The U.S. recently completed its annual January Camp, which this year took on a different flavor as a combination of senior team players and U-23s who are each preparing for important qualifiers in March. Following consecutive victories against Iceland and Canada, ussoccer.com spoke with MNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann about his takeaways from the four weeks in Los Angeles. In the opening half of a two-part Q&A with the MNT boss, Klinsmann expounded on which players stood out, and how the camp and friendly wins set the table for 2016.
ussoccer.com: After four weeks, no injuries, and two wins to start the year, what were you most satisfied with from the camp?
Jurgen Klinsmann: “I’m definitely most satisfied with the spirit of the group, the willingness to work hard, helping each other on the field in many, many training sessions, and off the field where they are looking after each other. Obviously in January camp, traditionally we look for new faces so we find maybe the next special talent around the block, and I think we got great feedback from the players. None of the players really was at a disadvantage or put himself in a disadvantage. They all did well. We had a couple surprises. I would say Kellyn Acosta certainly. We were impressed by his level of maturity for an Under-23 player. Brandon Vincent as well. Lee Nguyen, as we discussed many times, came in very well prepared. Steve Birnbaum became a difference maker in both games. Obviously we are pleased with the leadership of the older guys - that was awesome. We constantly hope now that this helps - especially the younger players - to kind of step it up more and more, to bring out more and more personality in the game and not just go with the flow with what you’re used to in your club environment. Do more than anybody else. This is our key message. So we were very pleased with every one of them.”
ussoccer.com: You mentioned Steve Birnbaum. What stood out from his performances?
JK: “He was a difference maker against Iceland with his assist to Michael Orozco’s goal, and then obviously scoring the winning goal, and I think he had an outstanding game against Canada. He had to play at right back suddenly because there was no real option at that moment, and the way he kind of intercepted so many balls, cleaned them up and connected them cleanly with midfielders or even strikers was important. We talked the last couple of days about wanting to keep the ball on the ground, get it into the feet of people so it’s not bouncing all over the place, and he was outstanding from that side. He also kept the backline really safe. No matter who hits a ball over the backline, Steve was there to clean it up, and that’s what he really did outstanding. He raised a level of aggressiveness in one-against-one battles; that was one thing we wanted to see more against Canada because we missed that a little bit in some one-on-one situations against Iceland. I said, “Guys, you know we’ve got to be physical. It’s part of the game.” He took that on 100 percent, and I think he won every one-against-one situation throughout the game.”
ussoccer.com: Virtually all of the players on the roster were from MLS clubs. How beneficial will this be for them as they move into the league season?
JK: “I think it’s big. It’s big that they really have a feeling now that they gained a lot of fitness. They gained a strong foundation going into preseason. Obviously it puts them ahead of the curve once they go now into their club environment. They are already kind of used to going full speed. It’s huge.”
ussoccer.com: A lot has been made of the approach Jozy Altidore brought to the camp and 2016 overall. As much as the goals he scored, what else did you see from him that is promising?
JK: “Having a Jozy Altidore - first of all healthy, then really motivated, driven and willing to go the extra mile in order to put himself in a really good fitness shape - is, no doubt about it, very, very big for us. With his qualities, with his personality, with his approach of the game, he’s a difference maker. Every National Team coach when he looks at players, you always ask yourself, ‘Who’s going to make a difference? In a specific moment in a game, who’s there that makes something out of the blue, surprising? Who can make that play that kills the opponent?’ Jozy is one of those players. Jozy has the capabilities to make the difference on the field. But in order to make the difference on the field, he knows he has to be fit, he has to be sharp, he has to be really in a good condition to have that confidence to finish things off, and that’s why we are really happy to see a Jozy Altidore starting 2016 in a very, very positive way.”
ussoccer.com: The U.S. pulled out two last-minute victories against Iceland and Canada early in the year with a mixed squad that had little time to gel. Despite being friendlies, is there confidence to be gained from getting these results?
JK: “I think every time we put a lot of work into something and then you get kind of the benchmark, in our case is now with two games, you want to do well. You want to really get rewarded for all the work that you did and all the energy you put in, and still you have two opponents that know how to play the game. You have to break them down. You have to find ways, in the case with Iceland, to come back after two goals. Twice we had to come back, and then we turned it around. But to have that drive, that willingness to push it into the very last second of the game, to get then the result speaks really for the spirit of this group. They didn’t let go. It was really fun to watch. With Canada it was the case that we missed so many chances - and we had plenty enough chances to score in the first half and obviously throughout the second half. But our players kept going. They kept pushing. I always had the feeling that sooner or later we’ll get that goal, and eventually Jozy [Altidore] got us that goal and that gave everybody a big smile.”
ussoccer.com: It’s now six weeks until the senior team opens camp for the home-and-home qualifiers against Guatemala. What will you be looking at during that timeframe in order to make final roster selections?
JK: “We are basically looking all over the place. We monitor all the players in Europe. We monitor all the players in Mexico, and obviously we can’t wait until MLS starts as well. It’s really kind of crucial that we see everybody getting in the best shape possible, everybody getting into a rhythm and making statements. Then you say, ‘Is the roster you see at the end of March the same one as Copa America?’ Probably not. The end of March comes early for MLS players. The European players are in the full swing, and also Mexican players because they started already a month ago with Liga MX. So we’ll be monitoring everyone.”
ussoccer.com: What were the parting messages to the players?
JK: “The information we fed them over the last couple days was really “You’ve got to push it for yourself. You’ve got to always make a difference. You have to do extra work; you have to do more than your teammates in your club. That’s why you’re a National Team player.’ Hopefully they do that and take that energy into their club environment and get fitter, get sharper, get more fine-tuned in their own personal way, and then we have them at our disposal at the end of March.”