Four weeks ago, U.S. Men’s National Team forward Aron Johannsson and his club AZ Alkmaar were seven points out of the third-place position in the Eredivisie. That third-place spot is particularly important because it guarantees the club that holds it a qualifying spot in the Europa League. With that many points to overcome, many of the AZ players were resigned to the fact that if they were going to play Europa League, they’d more than likely have to earn their place during the post-season playoffs.
“When we lost against Feyenoord six games ago we thought we were going to the playoffs,” Johannsson said. “For the rest of the games we were mentally preparing ourselves as if we were going into the playoffs.”
But that was four weeks ago.
On Sunday, Johannsson scored two goals and added an assist to lead Alkmaar to a 4-1 win over Excelsior. The win landed AZ in third place in Eredivisie, clinching a sport in the Europa League. It was an improbable run highlighted by a hot streak of performances from the MNT forward that began three weeks ago.
Following a 3-1 win against ADO Den Haag, AZ matched up with FC Twente on April 26. Thirty-five minutes into the game, Alkmaar found itself up 2-0 after Johannsson flicked a cross into the back of the net with the outside of his left foot. Johannsson and the team held on for the remaining 65 minutes, and for the first time since February, AZ had won back-to-back games. The positive result berthed a positive thought. If AZ could keep winning, maybe they had a chance.
“We went into the game against NAC Breda realizing third place was possible.” Johannsson said.
The team knew that continuing to win was the only way that possibility could turn into reality, but after 82 minutes AZ trailed 2-1. In the 83rd, Robert Muhren leveled the score line for AZ, but at this stage a tie was not much more valuable than a loss. With two minutes to go, Johannsson kept the Europa League hopes alive, blasting in a stunning long-range goal from 35 yards out.
“I’ve never shot from that far before,” Johannsson said. “We needed to win the game obviously so we could have a chance at third place, and the whole game NAC Breda was defending. They had almost 11 in their own box in the last 30-40 minutes. I didn’t’ get any chances and I barely saw the ball. Finally I got the ball and it was a little bit far away, but I just said ‘screw it’ and decided to shoot on goal. Obviously the result was great.”
With the win AZ moved into a tie with Feyenoord for third with 59 points. Had the season ended that day, Feyenoord would have claimed the automatic Europe League bid based on goal differential. But there was still one game left to play. With Feyenoord holding a huge advantage in the tiebreaker, Johannsson and his teammates knew that they’d need a win in their last game with Excelsior and some luck with the other result.
“After the NAC Breda game, we were thinking the whole week about Excelsior and we knew we had to win to have any chance and hope for good results,” Johannsson said. “It was also tough for us because it was not in our own hands. In a situation like that you can only focus on yourself and get those three points and hope for the best.”
Five minutes into the match with Excelsior, AZ proved they were ready to take care of business. And Johannsson was ready for the spectacular.
“The ball came into the box and bounced high in the air. It was on turf and it was spinning a lot, so I was trying to read where the ball would eventually come down and I made it there before the defender,” Johannsson said. “The ball was at a perfect height and I just decided to do a bicycle kick. I’m really happy it worked out.”
Johannsson’s goal sent the number of AZ fans that had traveled to Stadion Woudestein into a frenzy and gave his team an early 1-0 lead. It was good thing he heard the roar of the supporters, since he wasn’t quite sure it had gone in.
“I felt it when I hit it and it felt very good,” Johannsson sad. “First I heard everybody celebrating and then I just looked up in the goal and saw the ball, so I didn’t see it in exactly the same time as everybody else. It was amazing. Not only was it a beautiful goal, but we needed to score a goal early in the game to help us build confidence and this was after five minutes. From every perspective it was really nice.”
Bicycle-kick goals are rare, but for Johannsson, this one was not a fluke.
“Two days before the game I was training, we had a striker training at the club, and I was training bicycle kicks. So it was really fortunate the ball came exactly there in this game. We were training and we had the trainer play us the ball and I was kind of taking it off my chest and putting in the air and taking, I think it was five or six bicycle kicks. So it was probably in the back of my head in the game when the ball came in that position.”
In a weekend where Champions League and Europe League spots awaited clinching, where promotions lay for the taking, and where streaks sought to be continued, there to respond were members of the U.S. Men’s National Team who made an impact with their clubs.
Fabian Johnson and his club Borussia Monchengladbach made history this weekend. Entering just one win away from clinching a group-phase spot in next season’s Champions League, Johnson started and gave ‘Gladbach 78 strong minutes, which helped propel the Foals to capture the needed victory by a 2-0 score line against Werder Bremen. This marks the first time ‘Gladbach has punched a ticket to the Champions League group stage. The Foals have not lost a league match in which Johnson has started since the winter break, going 10-0-2 in that stretch.
Staying in Germany, Alfredo Morales and his squad FC Ingolstadt had an opportunity to secure first place in the 2. Bundesliga and promotion, needing a win against RB Leipzig. Leipzig got on the board early, scoring in the game’s fourth minute. In the 39th Morales came on, and just before the halftime whistle Ingolstadt leveled at 1-1 with a penalty kick. In the 76th minute Morales assisted on the goal that proved to be the game winner. In the end, he helped hoist the 2. Bundesliga silverware that declared Ingolstadt was headed to the top division.
Moving north, Aron Johannsson and his Dutch club AZ Alkmaar entered the weekend tied with Feyenoord for the Eredivisie’s third-place position and the Europa League spot that goes along with it. Johannsson was clearly set on AZ taking that position as he scored a pair of goals, including a full bicycle. Johannsson also added an assist in AZ Alkmaar’s 4-1 win over Excelsior. With Feyenoord losing, AZ are officially in the Europa League for next season.
In MLS, Clint Dempsey continued his point-scoring tear for Seattle Sounders FC. Dempsey again contributed to the Seattle attack, setting up Chad Barrett for what proved to be the game-winning goal in the 2-0 win against Vancouver Whitecaps FC. In doing so, Dempsey extended his streak of recording at least a point to 10 games, which is the fourth-longest streak of its kind in MLS history and the longest since 1998. Dempsey has at least one point in 18 of Seattle’s last 19 games and is tied for the league-lead in goals (7) and assists (5).
In Mexico, Ventura Alvarado and Club America entered the second leg of the Liga MX quarterfinals trailing Pachuca, 3-2. Alvarado came on in the 59th minute of a match packed with excitement and drama that included seven goals, two red cards – both for Club America and the first leaving them a man short after 33 minutes – and last-minute strikes. Ultimately, Club America lost 4-3 at home and 7-5 on aggregate.
Michael Bradley, Chris Wondolowski and Juan Agudelo were a trio of other MNT players that made a mark last weekend, each scoring a goal. Agudelo was a difference maker for the New England Revolution scoring on a diving header to give his team the lead against Toronto FC. Michael Bradley, his MNT teammate, but opponent in this matchup, responded with a game-tying goal for Toronto. Bradley’s was an exhibition of individual dominance. The midfielder dribbled through a host of New England Revolution defenders and finished in the lower left corner of the goal. In San Jose, Chris Wondolowski directed in a header in his team’s 2-0 win over Columbus Crew SC. The goal was the 99th of his career, which ranks him ninth overall in MLS history.
With the seasons in Europe reaching their climax and MLS in full swing, there are Champions League and Europa League spots to be won, promotion to be earned, and streaks to be continued. Here's five MNT stories to follow this weekend.
- Fabian Johnson and Monchengladbach can guarantee at least third place in the Bundesliga and an automatic spot in next season’s Champions League with either a win away to Wolfsburg on Saturday or if Leverkusen fails to win against Hoffenheim. [FABIAN FEATURE ON USSOCCER.COM]
- Alfredo Morales and FC Ingolstadt can secure first place and promotion to the Bundesliga with a win against RB Leipzig on Saturday.
- Aron Johannsson and AZ Alkmaar are tied on points (59) with Feyenoord but behind on goal differential for third place with one game to go. The third-place finisher gets automatic entry into the Europa League; otherwise they go into a playoff. Alkmaar is away to 15th place Excelsior on Sunday.
- Ventura Alvarado and Club America go into the second leg of the Liga MX quarterfinal at home down 3-2 to Pachuca. Interestingly, in Mexico the tiebreaker in the series is a little different. If both the aggregate goals and away goals are equal, there is no extra time and penalties. Instead, the team with the most points during the regular season advances.
- Clint Dempsey goes into the Cascadia Cup match against Vancouver on fire, tied for the league lead with seven goals and adding four assists. He has at least one point in 17 of the last 18 games for Seattle.
U.S. MNT Midfielder Fabian Johnson has played a part in Borussia Monchengladbach’s surge in the Bundesliga, who are now just one win away from securing a place in the Group Stage of the UEFA Champions League. With huge friendlies against Netherlands and World Cup champions Germany on the horizon ahead of the vital Gold Cup this summer, Johnson looks to carry that form into the National Team.
After going an unbeaten 5-5-0 in the season’s first 10 games, entering week 13 Borussia Monchengladbach took a sudden skid in the form of three-game losing streak and fell to fifth place on the table. Seven weeks later at the week-20 mark, the team was still in in fifth. Now, entering the last two weeks of the season, ‘Gladbach is riding a 12-match unbeaten streak and holds on to the league’s No. 3 spot. U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Fabian Johnson has played an integral role in helping make Die Foals the hottest team in Germany.
“We've just been trying to do everything we can,” Johnson said of the team’s success in the second half of the season. “I think the first half was also good, just not as good as the second half. We have been able to win big games like against Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen that we missed in the first half of the season.”
The victory against Leverkusen was perhaps the most significant for the Foals, particularly with the clock ticking on the season. Going into the match, Leverkusen was just two points off ‘Gladbach’s third place position in the table, which is an especially valuable position to be in since the Bundesliga top three are ensured automatic bids in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League. Ultimately the hosts triumphed for their third-straight league win, with Johnson assisting on the game’s final goal of his team’s 3-0 victory and bolstering the team’s Champions League position. Johnson also assisted on ‘Gladbach’s game-winning goal in its 1-0 victory against Wolfsburg on April 26, that win guaranteeing his side at least a place in Champions League qualifying, but they want more.
“Getting to Champions league would mean very much,” Johnson said. “It was our goal to go to the Champions League. We've already achieved being in the qualification stage, but now we want to go to the group stage directly.”
Johnson said he’s never been a part of an experience like the one he is on right now, and said it’s a thrill to have played a part in it. In league games since January in which he has been in the Starting XI for Gladbach, the team has not lost. In that time frame, Johnson has settled into his role on the left side of midfield, scoring a goal and adding three assists.
“Right now I’m playing left mid. When I first when got to ‘Gladbach it was kind of difficult because it had been a while since I had played the position and I wasn't so used to it,” Johnson said. “After the winter break, I had a few good games and now I’m feeling better. I know where to run and where to pass and I’m feeling much more comfortable in the position right now. I like it.”
The team is now just a win away from that automatic group stage placement in Champions League, and they will have a chance to get it on Saturday when it plays Werder Bremen.
“In almost every game in the second half of the season we have had great team performances. Everybody worked for each other and gave everything in those games,” Johnson said. “I think we’re just having a great run right now and we’re trying to keep it going over these last few games. We have to at least win one more, and hopefully we can manage it on Saturday.”
‘Gladbach has had tremendous defensive success during this run, shutting out its opponent in nine of its last 15 Bundesliga games.
“It’s very difficult to score against us. I think we have a great defensive work and then as soon as we get the ball we are very quick in transition and work to score very quickly. We did a lot of good work on these elements during the Winter break. We just feel comfortable out there and everybody’s positive, not just the players but the club and the whole area here.”
Borussia Park, the home stadium for ‘Gladbach, has a capacity of 54,057, of which 16,145 are standing-room only due to the team’s popularity. Johnson said the Foals fans are some of the world’s best, and that their support propels him and his teammates when they’re on the pitch.
“Our fans are just great,” Johnson said. “When we play road games, it sometimes doesn’t even feel like we’re away. They’re doing a great job and they’re always supporting us.”
Johnson isn't the only player with U.S. MNT ties that has given the Foals faithful something to cheer about. U.S. MNT Special Advisor Berti Vogts was a two-time Bundesliga Player of the Year when he played for Gladbach from 1969-1975. Vogts was a key player for the team in its Golden Decade in the 1970s, when he earned German Player of the Year honors twice (1971, 1979) and led the team to three-straight Bundesliga titles from 1975-77. Former U.S. MNT goalkeeper Kasey Keller captained the squad in the 2006-07 season.
‘Gladbach and Johnson look to continue the success and finish the season on a high note. From there it’s only a few short weeks before Johnson gets back on the field in a U.S. uniform when the MNT faces Netherlands on June 5 and World Cup Champion Germany on June 10 in international friendlies.
“I think these are great games and I think everyone’s excited for it,” Johnson said. “We’re going to play against the World Champion. We already played them in Washington D.C. and it was a great game. Now we’re playing them away and I think it’ll be a huge game. Everybody wants to play against the best players in the world so it will be fun.”
The U.S. lost to Germany in the group stage of the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, last summer 1-0. This time around the game will be played on German soil in Cologne, which happens to be just a few minutes away Johnson’s home in Dusseldorf. His mother, brother and friends will be there to watch him play.
The proximity to home with these friendlies also helps because Johnson has a lot to prepare for in the next few months with the end of the Bundesliga, the MNT friendlies with Netherlands and Germany, and the start of the CONCACAF Gold Cup just a few weeks after that.
Johnson said he’ll closely focus on his training to ready himself for the host of games he’ll encounter, while many of his club teammates will likely be on vacation. Johnson said that the significance of the games and the Gold Cup will fuel him as he works.
“The Gold Cup is very important,” he said. “We want to go to the Confederations Cup, that’s our goal, so we have to win the tournament.”
While Johnson’s club season is wrapping up, he knows his soccer year is far from over, there’s plenty more to come on the horizon with the U.S. MNT, hopefully Johnson says, when his year is over, he’ll have a Gold Cup to hoist and a Champions League group stage matchup to look forward to.
It has been close to four years since Johnson debuted for the U.S. MNT in its match against France in November 2011. He’s come a long way since, having played a big part in the U.S.’s run in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, where he started all four games. Johnson hopes that this recent success proves to be a continuation of better things to come.
CHICAGO (May 14, 2015) – The U.S. Men’s National Team will face a pair of European powerhouses in June as it continues preparations for the 2015 Gold Cup. The USA will face No. 6 FIFA-ranked Netherlands on June 5 at 2:30 p.m. ET at the Amsterdam Arena in Amsterdam, Netherlands, before clashing with 2014 FIFA World Cup champion and world No. 1 Germany on June 10 at 2:45 p.m. ET in Cologne, Germany.
U.S. Soccer, in a collaborative effort with The American Outlaws, will engage fans with several events specifically for U.S. Soccer faithful attending these European matches.
On the night before each game day, AO will host parties for USA fans at local bars. On match days, U.S. Soccer will host the ‘FanFriendly’ against local supporters, as well as FanHQ at venues conveniently located next to each stadium.
FanFriendly matches will be full 11v11 games played for 90 minutes, pitting U.S. supporters against fans from the opposing nation. The games have been organized in partnership with the Royal Dutch Football Association and the German Football Association.
FanHQ will bring together U.S. fans before and after the matches in Amsterdam and Cologne to celebrate the U.S. National Team. Fans who RSVP will have guaranteed access to the events. All FanHQ events will feature music from DJ Spin Easy, a NYC DJ who has opened all over the world for artists such as Snoop Dogg, Akon, T-Pain, Ice Cube and others, and brought his unique sets to FanHQ events in Brazil during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Food and drinks will be available for purchase.
Further details on all events can be found below. All times listed as local.
U.S. MNT vs. NETHERLANDS || JUNE 5 || MATCH PAGE
AO NIGHT BEFORE PARTY
Thursday, June 4th
American Outlaws Night Before Party
8 p.m. - close
Three Sisters Pub (Rembrandtplein 19, 1017 CT Amsterdam, Netherlands)
- No RSVP is needed for this event.
Friday, June 5th
FanFriendly Match against Netherlands Fans
FC Amsterdam (Zwartelaantje 51099 CE Amsterdam, Netherlands)
This is limited to the first 25 players who register.
- REGISTER HERE
Pregame from 3-8 p.m.
Postgame from 10:30 p.m.-1 a.m.
Vanzz Loungebar and Restaurant (De Corridor 2, 1101 BD Amsterdam, Netherlands)
- RSVP HERE
U.S. MNT vs. GERMANY || JUNE 10 || MATCH PAGE
AO NIGHT BEFORE PARTY
Tuesday, June 9th
American Outlaws Night Before Party
8 p.m.- Close
Kiez (Moselstraße 80 50674 Köln, Germany)
- No RSVP is needed for this event
Wednesday, June 10th
FanFriendly Match against Germany Fans
Outside RheinEnergieSTADION at the corner of Oskar-Rehfeldt-Weg and Olympiaweg
This is limited to the first 25 players who register.
- Register HERE
Pregame from 4-8 p.m.
Postgame from 10:45 p.m. - 1 a.m.
Playa (Junkersdorfer Straße 1, 50933 Köln, Germany)
- RSVP HERE
CHICAGO (May 4, 2015) – The U.S. Men’s National Team will face Guatemala on Friday, July 3, at 5:30 p.m. CT at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee. The game will be broadcast live on FOX Sports 1, UniMás and the Univision Deportes Network.
'We are thrilled to have the opportunity to play a team like Guatemala before the Gold Cup," said U.S. MNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. "They are similar to our opponents in the group stage, so we couldn't ask for better preparation. Our goal is to win the tournament, and this will be an important first step. Nashville has always been a great home to the National Team, and we look forward to having a fantastic crowd at LP Field."
Tickets go on sale to the public on Thursday, May 7, at 10 a.m. CT through ussoccer.com, by phone at 1-800-745-3000, at all Ticketmaster ticket centers throughout Central Tennessee (including Kroger and Walmart stores) and the LP Field ticket office (open Monday-Friday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Groups of 20 or more can obtain an order form at ussoccer.com or call 312-528-1290. Ultimate Fan Tickets (special VIP packages that include a premium ticket, a custom-made official U.S. National Team jersey with name and number, VIP access to the field before and after the game, and other unique benefits) are also available exclusively through ussoccer.com.
The matchup will serve as the final tune-up for the team before it starts play at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup with an opening round match against Honduras on July 7 at 8:30 p.m. CT at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas. That game will also be broadcast live on FOX Sports 1 and UniMás.
The U.S. MNT competed in front of 29,059 fans the last time it played at LP Field in 2011, which was the largest crowd for a soccer match in the state of Tennessee. In three matches where the USMNT has played in Nashville, the average attendance has been 27,720.
The U.S. and Guatemala last met on July 5, 2013, in a game that also served as final preparation ahead of the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup. The USA prevailed in that matchup by a 6-0 score line, improving its all-time record against Guatemala to 14-4-6.
The USA has played five international friendlies in 2015, going 2-2-1. The year for the MNT has been highlighted by a 2-0 victory over archrival Mexico in April, a 2-0 win over Panama in February, and a draw with No. 9 FIFA-ranked Switzerland in Zurich in March.
Before the matchup with Guatemala, the U.S. will travel to Europe for a pair of friendlies with international powerhouse and No. 6 FIFA-ranked Netherlands in Amsterdam on June 5 (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, WatchESPN, UniMás, Univision Deportes Network), and reigning FIFA World Cup-champion and top-ranked Germany on June 10 in Cologne, Germany (2:45 p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, UniMás, Univision Deportes Network). Fans can also follow all matches on Twitter @ussoccer and @ussoccer_esp.
Now just over two months out, the U.S. MNT players have their eyes set on making an impact for the USA in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. For now, their work is with their club teams, where last weekend a number of U.S. players made a difference.
Jozy Altidore, F, Toronto FC
Altidore collected his third and fourth goals of the season after notching a double in Toronto FC’s 2-0 win over Orlando City SC. In the 50th minute, Altidore quickly played a free kick from inside of the center circle to teammate Sebastain Giovinco, who in-turn touched it right back to Altidore. From there Altidore did the rest, zipping past the defense and ripping a shot that just tipped off Orlando City GK Donovan Ricketts’ hands and bounced in off the far post. In the 83rd minute, he got around the defense again. His second score came when he took down a long pass and fooled both a defender and the goalkeeper with a cut in the box that he followed with a left-footed finish.
Fabian Johnson, D, Borussia Mönchengladbach
Fabian Johnson played a key part in Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 1-0 win over VfL Wolfsburg. Johnson completed 29 of 34 passes one of which set up the game-winning goal. The win was huge for ‘Gladbach as it clinched at least a qualifying spot in the next edition of the UEFA Champions League.
Clint Dempsey, F, Seattle Sounders FC
Clint Dempsey led the Seattle Sounders to a victory over rival Portland Timbers by scoring the game-winning goal in the 77th minute of the match. In front of a crowd of 41,541 at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, Dempsey tapped in a rebound from close range after Andy Rose’s initial shot was saved by the Portland GK Adam Kwarasey. The goal was Dempsey’s second through Kwarasey in the last year. He put one past him in just 30 seconds into the USA’s 2014 FIFA World Cup opener against Ghana last June.
Alejandro Bedoya, M, Nantes
Alejandro Bedoya headed home the game-tying goal for Nantes in its Ligue 1 road match versus Toulouse. With two minutes left in regulation, Nantes trailed by a goal and was given a corner kick. Bedoya made his move to the back post and buried a header to save a point for Nantes.
Aron Johannsson, F, AZ Alkmaar
Aron Johannsson tallied his sixth goal of the season for AZ, flicking in a cross with the outside of his left foot for a goal in the game’s 35th minute. AZ would go on to win 2-0 over FC Twente. The win was important for AZ as the team continues to work for a Europa League spot. Johannsson’s team now trails the third-place position by three points with two more matches to play this season.
ussoccer.com: What were your overall thoughts on the performance?
Jurgen Klinsmann: “I think the overall performance was really positive. I think it was a great team effort. We showed a lot of spirit and we showed a lot of character in that game. They were working hard for each other. Everybody tried to follow our tactical principles, playing in a 4-4-2 diamond means there’s a lot of shifting. Obviously you need to have the fullbacks come out and attack the wingers, which we did really well, and we stayed really compact in midfield. We kept the distance between our center backs and our forwards in a good way in order to always be compact and work everybody together in a defensive mode, then once we had the ball we spread it out and went into attack. I think therefore, it was a very good performance with great energy, good spirit and a lot of positives to take from the game.”
ussoccer.com: What did you think the keys were to getting this result?
JK: “I think keys for winning against a squad as good as Mexico are that you need to be prepared for their way of going at you. They usually come in a 3-5-2 and with the wingers going forward, you need to be prepared to deal with them. They have individually very good technical players so they need to get pressured; they need to get their toes stepped on. We did this; we kept their back three very busy with Jordan Morris and Gyasi Zardes in the first half, and also with the guys coming in in the second half. Overall, everybody tried to implement his personal job in this game and those 90 minutes, and I think we deserved the result.”
ussoccer.com: Clearly the conditions were difficult. Are you able to learn things about players in terms of how they deal with a challenging pitch, an intense atmosphere ant the pressure of a USA-Mexico match?
JK: “I think those games are really crucial and very important to us even if you don’t maybe have your top roster at your disposal, because playing with difficult field conditions is something that we’ll always face in CONCACAF when we go away from home. We always have different environments, and in a game like that where the expectations are very high because you’re playing your main rival Mexico, you have an opportunity to prove to the coaches that you’re able to deal with that. I think after the initial hectic 10-15 minutes, the players started to settle into the game and they started to combine here and there with good passing sequences on a very difficult surface, and they felt more and more comfortable. I think the crowd was exciting. There was a lot of energy in the stadium and the players kind of started to take that energy in a positive way.”
ussoccer.com: You gave a college player the first start for the Senior Team in more than 20 years. How did Jordan Morris fare, and what message does that send to other players who may not be obvious choices?
JK: “When you develop players coming through the youth system going into the U-18’s and the U-20’s, then in the Olympic team at under-23 years of age, you always kind of see the talent and the potential of a player. If he’s playing in that moment with an MLS club, in Mexico, in Europe or for a college team, that’s not the key; the key is that he really gets ‘what is the demand for me going forward,’ and I think that Jordan Morris has the talent and the potential. I think what he needs to learn now is to pick up a higher rhythm to go to the highest level possible and become consistent. He has the talent to break through, but it’s easier to do that in one game than it is to do in 40, 50, 60 games in one year. So when we talk about the development of players, we always talk about the consistency that they need to continue to have to become really good players. I think it’s a great signal to everyone out there that no matter where he plays, that it’s one thing having the talent, which Jordan Morris has, and the other thing is to prove that talent on a consistent basis in whatever environment you are in. The national team program has a little more freedom to do that and to give you a chance, and also calculate the minutes that you’re on the field. Then in your club team, you have to provide week-in and week-out at your highest level.”
JK: I think what everyone felt for Jordan Morris the moment he scored that goal was, ‘Yes!’ He proved a point because it’s always difficult to imagine being on the stage for a game like USA-Mexico, with 65,000 people and a very loud crowd, and how to handle something like that psychologically. So he then ended up scoring that goal and you just kind of go, ‘Yes!’ He showed and proved that he can do it. Now for him going forward, it’s about staying consistent at Stanford and calculating his path and his jump into the professional world sooner or later to become a consistent element in our Olympic team that strives toward Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Obviously, when you don’t know all the answers before a game on how a player like him deals with all those things and then all of a sudden he scores a goal that is very special. I think everybody on the bench felt for him, all the players, all the coaches, and certainly his coaches at Stanford.
ussoccer.com: Also getting his first start was Ventura Alvarado, who has now said he is fully committed to the United States. How did you assess his performance?
JK: “We are very lucky that we have a lot of very center backs on our roster. Ventura Alvarado is now making that step to us and he’s another very strong player into our center back player pool. The way he came into Denmark and Switzerland was very impressive, and the way he played for Club America all season now being in the CONCACAF Champions League Final is very impressive, so we are really happy to have Ventura. We’re really happy because he’s the type of player that a coach looks at that’s almost complete. He’s technically very gifted and he’s obviously physically strong because you need to be that in that center back role. He’s strong in the air and he stays very precise and he’s very grounded, so having him in our pool means a lot to us and we’re thrilled.”
ussoccer.com: A lot of people expected the crowd to be almost exclusively pro-Mexico, but there was a significant number of people supporting the U.S. Do you see us making progress in converting fans with our performances?
JK: I think definitely that our crowd is getting unbelievably exciting no matter where we play. You saw that in Brazil. We had the biggest following of all of the nations that were a part of the World Cup, and now also in all of our home games, the following of the American Outlaws and all the fans streaming to our games. With Mexico, it will always be a mixture because of their fan base here in the United States, but for us it’s huge and it means a lot to us. We feel like no matter what stadium we go into, we have our fans and they’re giving us so much support and it’s adding so much fun to it and adding so much energy to everything we do. We know there are a big amount of fans behind us and they want us to do well.”
ussoccer.com: Did you get any answers from this game that will help you in the building of the roster for the Gold Cup?
JK: “Definitely we got a lot of answers to many, many little questions that we always have. This game gave us a lot of good stuff towards individual performances, players that knock at the door and are pushing to get in. It’s going to be a very, very difficult situation at the Gold Cup because European-based players are already done with their seasons at the end of May, so how do we bridge them into the Gold Cup which is in July and is not following up their season right away? We have MLS in full swing and Mexican-based players have a different schedule as well, so it was important for us to see how eager everybody is to get into that Gold Cup roster, and they are all hungry. It will start with the weeks before the Gold Cup with our 35-man preliminary roster, which we are very comfortable with already, and then obviously to bring in a group of 23 players. We also have a chance to switch six players after the group stage, which is a lot of work for us coaches but exciting work because we can kind of schedule things maybe a bit differently and we can bring players in at a later stage, or we can also bring the European-based players from the beginning of the tournament right away into it. It gives us more options, and with that performance for many players against Mexico, it’s going to be exciting for us to calculate everything in hopefully the right way.”
ussoccer.com: What are the messages to the players in the pool between now and the summer?
JK: We had a transition phase from the World Cup into 2015 and a lot of friendly games where we tried different stuff within our player pool and we found new players that we’re excited about, but now it goes into to the real deal and the real deal is winning the Gold Cup. The message to the players has become consistent: prove your point week-in and week-out within your club environment. For the European players, finish the season on the highest note possible and you might have a shorter vacation because we need you to be a part of that Gold Cup team as well, so we’re asking now from them that they be spot on, that they be sharp, that they be leaders in their club environments and that they stand out and not take things easy and make sure that they keep their performance going into July and show it most excitingly in the Gold Cup itself.”
ussoccer.com: You’ve said there are significant challenges in putting together the roster for the games in June as well as the Gold Cup, and we also have the FIFA U-20 World Cup and Olympic Qualifying. How do you now go about piecing that puzzle together?
JK: “It’s a very, very busy year for all of us. We had the U-17’s qualify for the World Cup and the U-20’s qualified for the World Cup and they are right now in Austria playing friendly games. We are building a U-23 pool to go ahead to the Olympic Qualifiers later on this year. It is very, very important that these players, especially the U-20’s right now in camp, know that we’re watching them and we talk to each other. All the coaches are connected. We talk about every talent coming through the ranks and we try to find even more talent. They need to understand that in this very early stage of their career that they are the drivers and that they are the decision makers. They have to make the right decisions on the field, but also especially off the field. This is something that we tell our youth teams more and more, that they become personalities and that they take things into their own hands and they become accountable for what they’re doing. So it’s a huge year for U.S. Soccer with all the teams in their different tournaments and their goals. It’s always important that as coaches we send the same messages over and over again.”
ussoccer.com: How helpful is it to have the U-23’s also face of with Mexico this week?
JK: “It’s very helpful that the U-23s have that game against Mexico coming up at StubHub Center on Wednesday because we urgently need to try and build this pool and try to build a team that is getting together on every possible occasion; trying to find a chemistry, trying to find a spirit within the group and hooking them up with each other. So you try that with the opportunity against Mexico with the U-23s, and it’s a clear message to take that opportunity because there are not many before we have to play the qualifiers, and if you want to go to Rio De Janeiro in 2016, you’ve got to show that to us right away.”
On April 1, the 18 players that were a part of the U.S. U-23 Men’s National Team March camp in Europe headed home after a week of intense training and friendlies with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Denmark. For head coach Andi Herzog and assistant coach Matthias Hamann that camp may have been over, but the process of continuing preparation for the Olympic qualifications with the U-23 squad, and the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup with the U.S. MNT, was just beginning. The ensuing scouting phase would see them travel more than 7,000 miles in the course of the three weeks that followed.
In addition to being coaches for the U-23s, Herzog and Hamann are also the European-based eyes of the senior National Team, constantly tracking players and evaluating talent for MNT head coach and U.S. Soccer Technical Director Jurgen Klinsmann. However, the pair crossed the pond for this round of scouting, traveling across North America to see games and players in the United States and Mexico.
“We came straight to Texas on April 10 from our March camp in Europe to watch FC Dallas play Colorado Rapids and to see our players,” Herzog said. “Dillon Serna came in 15 minutes from the end and scored a great goal. The next day we went to see the Houston Dynamo against the Montreal Impact. Then after that we came back to Dallas and drove our cars from Dallas to Houston and then from Houston to San Antonio to join the Senior Team for the match against Mexico.”
And that wasn’t all. Next the duo flew to Los Angeles and drove 150 miles to the border before parking and walking through the world’s busiest border crossing. “We went to Los Angeles and then from LA to Tijuana to watch the U-20’s from Club Tijuana, and Greg Garza and Joe Corona for their first team. We also saw a few of the Mexican players that we will face in the Gold Cup or in World Cup qualifications, so it was an interesting game,” Herzog said.
From Tijuana it was back to Los Angeles to view the LA Galaxy and U.S. MNT players Omar Gonzalez and Gyasi Zardes, as well as U-23 MNT members Jose Villareal and Oscar Sorto.
And that wasn’t all.
“It was nice. It was a lot of games, and in the meantime because of the time difference we were watching the European games on TV,” Herzog said.
U-23 MNT members Dillon Serna (No. 21), Shane O'Neill (No. 16) and Luis Gil (No. 14) have all spent time with the spent time with the Senior MNT as well.
Herzog and Matthias take in game after game from Europe to the U.S. to Mexico. Really anywhere there is a game going on that has ties to U.S. Soccer – be that U.S. players or players that the USA will face down the line – there’s a good chance Herzog or Hamann are watching.
“Most of the time because we live in Europe we are scouting all the European-based players for the U.S. MNT and the youth teams, and for our Olympic team as well.” Herzog said. “It’s also critical that we see as many of the players based here as possible. When there’s a game in the U.S., we always try to come a little bit early to watch as many games as we can.”
That is precisely what they did again this time around, going from city-to-city and match-to-match. Seeing the games up close lets the coaches keep tabs on current players, while at the same time giving them the opportunity to scout for new talent.
“The most important thing is to scout our players,” Herzog said. “Even when the U-23 guys aren’t playing, because of my job as an assistant coach for Jurgen Klinsmann, I have to look at all of the players. It’s always good to get a lot of new impressions. You may have already had an opinion and you think, okay this guy is good, and then you get to confirm the level of play.”
It’s safe to say that when this camp is over Herzog and Hamann will be back on the grind.
“It’s always fun to watch. It’s our profession and our passion. We’re both crazy and every weekend we’re in a different soccer stadium.”