JK Q&A: World Cup Qualifying, Copa America Top 2016 Priorities For MNT

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 Two,  Klinsmann reviews the year, the lessons learned from 2015, the progression of players, and the keys to a successful 2016.

ussoccer.com: The team finished the year 10-6-4, with some disappointments as well as some impressive results. How would you characterize 2015?

Jurgen Klinsmann: “Looking at 2015, obviously there have been some ups and downs no doubt about it. We wanted to win the Gold Cup and we didn’t end up winning it. We wanted to qualify for the Confederations Cup through the CONCACAF Cup final with Mexico at the Rose Bowl, and we lost that game in the 118th minute, so two disappointments to swallow. They were not easy to swallow and people got very critical, and rightfully so. On the other side there were a lot of upsides, a lot of good things that happened in 2015 with important wins on the road in Europe against Holland and Germany. We had fun games as well. We beat Peru, the third place team of the Copa America, in Washington D.C. We started the World Cup Qualifiers off on the right foot. “

“Then looking at our youth teams, our Olympic team didn’t make it right away to the Olympics. They have to go through Colombia for a playoff in March, which we believe they can do. Our Under-20 team played a tremendous World Cup in New Zealand and finished unfortunately against the World Champions in a penalty shootout in the Quarterfinals. That was a huge result for our U-20’s. Our Under-17’s were disappointing and didn’t live up to the expectations in the World Cup in Chile. So a lot of stuff has happened in 2015, and not to forget our Women’s National Team won the World Cup. It’s been a busy year and it’s been a transition year as we always said. We wanted to introduce young players and new players and see how far they are in their process in becoming real options for the Senior National Team. We’ve got a lot of answers about those young players, but the process is always ongoing. We will continue to reevaluate all the players and all the things that we are doing in order to prepare ourselves the best way possible for the World Cup 2018 in Russia. We are all excited for 2016, there’s no doubt about it. It gives us the Copa America Centenario, which is big. Hosting that is a real honor for the United States, and we want to compete with those teams.”

ussoccer.com: During this transition year, there were 49 different players who got caps. How much of that is a function of circumstance as opposed to looking at as much of the player pool as possible in the year following the World Cup?

JK: “It’s maybe interesting for a lot of the fans to know that the National Team of the United States functions in a very different way than the national teams in Europe or South America. An example is the January camp, where we introduce so many new players coming out of the player pool of MLS that get a first taste of the Senior National Team level. Having two games at the end of that camp earns them a cap and maybe gives them national team status, but then you don’t see them anymore because maybe they were simply not good enough to break into the team right now. We always have to juggle between the players in MLS, players in Mexico and players in Europe, so depending on what game is on the schedule, we choose players from different pools and from different situations in order to hopefully end up with positive results. All that together makes us a country that introduces more players to the Senior National Team than other countries.  If I compare to Germany for example, you might only go with 20-25 players all year. That’s not happening with the United States. We have sometimes a game here playing Mexico in a friendly only with MLS players, or we have the January camp or other friendly games where certain players aren’t available and we leave those players with their MLS clubs, which we did many times,  to let them help develop their club. That teaches us that we constantly have to look around and communicate with coaches and especially the players to make them understand that if you want to be a National Team player you have to stand out. If you want to be a National Team player, you have to work more than your teammates in your club. We have to constantly give them specific messages to help them distant themselves from the average player. In this process you are becoming very pushy with this message as a coach in order to make it clear that if you want to be one of the best in the world one day, you have to do more. That is a fun process that the coach is responsible for, and when you see the players coming through that got those messages and they actually implement those things that you tell them, it’s an exciting sign. That’s why we are excited about 2016, especially with the Copa America in our country.”

ussoccer.com: A lot was made of the playing time for Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks. The team was 3-1-1 when Brooks and Alvarado started together, 5-2-2 overall when they were on the field together. How did you think they progressed?

JK: “When the fans and the media talk about the competition and every single spot on the team, it’s a good thing. You want to have competition. You want to have young players trying to push out the experienced/older players. With Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks we have two very exceptional, young center backs with a huge amount of potential. Having given them the games and the time they need to progress and having also given them time to make mistakes - which happened here and there in the Gold Cup - you prepare them for a bigger future. You prepare them for the bigger stage. Having these two young players in our roster is huge and they will only get better. The competition becomes more interesting because you have Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler, the two experienced guys, trying to defend their spot. We always said you have to play well in order to defend your spot, and the other guys have to push you off. This is the process we are in. I think this is exciting because the fans have always something to discuss, argue and debate about, and we coaches just have to make sure that overall we are going in the right direction.”

ussoccer.com: You said that often a team learns more from negative results than from positive ones. With some of the setbacks of this year, what are some of the things you and the team have learned?

JK: “The learning curve for 2015 was that you can never rest, you can never be sure, you can never take things lightly. The fact that we lost the semifinal to Jamaica in the Gold Cup – no matter how you can argue with the referee’s decisions – was an experience that the players need to go through. They need to be – and we coaches as well – critical about what we did, what mistakes did we make individually and as a whole team, and what led to the disappointment in not winning it. This is a very important learning curve that the players also say ‘I have to admit and respect that I made a mistake on a particular goal or this incident on the field” and we coaches say ‘maybe there we could have made a different substitution or done something different.’ This is important for a team to grow, but most importantly with negative results you learn about a team in terms of the chemistry, in terms of the camaraderie, in terms of who is there when things go wrong. This is a very important question to answer, especially going towards Russia 2018, because in a World Cup you can only go far with a team where everybody supports each other. There has to be givers out there that go to the extreme. This is when you see in moments when things go wrong what characters come out. So this was a good learning curve.”

ussoccer.com: Was this a challenging year for you?

JK: “When you go through different phases between two World Cups, it’s always challenging for a coaching staff. After a World Cup 2014 in Brazil where nobody expected us to come out of the “Group of “Death” against Ghana and Portugal with Christian Ronaldo, the challenge was introducing new talent, making a transition, and at the same time getting results and obviously qualifying for the Confederations Cup, which didn’t happen. For a coach it becomes very challenging to analyze every piece of it, what went right and what went wrong. From that point of view, 2015 was a good learning curve for us. We saw what went the right way and what went the wrong way. What’s important in looking at the bigger picture is to see if this team is maturing. Is it progressing? Are there enough younger players pushing into that pool that will hopefully also raise the quality of that pool? Are they challenging themselves in their club environments to play in the highest club possible that they can play at? So from the coaching perspective, it’s been an interesting year.”

ussoccer.com: What will some of the keys be to a successful 2016?

JK: “In order to make 2016 really successful, the highest priority is World Cup qualifying. We need to get through the first group phase, which I think we can do already in the next two games in March against Guatemala. Winning at Guatemala and winning at home you’re pretty much through to the next round. So this is the top priority for 2016. The second priority is Copa America. You want to do well. You want to show your opponents from down south that you can compete with them and that you can get good results against South American teams that obviously are very, very good teams. It’s an honor to have teams like Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay and so on play in Copa America in our country. We want to challenge them.”

ussoccer.com: How important is it for the U-23s to qualify for the Olympics and for the fans to get out and support the group?

JK: “Having our U-23’s qualify for the Olympics is huge because we want them badly to go to Rio in 2016. It’s crucial to them to have that experience and to challenge themselves with the top teams down there and to go through that learning curve. That means you have to qualify in the playoff against Colombia. First they’ve got to go down to Colombia and get a good result, and then you come back to the United States and play the second leg. So for that game in the U.S., they need all the support in the world. They need support from the fans to come to the game and pushing them through to the Olympics. If they are not making it, it simply will be a bummer because they need that learning curve. If they can make it to the Olympic tournament, it will make them mature faster in the process to become a Senior National Team player. Our support will be 1,000 percent with the Olympic team at the end of March, and I’m sure our fans will back them up.”

ussoccer.com: You always have huge compliments for our fans, and the support only seems to keep getting better and better…

JK: “Our biggest appreciation goes out to all the fans that have supported us for years now, those who’ve been to Brazil, who come to every friendly game and every qualifying game now. If you look at the process the American Outlaws went through over the last couple of years, it’s a fairytale story. It’s unbelievable when I tell people in Europe how they organize themselves in all the different chapters and how they organize all the different trips to the games. We played in Europe and they were there. There were even a couple hundred down in Trinidad & Tobago. The development of our fans over the last years is just unbelievable. We appreciate that. We appreciate every little cheer and support in all kinds of forms. I hope that the fans enjoy that in the same way.”