With the 2015 slate now over for the U.S. Men’s National Team, Jurgen Klinsmann sat down with ussoccer.com for a two-part Q&A. In Part One, the MNT boss discusses the team’s accomplishments, player progression and lessons learned in 2015. Part Two of the Q&A in which Klinsmann previews the challenges and excitement of a busy 2016 calendar for the MNT will be available on ussoccer.com in the coming days.
ussoccer.com: Going into Port of Spain, Trinidad to face the Soca Warriors was a tough match. Are you pleased with how the team dealt with the challenges of that game on the road?
Jurgen Klinsmann: “I think with the game in Trinidad & Tobago, we all knew it was going to be a tricky one. It’s a good team that proved that in the Gold Cup. And away from home, there’s a rule: don’t lose. At least get one point and don’t give the home team the three points. I think we achieved that. Did we want to win both games? Yes, it would have been nice to have six points now, but four points is ideal going into the two games now with Guatemala. Winning those two games would mean that we are qualified for the next round, so our big goal for March is going to Guatemala and get three points right away, at home in Columbus, one of our favorite places to go, and then look forward to the next round.”
ussoccer.com: Throughout the first two qualifiers you were able to get a lot of young players opportunities. How valuable was it to get them that experience at this stage?
JK: “For coaches, but also for the fans, one fascinating topic is always, ‘how do young players progress? How do they learn? How fast do they learn? How fast they can make a real improvement on the senior National Team?’ When you talk about young players, we talk about DeAndre Yedlin, we talk about Gyasi Zardes. Both of them had a very busy 2015. Gyasi played 19 games for the MNT, which is pretty amazing, but the most important part there is that everybody can see a learning curve. Everybody can that they are maturing. Everybody can see that they are growing and becoming senior players. This is what this path is about, bringing younger players, give them time and give them moments where they don’t perform or have a bad game and carry them through. Teach them during this path and what they have to improve and hopefully see the benefit later on. At the end of 2015 we saw a lot of good answers from Gyasi Zardes and DeAndre Yedlin and I’m sure we will see even more good stuff in the upcoming year.”
ussoccer.com: Bobby Wood finished with four goals in his last eight games. What changes have you seen in him in the last year?
JK: “With Bobby Wood, we’ve developed a player over some time. Even if he wasn’t a full part of the National Team program yet, we were in touch with him, following his path in Germany in the 2. Bundesliga. We explained to him that it’s not going to all happen in a short period of time. When he came in the first couple of times, he was shy and nervous, which is totally normal for the young players when they join the senior National Team. He had to get a feel for the thin air on the higher level. He tried to learn as quickly as he could. He developed more personality, more confidence. For a striker, confidence is always connected to scoring goals. After the first couple of games came the moment when he came on the field against Holland and in the last minute scored the winning goal for us, which was huge, not because you beat Holland in their own country, but it was huge for him that he started to believe in himself. A couple days later he scores the winning goal against Germany in Germany where he plays, which is another big confidence booster. He’s becoming used to the pressure, the expectations of scoring. The expectations for a forward are to score, not every game, but try to score every second game or at the very least every third game. This is his learning curve now and hopefully he keeps learning, keeps improving, keeps helping us and keep on going through that transition of a World Cup cycle between the two World Cups.”
ussoccer.com: In these last two games you also expanded the team’s options at key positions, including both fullback spots. What type of flexibility does this provide moving forward?
JK: “2015 made it clear that we struggled in a couple of areas. The most difficult area for us is the fullback positions. We moved the center backs to the fullback position. We moved Fabian Johnson from left back to right back, which is the position he played in the World Cup – and was probably one of the best right backs in the World Cup in Brazil last year. But he ended up in his club team in Germany playing left winger. So moving him constantly from left winger to left back or to right back, it doesn’t really help him. And for us, one question remains: how do we fill in those left back and right back positons with a high-quality solution? In the last games, we had Tim Ream helping us out as a left back. He plays center back in Fulham. We had Michael Orozco out as a right back, which he did tremendously well, but he’s playing center back for Tijuana. Hopefully in 2016 it will help us develop younger players in the fullback positions. For us, the next important team to look at is the Olympic team and see what Andi Herzog brings through that team in order to develop a younger player into that full back position for the senior team.”
ussoccer.com: A lot of people had positive things to say about Darlington Nagbe. What did you learn about him from this camp?
JK: “We found a player that is really good handling the ball in both directions. He is responsible defensively, to always go behind the ball and to defend, and help out. When we go forward, he knows when to pass, when to dribble, when to keep things racing forward, and also when to take some risks in a certain moment. He has a change of pace in one-on-one situations when he goes at defensive midfielders. He has the confidence to get past them and to get closer to the box. Darlington is a real nice option now going forward. He had to wait a long time, and we’ve been waiting for him as well, but it’s a great fit and we are glad to have him on board.”
ussoccer.com: You spoke of the importance of having Brad Guzan and Tim Howard on board for the next three years. How did the initial phase of rotation work out?
JK: “Having Tim Howard and Brad Guzan on board is huge. Both are top goalkeepers in the English Premiere League, very experienced and especially they are great teammates. We’ve got to keep them rotating toward Russia 2018. Then we’ve got to make some decisions once games come up, but having both of them gives us a huge boost of confidence and the backline feels real confident having one of them in goal.”
ussoccer.com: The challenge to younger players has been to push the established guys for starting spots. What is the importance of that process and how has it gone within the team?
JK: “When asking the younger players to step up and challenge the experienced ones, you want them to challenge themselves on a higher level, whether it’s going to the highest club level as quickly as you can and become a starter there and make your statement, like DeAndre Yedlin does now at Sunderland. In camp, we want them to fight harder to push established players for the spots, because if you want to steal the spot, you have to do more to try and move him out. This is an interesting process between two World Cups. Taking the example of Jones, he’s not ready to give his spot up. He’s 34 years old, but he’s a rock. He’s in there every time it matters, he stands his man. He makes it clear to the younger players that he’s not giving up his spot. These kind of competitions are real important with the team.”
ussoccer.com: How do you view the midfield partnership between Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones?
JK: “It’s real critical between Bradley and Jones, like all the fans know, they are important to our team. These two always coordinate themselves on the field. They are experienced and know what to do in specific situations. We constantly go over their tactical approach in a game because they can play many different ways. Now you can complement a Jermaine Jones or a Michael Bradley with a more defensive midfielder, like a Kyle Beckerman, or you can complement them with more offensive midfielders, like a Darlington Nagbe or Mix Diskerud. But the heart of this team is always in the center of the park, which is Bradley and Jones.”
ussoccer.com: What did you see from Jozy Altidore throughout 2015?
JK: “2015 for Jozy Altidore has been a transition year, but it has become a year where he has gotten stronger toward the end. He had some injury issues. He had some fitness issues in the beginning of the year. We had the episode in the Gold Cup where he was not in the shape where he needed to be. Toward July, August and September he got more into a flow. He started to score goals for Toronto and he got stronger for the National Team, as well. This is a very positive sign for us to have Altidore playing well. We plan to bring him into a very busy 2016 with the biggest highlight of Copa America next June.”
ussoccer.com: What has been your impression of the MLS playoffs?
JK: “Watching the MLS playoffs has been tremendously exciting. The games in the first round with the penalty shootout, to Portland and Kansas City, to games that were very close, very tight and hard fought. It’s been very exciting. The stadiums are packed, the fans are fully engaged and the teams battle themselves through. Sometimes you have your favorite pick then you realize after a game or two, your favorite is not there anymore and out of the playoffs. It’s at another level this year and I can’t wait to see the MLS Cup final!”