Jitka Klimkova is the eighth coach, and third woman, to be named head coach of the U.S. Under-20 Women’s National Team since FIFA instituted a World Cup for this age group in 2002 (the first two tournaments were played as U-19 events before switching to U-20). ussoccer.com took some time to speak with Klimkova about her transition from the U-19 WNT head coach, her international experience, and her expectations for the players and the program.
ussoccer.com: What were your main motivations to take this job at this point in your coaching career?
Jitka Klimkova: “I love working for U.S. Soccer and continuing to embrace the many challenges of being successful at the international level. I have always dreamed big, had ambitious goals and worked hard to achieve those goals, which are qualities we will ask for from our players. My main motivation is to work with extremely talented players, coaches, and support staff to help make all of us better. I look forward to continuing to create a positive and successful culture around our youth National Teams.”
ussoccer.com: As a Youth National Team head coach, your job is always a balance between helping players move on to the next levels and getting results. What is your philosophy on those duals tasks?
JK: “We want to see players ultimately move onto the senior team. That is our main goal. We can do that by helping players develop to their full potentials, but also by winning medals. We will work with the players to understand that getting better in all facets of the game will not only help them in their personal development, but also contribute to an overall team concept, and if we all buy into that, we can beat any country.”
ussoccer.com: You’ve been coaching the U-19 Women’s National Team for a few years and have had a close-up look at the U-20 level having served as the main scout for last year’s U-20 Women’s World Cup. How has that experience prepared you for this job?
JK: “The World Cup is always the best teacher for the coaches, players and the staff. If you want to win it, you must be ready to perform at an extremely high level for six games over twenty or so days. How many times do you get that opportunity in your life? All details matter. Every role in the team is important. Coaching the U-19s prepared me to see the bigger picture. You have to plan the whole cycle and you have to be connected with the teams around you. We had an amazing cycle with the U-19 Women’s National Team and as the U-19 coach, I was grateful for our integration with the U-18 and U-20 teams. We were pushing the younger players up and creating more opportunities for the older players. Six players from that cycle made the 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup roster and 10 players are now with the current U-23 WNT, so that’s the kind of symbiotic relationship we are looking forward to among all the teams.”
ussoccer.com: As we’ve seen at the U-17 and U-20 Women’s World Cups last year, the level of the women’s international game at the youth level continues to improve. What qualities do you expect from your players to continue to compete among the most elite in the world?
JK: “Our players are among the most physical and most competitive in the world and those are excellent qualities. Our technical skills are definitely getting better thanks to an increased technical focus across the United States in recent years, but we still need to get better, especially in our decision-making process. It is not about the coaches telling the players what they have to do during the games, the players have to have supreme comfort with the ball at their feet and have to get used to making their own decisions as well as being comfortable to learn from mistakes.”
ussoccer.com: You’ve had quite a bit of international experience at the youth levels. What kind of an experience was it coaching in the 2014 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup with New Zealand?
JK: “Coaching in a World Cup, you learn a lot about yourself, how you deal with the pressure and how important is to have qualified people around you. None of us are as smart as all of us, so it was a valuable experience in many ways.”
ussoccer.com: The U.S. Under-18, Under-19 and Under-20 programs have now become very much integrated. How do you see the relationship between those teams and their coaches?
JK: “The integration is the key to success. We as a coaches are on the same page. We will visit each other camps, we have similar philosophy, we all believe in the same style of play, we know our player pools and will push up the best players, and communicate constantly so we can re-visit players that deserve another chance. Through all this, we make each other better as coaches.”
ussoccer.com: You had a long career as a player and represented your home country on the international stage. How special is it for these young players to be able to wear the U.S. uniform?
JK: “Many former and current U.S. National Team players inspired me and taught me what it means to wear to wear the U.S. Soccer crest. We need to keep giving these young players the opportunity to see how proud and honored they should be to represent this county. We will always tell the players that they have the responsibility to be the best they can, not just for themselves but for their teammates and the crest. The crest and the team is always more important than an individual player.”
ussoccer.com: Can you talk about your plans to identify the core group of players that you will take to qualifying for the 2018 U-20 Women’s World Cup?
JK: “Currently, the U-20 WNT player pool includes players that were part of the U-18 WNT and U-17 WNT in the previous cycle. That will be our core group, but of course constantly scouting and identifying the new players from club and college games as well as the younger National Teams. Players will have plenty of opportunities to show us they deserve to be on the roster we bring to qualifying for the next U-20 Women’s World Cup.”
ussoccer.com: It’s a difficult task to win a World Cup at any level. What are your main lessons to your players in regards to the mentality it takes to prepare for the journey to get there?
JK: “There are many countries working hard to win the World Cup. I am big believer in the preparation process. There are no quick and easy ways to the top. You must put in some very hard work, be able to self-evaluate and always keep the bigger picture in mind. That will prepare us for the challenges ahead.”