U.S. Soccer

Jurgen Klinsmann Q & A: ‘Everyone Knows the Clock is Ticking’

U.S. Men’s National Team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann sat with ussoccer.com to discuss the roster for the U.S. MNT’s upcoming match against Mexico presented by AT&T on April 2. Klinsmann also touched on Michael Bradley and Maurice Edu’s positive showings in MLS, what Julian Green needs to focus on in this camp and the constant communication he is in with all the National Team players as time winds down until the final 23-man roster for this summer’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil is announced on June 2.

ussoccer.com : With only one National Team game left and less than two months before the World Cup preparation camp begins, opportunities are scarce for the players to make their case. Do you get the sense that everyone around the team feels the clock is ticking?
Jurgen Klinsmann : “Everyone knows the clock is ticking and that they need to impress in those games with their club, and the only way you can impress is if you play from the beginning on. So the players have a sense of urgency now. With whomever I communicate, whether it’s a text message or on the phone, I hear from the players that now theyhave to step it up.”

ussoccer.com : Are there players reaching out to you asking, ‘What else can I be doing?’”
JK : “We have players who shoot us an email or a text real quick asking if there’s something additional they can do, which they should. We give them the input right away. We’re trying to be more connected and in communication every week. If it’s not me as the head coach, it’s the assistant coaches or it might be Masa our fitness coach communicating with their clubs. It’s really important now that they get a sense of the timing that we are only a couple weeks away.”

ussoccer.com : As anticipated, you have named a 22-player roster for the USA’s match against Mexico, presented by AT&T, that consists primarily of MLS- and Liga MX-based players. What do you expect from this group?
JK : “What we expect is that they show a really strong performance against a Mexican team that is now basically coming back on track. They went the difficult route against New Zealand to qualify as the fourth-place team in CONCACAF. They got their lessons in 2013, very harsh lessons that they had, many coaching changes, and now they want to get back on track.

“There’s nothing better than doing that against their main rival the United States. So we really have to be on our toes. We have to be very focused and alert. Similar to what the MLS teams faced in the CONCACAF Champions League, we don’t have as many games for our players that the Mexican team has. They’ve started their championship already at the end of January, so there might be a little advantage for them. But we’ll make sure everybody is on board, and they’ll have a point to prove because we are only a couple weeks away from deciding on the 23 guys that go to Brazil.”

ussoccer.com : With MLS back in action and a full slate of games this past weekend, one player you must be happy to see back on the field is Michael Bradley.
JK : “Definitely having MLS back in the picture and picking up its rhythm, it’s just great seeing Michael Bradley there on the field showing everybody how good of a player he is. He had to be stitched up a bit after that clash, but he had a good performance. It’s very important to us that our leaders in our group are really getting a rhythm and getting games in. Seeing Michael back on the field and the others as well is really important.”

ussoccer.com : With Matt Besler on the bench this past weekend, the armband in Kansas City went to Graham Zusi, another guy who you expect to be a leader.
JK : “Graham over the last two years has established himself strongly with the National Team and especially in many World Cup qualifiers as a very good performer. Looking at all the match-ups in MLS and seeing our players all over the place, it’s really important that they pick it up.

“It’s been a tricky weekend because prior to that, there was the CONCACAF Champions league and all of our three MLS teams lost against Mexican opponents. That was a big bummer for us and gives us a lot of questions to be answered on how can we avoid that next time.

ussoccer.com : There could be a sold out crowd at University of Phoenix Stadium and you have mentioned some of the things Mexico will bring to the table. With so much going on around this game, does it give you a better opportunity to see what level the players are at right now as opposed to a normal friendly?
JK : “Yes, that is why we badly wanted to play this game. We don’t have all our players on board because our European players are not being released except Julian Green, which in his case Bayern Munich did us a big favor to release him for possibly his first cap for the United States with the senior team. So it is definitely a game we need to see where our MLS and Mexican-based players are. They need to prove now that they badly want to go to Brazil. Therefore, it’s going to be a tense couple of days. It’s going to be a test for what they can expect going into our World Cup preparations because it’s performing at the right time. It’s about understanding that they have to be tough now. It’s not about slowly getting into a rhythm, it’s about showing if you deserve to get into this World Cup roster. In that way, it will be a little bit different camp. It will be measured different because it’s the last game before we go into World Cup preparations. Therefore we tell the players from day one when they come in on Sunday to step it up.

ussoccer.com : Earlier this week, Julian Green was approved by FIFA to play for the U.S. With that behind us, you now have this 18-year-old player coming into camp to play for the first time, and doing it with so much on the line and against our biggest rival. What do you say to him when he gets to Phoenix?
JK : “We tell him the same as we did when he came into camp prior to the Ukraine game, to make himself feel comfortable, to get connected with his teammates, to get to know them. I know we have awesome leaders in our group that will put a hand around Julian and make him feel comfortable, make him feel welcome. Also just to enjoy the training sessions and show us what he is capable of doing. There’s no reason to be nervous at all. It’s just a one-step-at-a-time process that he’s going through.

“But, Julian is very ambitious. He knows about his qualities. He knows about the club where he trains every day with Arjen Robben, with Franck Ribery, with big players who are on the big stage for a long period of time. I think he has the confidence to come in and say, ‘If the coach gives me the chance to play there, I want to show him that I want to go to Brazil.’”

ussoccer.com : Maurice Edu is on loan from Stoke City and getting into a rhythm with Philadelphia. What are you looking for when you see him?
JK : “We’re looking for Mo to show us that sense of urgency. To come back on loan, get playing time and jump into the Union team, become a leader right away and help them get off on the right foot in MLS shows that he understands that the timing has to be there now if he wants to play. He could have sat there on the bench at Stoke maybe not playing much, and then there’s no chance for him to get on the World Cup roster. But he understood that, made the decision to come back and now he’s picking it up. We’re looking forward to have Mo back with us because once he’s in a rhythm, once he is fit and really zoomed in, then he’s a very good player.”

ussoccer.com : Many of the guys on this roster left January camp with your message that they have to keep pushing forward, be leaders in their team and make an impact. Are you looking forward to seeing how much they have progressed since then and if they got that message?
JK : “Yes. We want to see that now over the next couple months, not only in our game against Mexico – that’s the best stage they can have – but especially in MLS games. We literally over the weekend follow all the games. It’s pretty intense now the amount of scouting we do with everyone on our staff. We want to see that they have that sense of urgency, that they are sharp, that they do the right thing, and they show the right leadership because every senior national team player has to be a leader on his club team. That’s why he’s a national team player. We follow all that now week-in, week-out and the players are going to make it very difficult for us at the end of the day to choose 23 players out of that big group.”

The One Armed Goalkeeper

“ALL I EVER wanted to do since I was four or five years old was serve in the military,” says U.S. Paralympic goalkeeper Keith Johnson.

Johnson was born on the Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage, Alaska. He comes from a long line of soldiers. His father, mother and stepfather were all Air Force. His grandfather was in the Navy in World War II all the way through Vietnam. His great grandpa Frazier was in the infamous seventh cavalry (when I confess ignorance of the seventh cavalry, Johnson looks incredulous, disappointed in me, explaining this was the same unit once led by Custer, defeated by Running Bull). According to his mother’s research, his ancestors fought for the Union in the Civil War. Johnson grew up examining old family photographs of soldiers; reading the letters that his grandfather had sent to his grandmother during war time; going to air shows and watching the acrobatics of the Thunder Birds. Since he was a kid, he’d dreamt of flying a fighter plane. In high school, he’d head to base and drive his car to the back of the flight line and park, sitting for hours, watching the F-15s take off.       

But as soon as he’d been old enough to understand, his mother had explained to Keith that he would never be able to join the military himself. Johnson has cerebral palsy, a neurological condition that affects muscle movement. The Department of Defense lists the condition as permanently disqualifying.  

CEREBRAL PALSY DIDN’T stop Johnson from much else. He had hemiplegia—semi-paralysis that affected his left side – but a fourth grade teacher had told him stories of a former student who was now a wheel-chaired track athlete in the Paralympics; the teacher told Keith to never let his disability stop him from trying something. As a kid, Keith did Boy Scouts; joined a recreational soccer league; and played the trumpet, propping the horn up with his left hand and playing it with his right. In high school, he marched in the band. He was in ROTC, the closest he could get to the military, all four years. His junior year, he was the starting kicker for his football team—coached by his former fourth grade teacher.  His freshman, sophomore, and junior year, he was on the track team; he wasn’t fast enough to do the running events, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t throw the shot put.

Out of every activity, soccer was his favorite. Though he tried out for the high school team his freshman, sophomore and junior year, he never made it. He watched the junior varsity practice and thought, you’re telling me I’m not good enough for this? He couldn’t help but think the coach’s decision was based on his disability—that it had less to do with what he could accomplish than what he looked like when he was doing it. His CP caused him to run with a slight limp, his left hand tucked up in front of his chest—but he himself only became aware of any difference when others pointed it out. Over the years, there had been rough moments, moments he felt singled out, particularly during his adolescent years on a military base in Ohio. Once, his band-mates duct-taped him to the chair. In the small, all-white town in Ohio, he was bullied as much for his skin color as he was his CP: the second time he was called the ‘n’ word—“You’re not a nigger because you’re black, you’re a nigger because you’re ignorant”—he chased after the kid but did not catch him. He told the principal. The principal said, “And what do you expect me to do about it?” By high school, he didn’t expect anyone to do anything – he just focused on what he himself could achieve.

U.S. Paralympic head coach Stuart Sharp presents Keith Johnson with a special goalkeeper jersey commemorating
his accomplishment of making 100 appearances for his country.

HIS SENIOR YEAR he wasn’t going to bother trying out for soccer. But then he got cut from the track team. He wasn’t okay with being shut out from both. He called up the new high school soccer coach, Harry Matrone, and said, “Listen, I’ve tried out every year and I’ve never made it and I’ve been working too hard to get cut again.” Johnson spent all his free time at the indoor soccer center, playing constantly with the owner of the local soccer store, who used to play at a high level in Mexico.

“If you’ve been working as hard as you say you have, I see no reason to cut you,” the coach told him.

He made the team. While he only got twenty-minutes of game time over the course of the season, he never missed a practice. He also went to goalkeeper training directly after school. He wasn’t a keeper but he’d always wanted to be – he had been begging coaches to let him play keeper since his first time on the field. Though this was only a practice setting, he was able to learn the position as he trained alongside the first-team keeper. At team practice, he was the player whose effort raised everyone else’s. “He always had that I’m-ready-to-play-if-you-give-me-a-chance attitude, the I-will-do-my-best-to-do-whatever-I’m-asked mindset,” says Clemente Openiano, his East Anchorage High teammate. Openiano also notes the merciless climate of the team: “A group of teenage boys – the testosterone is flying, the jokes are flying. But he stuck through it, never let it get to him.”

During one indoor tournament, as the team lounged along the sideline in between games, one of Johnson’s teammates plucked off his headphones to see what he was listening to. When he heard “Eye of the Tiger,” the Rocky theme song, he grinned and gave Johnson hell: “Getting real pumped up huh Keith?” From then on, Rocky was Johnson’s nickname.

Keith rolled with it: at indoor practices, Keith would sometimes bring his cassette tape and play the song over the gym speakers while the team trained: Did my time, took my chances/Went the distance, now I'm back on my feet/Just a man and his will to survive. And while everyone viewed the song comically, hamming it up, lip-syncing with overwrought faces, there was still something undoubtedly inspiring about hearing that song. “Not much was expected of us that season – and we identified with the underdog grit it expressed,” says Openiano. “When Keith played the track, it gave us a sense of camaraderie and determination.” At the end of the season, the team of long shots made it to the state playoffs and Keith won the Team Tenacious Award.

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Jun 24, 2016