U.S. Men's National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann sat down with ussoccer.com to discuss the planning, players and team goals surrounding the USA's upcoming European friendlies against Denmark and Switzerland.
ussoccer.com: You have the Gold Cup on the horizon, and also important competitions for the U-23’s with Olympic qualifying and the upcoming FIFA U-20 World Cup. What were the different factors you considered when putting this group together?
JK: “Well I think it’s really exciting now going into these two game because it’s not only our games with the senior National Team, it’s also the U-23s playing two friendlies, and the U-20s playing a friendly with England. From a senior team perspective, it’s exciting to put players in different areas and get a better picture of where they are right now. As we juggle the rosters for the different groups, we maybe even have players go between teams at a certain point. Julian Green is a good example. He’s one of those players that can also play for the U-23s. He can play for the U-20s. It’s similar for other players like a John Brooks and a DeAndre Yedlin, Emerson Hyndman, and Rubio Rubin. Those are all players that we consider for each of those teams, and we want to make the best decision over the next couple of months with these players in order to get the right results when it really matters in the upcoming tournaments. It’s exciting to see that we can bring younger players along and actually have the option to use them in one of those three teams during a very, very busy calendar over the next six months.
ussoccer.com: In working with Andi Herzog and Tab Ramos, how did you go about balancing the rosters for the Senior Team, the U-23s and U-20s?
JK: “Developing this roster in particular with the fact that you have the U-23s playing two friendlies and you have the U-20s being in England in camp, we tried to consider several things.
"From a senior level, there are many different factors coming together schedule-wise with MLS just starting, and Europe and Mexico in full swing. We also wanted to see what specific players there are that were not connected yet with us. Ventura Alvarado from Club America is a case, and also William Yarbrough, the goalkeeper at Club León that we had a very close look at over the last several months. It’s exciting for us to bring them in. Rubio Rubin is back in our group. Obviously we want to see how we can help our younger players that struggle right now with Julian Green and DeAndre Yedlin, who still has to break into the Tottenham lineup. I think it’s a very good group. It’s a very competitive group that we have together for those two friendlies against two very good opponents.
"When you talk about developing players, you always want to prioritize things. You say ‘okay, if this player goes with this team, what would he get out of it, and what could he gain?’ I think there are certain younger players that can gain the most right now if they’re with me. I’m talking about a Julian Green, a John Brooks, a Deandre Yedlin, a Rubio Rubin, but also knowing that if they’re not breaking in right away with me, here’s the next group where he could show what he has. Definitely the closer we get toward the individual competitions, meaning for Tab now the U-20 World Cup, his group will get now more prioritized because we want to have a really strong team going to New Zealand, and the same with the qualifiers for the U-23 team. We are still in the early process for the year, so early March games give us a little more air to say ‘I’ll bring some youngsters with me first, and then we move them on to the Olympic team and Tab’s U-20s’, but I think it’s important for our players to see that we have a plan for them, that we’re looking at their club situation and that we understand the up-and-downs and their struggles, and they know we are here to help them.
“For Julian, it’s important that he has reconnected with us. At the moment Julian struggles with Hamburg. It’s been a very, very difficult time since he came back after the World Cup, with injuries and not breaking in yet, so I decided to have a first look at him. We will have a serious talk and serious look at him and we want to understand exactly what happened in his club situation, but also he needs some support from the senior National Team group.
"At the end of the day, you’ve got to break through no matter what. Deandre Yedlin, you’ve got to kick somebody out of Tottenham to play there. Julian Green, you’ve got to kick somebody out in Hamburg to play there. So the message is the same to all of them. In that process it’s not only what happens on the field, it’s also what happens off the field. You have young players getting in a different environment, struggling maybe with a new country with a new club environment, so we’re also there to help them develop. This will always be a big discussion point with Tab and with Andi Herzog when we talk about those players.”
ussoccer.com: This is the first FIFA fixture window in several months, so there is this opportunity to bring in a broader group of players. What will you be looking to accomplish in this camp?
JK: “We want to work on a couple of things with these two games with Denmark and a very strong Switzerland. We want to prove that we can really compete with these guys in their countries, in their homes and get results there. We want to see that the players give everything they have in terms of making their own cases for the Gold Cup, because the Gold Cup should obviously should take us to the Confederations Cup 2017 in Russia, so we need to be spot on. This is the way to showcase yourself in these two games. Show us in every training session what you have right now and prove that point in the games as well. So we want to see a lot of energy, we want to see a lot of discipline, we want to see a lot of commitment. And we obviously want to get some answers in certain positions where we still kind of juggle things around.”
ussoccer.com: There is certainly a crowd of players in the pool in defense. Where do you see the competition in those spots?
JK: “I think one of the most competitive areas is definitely the centerback situation in our group. We not only have exceptional centerbacks coming out of the World Cup with Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez, now also through MLS with Steven Birnbaum and Matt Hedges, who are two more players that are really, really doing well. You have the players coming through the European system with John Brooks, with Tim Ream in England, and Jonathan Spector is back in the picture as well playing now consistently in the Championship. We have another talent we now introduce to the group with Ventura Alvarado, which is exciting for us. He broke into the Club America lineup months ago and plays consistently week in and week out and it’s very impressive to see him. We went down there to watch him, to connect with him, and saw several games with him and feel like this is a good time to give him the first introduction to the U.S. team. So obviously there’s a lot of competition.”
“Then you’ve got to look at it also calendar-wise. Mexican players right now are in a full run. European players are in a full run. MLS players step-by-step get into the season and now just have two games in their legs, so that all plays a role when you leave players out of the roster for a second and bring other ones in, but I think especially that centerback situation is a very exciting position that will become very competitive towards the Gold Cup.”
ussoccer.com: One of the defenders who would usually be in the mix is Geoff Cameron. Can you talk about the decision to bring in other guys ahead of him for this camp?
JK: “Similar to the situation with Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler coming out of MLS and not being on the roster for these two games is Geoff Cameron. Geoff is obviously in a good swing with Stoke City and the Premier League, but I had long conversations with him and explained that just now I would love see other players coming in and proving to us how good they are. So here and there, there are these 50-50 decisions where you have to leave a player out that is usually a regular on your team. Geoff is that one right now. We know he can play centerback, he can play right back, he can play defensive-mid. He’s so versatile he’s always of great help to the team, but I wanted to see other players now coming in and therefore he has to swallow that pill real quick of being left out in these two March games.”
ussoccer.com: You also look at the wingbacks and see a lot of options in this group. Does that provide you with flexibility to try something different things?
JK: “I think that we are getting excited to have some options on the wings now as well. We can play DeAndre Yedlin as right back or we can play him as a right winger. Same with Fabian Johnson, who was one of the best right backs in the World Cup in Brazil and is now mostly used as a left winger for Borussia Mönchengladbach, so this kind of gives us some options to play with since the World Cup was done. We can play Gyasi Zardes now after that first introduction in January as a winger, but we can also play him as a forward up front there. We had Greg Garza breaking through from Tijuana as a left back that could shift over Timmy Chandler to the right back. There’s a lot of life happening. We have a lot of options now trying things out, but I think we just also need to grow as an overall group, building chemistry and building spirit towards the Gold Cup, because we’re going to get closer to the summer and we really need to zoom in and become a very united National Team that is very hungry to win the Gold Cup.”
ussoccer.com: Club America defender Ventura Alvarado is on his way for the first time. How you have been scouting him, and what are his qualities?
JK: “I think Ventura Alvarado is a great example to show how fast it really can go if you break into your club. Obviously a club with the caliber of a Club America is huge. It’s very difficult to break through there, so we understand that. We went down there to watch him several times, been in touch with him for months to see his progress, and we’re excited. We had conversations with him, and he was clear that he would love to represent the United States, that he would love to play for us. So this is a good time. He’s coming full of confidence. Obviously he will be a little bit timid or quiet in the beginning as all players are when they come into a new environment, but for us it’s just great to see a kid that fought himself into the Mexican system in a very, very tough club and now has the capabilities to break into the National Team.”
ussoccer.com: Danny Williams makes an appearance for the first time in more than a year. What have you seen in his performances that earned him a place back in the squad?
JK: “Obviously you have a big pool of players that you always look at and always follow them. Once we had to make the cut before the World Cup down to 23 players going to Brazil, that didn’t mean that we leave now all the other players that didn’t make it to Brazil out of our sight. We went back to the bigger picture after to World Cup to see how is everybody developing, how is everybody doing in their club systems. Danny Williams is a good example. He couldn’t make the World Cup roster because he was injured. He was even injured until after the World Cup going into the season, so he struggled and had a tough time, but then after a couple of months suddenly he was all injury-free and he picked up his rhythm and now he’s in an FA Cup Semifinal against Arsenal in Wembley in a couple weeks from now. He proved throughout the last 8-10 weeks that he’s in very good shape. He’s very aggressive and very determined and he wants to break back into our group.
"If you look at the development of an Alfredo Morales for example, he’s in the second division in Germany being in first place and guiding that team towards the first Bundesliga and getting very, very good remarks week-in and week-out from the media there. When I send our people over to watch his games, they can see he’s growing. He’s getting stronger every month and he has more confidence. We want to see that confidence also playing out for us. Everybody goes through different stages in his career and we follow all of them, and then obviously the tricky part for coaches is how you put the puzzle together that we will be very competitive and at the end of the day also successful.
"It’s exciting to see players that you maybe think a year ago were not really there, and now they’re there. Half a year ago some players had injury problems and now they’re back. Aron Johansson at AZ Alkmaar had a whole struggle for a couple of months but now he’s back. The moment he gets on the field he finds ways to score and that’s what a goal-scorer is all about. So getting him back into the group is exciting for us as well.
"I think this is a constant work in progress that we’re going through, which obviously gets then to a critical moment once you approach a bigger tournament and you have to make your cut and you have to say these 23 will play the Gold Cup, these are the guys that are going to go through in order to qualify for the Confederations Cup in Russia in 2017.”
ussoccer.com: William Yarbrough is an interesting story in that he was born and raised in Mexico to two American parents, which is unusual for the Mexican-Americans who have been in our system. How did you discover him?
JK: “We have a network of people in Mexico, which was really established by Martin Vasquez when he was with me as my assistant. So we have very good contacts, I can always kind of call people. I can always ask questions about specific players coming through the Liga MX. So William is a great example of how this network works. They call you and they tell you that there’s kid that was born in Mexico to American parents, so he thinks both ways. So we had a close look at him. I had people go to his games. I called him myself and talked to him at length to see where his head is and he was thrilled. When you watch him closer as a specific kind of goalkeeper talent he’s very vocal. He’s very determined. He’s given the talent to lead. He’s a good communicator and just dedicated. You see it in his body language and the energy that he has, but also if he concedes a goal how he moves on. He gets the ball out of the net and says no big deal. He claps his teammate on the shoulder and says ‘let’s go we’ll fix it’. So he has a very positive nature and so it’s exciting for us to have William now within our group for these 10 days and get to know him better and work with him. At the end we’ll ask Chris Woods, our goalkeeper coach, a lot of questions about all of his specifics as a goalkeeper.”
ussoccer.com: He still has the opportunity to play for the United States or Mexico. How will you handle your discussions about his future?
JK: “With William you have another example of a dual-citizenship talent and player that can go either way. This is just part of our life, part of soccer all around the world. It’s just normal. I think at the end of the day, the player has to make the decision with his family. The player has to follow his heart. The player has to say, this is what I feel, because it’s a decision for life, it’s not only a decision for where are you going to play on the soccer field. It means a lot. So we never put the player under pressure. We never expect him to make quick decisions. He has to consult his family, his friends, whoever he wants to consult in that decision, but I think a lot of players realized over the last few years that the door to the U.S. National Team program is always open and that at the end of the day it’s their decision and we respect it either way.”
ussoccer.com: Denmark is at the top of their group ahead of Portugal in qualifying for the European Championship. What kind of game can we expect against Denmark?
JK: “Denmark is on the rise. They obviously didn’t qualify for the World Cup, and now they are leading their European qualifying group ahead of Portugal and I think that says it all. It’s a very, very good team. They are very good individual players who are in the Premier League, in the Bundesliga, in Serie A in Italy. You find their players all over the place, and therefore we have a lot of respect for them. I think they have respect for us too, because they watched the World Cup as well and they know that we’re not coming there to be just friendly. We’re coming there to give them a fight. It will give us a good benchmark. It will give us a very, very good game and a lot of answers to many things that we want to see.”
ussoccer.com: Switzerland is ranked No. 12 in the world and had 13 players in the Champions League this year. What kind of test will this be?
JK: “When you look at Switzerland, you first look at their individual players and where they play, and it’s Champions League for most of them. That tells you everything. They are in the top 15 in the world and they did well in the World Cup in Brazil, so for us it’s a great benchmark. It’s a great way to learn and to improve and to measure ourselves.”