Four days after the U.S. Under-23 Men's National Team was elminated from contention to qualify for the 2012 Olympic Games, U.S. Men's National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann reflected on what he saw during the tournament, and what important steps must be taken in order to move forward.
Having time to reflect, what are your takeaways from the Olympic Qualifying Tournament?
“Overall the competition is impressive. I saw Mexico play, I saw Honduras play, now I saw the El Salvador team that played a tremendous game against us. Obviously from our perspective it’s a huge, huge disappointment. Everybody expected the U.S. Under-23’s to go through and to qualify, and they didn’t get the job done. I met with the team after the game in the locker room and obviously they were devastated. They were totally down. Nobody could talk. They were speechless. I tried to lift them up a little bit from a more emotional point of view, which is obviously difficult. I also said you didn’t lose qualification against El Salvador in that very dramatic last-second equalizer. You lost it against Canada, and you lost it because you were not consistent enough and you made too many mistakes. What you do after a huge disappointment is you have to analyze it. The coach has to put together his evaluation of the entire process over the last months, and basically put down what went well and what didn’t go well. That is what is expected. I feel bad for the players in a certain way because it’s a huge set back in their own development because they cannot play in such a high profile tournament. It means that players like Brek Shea, Juan Agudelo, or Bill Hamid, or all the players that we already have partially integrated into the senior national team program. They have to fight their way through now with far more energy, with far more commitment. They have to prove now in their club teams they can forget about such a disappointment, they can move on, they can become really consistent, and they can really become also mature enough towards the World Cup in 2014. The main goal of this team is to develop players for the senior national team, so for these youngsters now it’s actually far more difficult to break into the senior national team because they do not have the stage of the Olympics in London."
You got to see Mexico up close and personal. They are favorites to qualify and to win the tournament. Most people don’t realize how much that team had been together. How much of a difference did that make for them in comparison to what the challenges were for Caleb Porter in assembling a team to get the same results?
"It is a difficult process because the Olympic team players are not required by FIFA rules to be released for qualifying, so every country handles it differently. Mexico’s U-23 has been together for years. They played over 60 games to prepare for that moment, and you can see that flow in their game. You can see that everyone knows what the other one is doing. They have a fantastic chemistry, and they are demonstrating that. For us it’s very difficult because players are not only from MLS and Mexico. We have really good players in Europe that should be part of [the tournament] but they weren’t released by their club teams because the clubs don’t have to release them. It makes it more difficult, but it’s not an excuse. We needed to get the job done and we didn’t. We have to learn many lessons out of that experience."
How do you go about evaluating the process so you have a structure in place moving forward?
“As a head coach, when you evaluate your own environment, and especially your team after a big competition, whether it’s Olympic Qualifying, or a World Cup, or a Youth World Cup, you go through all the elements that are important. You evaluate your staff – my assistant coaches, my goalkeeper coach, my physios, my equipment manager, and my administrators that were with the team – were they givers or were they takers? Who drew the most attention within the team? Were the players givers or were they takers? If you have too many takers, it’s not working out. A team environment goes down the drain if you have too many guys that just think they are too big for it. You evaluate player-by-player based on his performances, and based on how disciplined he was to play his own role within the team concept. There are many, many things – the travel aspect, behavior roles, was it all organized perfectly, did you eat the right way, did you sleep the right way … there’s so much stuff that comes into a bigger event. Other individual sports are farther ahead than team sports naturally, because a cyclist like Lance Armstrong has to time everything to perfection to make sure he’s really performing at the next Tour de France. It’s a bit more complex in a team environment, but it’s necessary. So we want to go through that process in order to learn. We failed in that moment with qualifying for the Olympics, so let’s learn why we actually didn’t succeed. Why did we give up a goal in the last second against El Salvador? Why didn’t we beat Canada? There are reasons for it.”
What do you say to a coach who is dealing with a setback like this so they learn and grow?
"I think we all, in whatever stage of life we are, we are all constantly learning. We always have setbacks. There’s no such thing as failure. It’s just another step to make it better next time. The message to Caleb is now you understand how many little pieces need to fit in order to be successful at the end of the day on a professional level, because those are professional players. I think he will learn a tremendous amount out of that experience, and he will implement things differently the next time he has a big opportunity. It’s the same as players. You can ask every one of them what they would do differently now after looking back at those three games."
"You are constantly learning, adjusting and changing. We live in an environment of change. What made me successful yesterday won’t make me successful tomorrow. It’s really important that you’re not getting stuck and saying it didn’t work, but we’re still going to do it the same way. If you want to progress and you want get better, you’ve got to do it differently than how you did it last time. For U.S. Soccer, that means going forward with the Olympic Team Program, or any other program, we’ve got to do it differently. We’ve got to question ourselves. Did we do everything possible to make this event positive? When you get beaten by a team that is clearly better than you, you can say we did everything we could but they are just better and give compliments to your opponent. And we give compliments to El Salvador for their game. But I think it’s important when you see that we should have actually qualified, we should have beaten Canada and El Salvador, so now it’s important to say the way we did it was not good enough. Let’s learn out of that and make it better next time.”