold Cup in July that hopefully qualifies us for the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017. There’s a lot on our plate, but the biggest lesson we can take from 2014 is that we’re catching up with bigger national teams. We’re developing more and more talent, but still we have a way to go.” 

ussoccer.com: You often talk about the best in the global game setting the trends for the highest level. What trends did you see in 2014, and is there anything you see changing moving forward?
JK: “We talk a lot about the trends in the global game, especially when you come out of a World Cup. You analyze it and talk with the other coaches, and you see it in the different leagues like the Premier League, the Bundesliga or the Spanish league and how those coaches implement those trends. We saw this year the whole team defending and attacking as a unit. Space is getting smaller and smaller because players and teams know exactly how to squeeze it, how to pressure the ball higher up the field to interrupt your rhythm from the early beginning on. It’s very difficult to break through. The tempo is getting faster and faster. If you look at the speed of play 20 years ago, 10 years ago and today, it’s become even faster. 

“That teaches you that you have to develop players that are able to go both ways, that strikers know how to defend, how to shift to squeeze opponents in their build-up, and defenders how to bring the game higher up the field. You have to develop players that are good leaders, communicate out there, and to be connected as a whole team. You need 11 players connected with each other and always alert. On the international level, you can see in a World Cup, if you lose focus just for a little bit of time, just for a split second, you get punished and you’re going fly home. Our job is to develop more and more players able to play both sides of the ball and to be very focused and highly alert for 90 minutes and longer.

ussoccer.com: You have described the series of friendlies early next year as a developmental schedule. Can you elaborate on your thoughts there?
JK: “In order to raise the bar and learn from the best teams out there, you need to play them. That’s why we want to play Chile, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and so forth because we want to continue to grow, continue to learn and those teams will definitely challenge you. They will give you certain lessons, so by going through that process positively and negatively you can get only stronger. Hopefully you develop into a stronger program. Your players individually take a lot of lessons from these games and learn from them, so they understand right away on the field what they are missing to be a real top player out there in the world.” 

ussoccer.com: Five of the seven opponents are ranked in the top 20 in the world. How useful is it to have this type of competition for the Senior Team? Is there a concern about results leading into the Gold Cup?
JK: “Concern about the results if you play the top teams in the world, yeah, you might risk here and there a result. Results obviously matter because wins give you confidence, especially going into the Gold Cup, you need to have confidence to be the No. 1 in CONCACAF and come out as the winner. 

“I think it’s more important in the first part of 2015 that we continue to grow as a team and grow individually as players, so that they understand where the international benchmarks are, so they understand why there are not where other players who play for Chile or Switzerland or Denmark or Holland or Germany are and why those players are where they are – because they are consistent through 11 months a year. They know how to grind it out, they know how to be focused every four days; they play up to 50, 60, 70 games a year. So it’s important for our players to understand that it takes a lot more work to one day catch up with them and beat them. Results matter, but in this case, I’d rather have a negative result in a growing pattern.” 

ussoccer.com: Several MNT players are about to be in new club situations: What is your take on Brek Shea’s move to Orlando City?
JK: “We see all our players in their individual situations trying to find solutions. Brek Shea is a good example. He’s tried badly to find a solution for quite a while since he couldn’t break into the team at Stoke City, so he tried to go on loan and figure out other solutions. Now, he found his solution going to Orlando City and starting over again. 

“It’s exciting because he made decision himself. It shows me he starts to grow, to take things in his own hands. Hopefully he picks up the rhythm right away with our January Camp and going into an exciting first season with Orlando City. I think he understands that he has to play, that players need to play in order to be part of the National Team program. It’s good news. It’s exciting for MLS having a younger player also coming back, but most importantly it’s good news for him in order to catch up again.”

ussoccer.com: DeAndre Yedlin has been granted a work permit and is on his way to Spurs. What types of challenges will he face there, and what advice have you given him?
JK: “I think with DeAndre Yedlin we all know that he’s a very talented kid coming through the ranks and he needs time. He’s still raw, he’s still developing and Tottenham knows that. Yes, we hope he’s going to play there right away, but if he doesn’t it’s not the end of the world because he has to learn to grind things out and fight his way through. He’s in a very good environment there that teaches him to focus daily on his job and deliver his qualities. Then hopefully over time he comes through to make his mark on the Premier League. He has the talent to do so, but it will be a lot of work for him.” 

ussoccer.com: John Brooks has delivered much improved performances of late. Is he starting to understand what it takes to succeed at this level?
JK: “John Brooks is a good example of how players grow in their own way. This is what a national team program is about; it’s about guiding U-17, U-18, U-20 players into the senior team and then also, even if they are part of the senior team, to deliver consistently with their club team. That goes like a rollercoaster in the first couple years of a player’s career. John Brooks has been through a couple rollercoasters already, but he’s still very young. It’s exciting to see him become more consistent now. He understands more and more what his job is all about. It’s about focusing every day, delivering every day, grinding it out every day. Hopefully he can prove that from now throughout an entire season to next summer. That will help him become a strong focal point in our team as well.” 

ussoccer.com: In terms of 2015, you have said the most important thing for the Senior National Team is winning the Gold Cup. What other goals do you have for the team next year? What will be the emphasis of the coaching staff?
JK: “Well there are many goals on our plate for 2015. Obviously, we want the Under-17s to qualify for the World Cup and have a strong World Cup, for the Under-20s to qualify for the World Cup and do well there. We have the Under-23s coming through the ranks and we want to really start to prepare them well for Rio de Janeiro 2016. Obviously for the senior team the Gold Cup gives us the opportunity to qualify directly for the Confederations Cup in Russia 2017. There are so many different chapters in 2015 that are really exciting. We want to help Dave Chesler, who’s the head of our Coaching Education, to upgrade his programs. We want to find more and more players out there to get them integrated into our youth programs; we want the Academy system to get to another level as well. You see the MLS growing, expanding now to 20 teams. There’s so much going on in American soccer that it’s really exciting. 

“For us as National Team coaches, there’s a lot of individual work needing to get done. We have to help the players, the young ones to grow a little bit faster, a little bit more aggressively and to understand their jobs a bit better. It will help us to build a bigger team of scouts, a bigger team of analysts in the background and expand our infrastructure as well. I think overall the game is growing everywhere you look. There’s so much potential for soccer to get bigger and bigger in this country and we want to drive that. The National Team, at the end of the day, is the locomotive of the development of the sport. Hopefully, we’re going to go full steam.”

ussoccer.com: You have also said that 2015 is a critical year for the U-23 team. What will the building process be like this year, and what are the things that need to be done to get the team ready for qualifying?
JK: “The main task in 2015 for the Under-23 team is to keep identifying players, to get camps on the agenda, to get games on the agenda for that team and help to build already a core group for the qualifiers. We want to make sure what happened with London 2012 doesn’t happen again, so we put this on a higher priority level, which is exciting. We will have eight to 10 Olympic-age players in the January Camp to come with the senior group to just try to start building them already. Then we have to work out an agenda for them, a calendar that really gets them off to a good start.” 

ussoccer.com: The office of the National Teams Advisory Services will open in 2015. What are you hoping will be accomplished in the first year?
JK: “It’s really exciting that we’re starting to have a consulting office, an advisory office led by Nelson Rodriguez who formally worked for MLS. Nelson will lead a group of people who will dig into the individual development of players off the field. So all the topics that happen basically that are not soccer related will go through his hands. Academically, socially, networking – we want to know how we can help players no matter where they are, whether they’re in the U.S. Europe or Mexico or wherever, how can we help them become real professionals. 

"With this office, we really want to educate players and their families to understand the profession, to understand being a professional soccer player from the early ages onward. We can identify pretty early if someone is good enough to become a pro, but everybody knows that talent is not enough. You need a brain. Hopefully through this office and Nelson we can help players develop into real people, into persons who understand their profession on and off the field.”

ussoccer.com: Outside of the National Team, what are your goals for U.S. Soccer in 2015?
JK: “I think outside our National Team environment that it’s very important that the Federation grows its awareness all over the United States, because soccer is such a fascinating sport that connects all the people out there no matter if they’re young, old, or what background they have. It gives you so much emotion, so much positive feeling that you want to transmit this to everybody out there. The World Cup did this in a certain way to show those emotions, but I think on a social side, on an economic side, on the media side, there’s so much growth possible for soccer in this country. All of that should be driven by the Federation. They should embrace that and they’re doing that, getting the game to another level in terms of awareness, in terms of connectivity socially and economically.” 

ussoccer.com: You have also placed an emphasis on developing younger talent. What will you be watching for in 2015?
JK: “Well I think the first part of 2015 where we have some friendly games leading up, we want to see a couple younger players breaking through or at least making a mark. Bobby Wood is on his way, even with his struggles at his club team which is similar to John Brooks a couple of months ago, he’s shown that he can make it. Rubio Rubin is a very talented young player coming through. We want to see younger players taking their game to another level. We want to see in the Under-20 team with Tab Ramos in Jamaica in January for the World Cup Qualifiers, who of that group can make it to the senior team. We want to see growth. We want to see those youngsters becoming confident and strong and giving us coaches alternatives to the already established players. I think there’s talent coming through, whether it’s on U.S. soil or coming through other systems. That’s going to be an exciting topic. 

“Over the first three years we connected all the youth teams to the senior team, all the coaches work hand in hand and go in with all the age groups. I think that is all done. Now we want to work on individual development of players on the field. That is the soccer side with the coaches. We have our advisory office of the field with Nelson Rodriguez, so I think 2015 will be a big, big step forward.”

ussoccer.com: Gedion Zelalem is a player you’ve been watching who recently received his U.S. citizenship. What is his potential?
JK: “Obviously, we are thrilled that Gideon Zelalem received an American passport and is hopefully soon eligible for us. He’s a 17-year-old player at Arsenal. With Gideon comes a player who is highly talented; we all know that. Germany is after him - we know that. He could even play for Ethiopia because of his family background, but he grew up in the United States. The process was long and not easy but it’s all worked out. This makes us really excited because when you see special talent coming through at 16, 17, 18, you want to just help them. You want to help them understand early enough what it takes to become a good player one day. Like in the case of other young players, they are still very raw, they are inexperienced and we want to work hand in hand with the club coaches – in his case Arsene Wenger, who was one of my coaches when I played a long time ago – in order to get him to another level one step at a time.”

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