ussoccer.com: We are four games into the Semifinal Round with two to go. How do you feel about being in a three-way tie on points, and competing for one of two spots?
Jurgen Klinsmann: “We have our backs against the wall. We want to win both games, so we have to go into Antigua and, from the first second on, go for goals and get those three points. Guatemala is a very difficult team to play. You have to beat them, and we’ll have the home crowd behind us. We unnecessarily lost some points in Guatemala with a free kick eight minutes before the end of the game. We were leading when Clint Dempsey scored and it was all looking good. If you come away with three points it’s a big difference than with a tie. And then in Jamaica we unnecessarily lose that game 2-1 with two set pieces that you give away. If you would say that there is a team out there that is outplaying you and plays better than you - like a Spain or an Italy - and you lose that game, you accept it and you give a compliment to the opponent. But if you give a game away because of just a set play or because of certain individual mistakes, then it makes you mad. I want to make sure that this is not happening again. We have to be focused from the first minute we get into camp.”
ussoccer.com: When making selections for this roster, what will be your approach?
JK: “It is really crucial when it gets down to World Cup Qualifiers when you put your roster together that you look at their individual schedule; who is in full swing, who is struggling getting games in, who is spending too much time on the bench. Going into these two decisive games we need to make sure they are all at 100 percent. The coaching staff closely monitors our players in Europe and here in North America, and we are in constant contact with club coaches so we have a clear picture of where each player stands.
ussoccer.com: If you look at the last few camps and the matches with them, the players have been in various stages of their seasons. How much easier will it be this time around with all of the players in full swing?
JK: “It’s actually an exciting point. It’s the first time this year that we have all the players in a full rhythm. It wasn’t the case when we beat Italy in February because the MLS players were in preseason. It wasn’t the case when we beat Mexico because the European-based players were in preseason. The May-June camp was challenging with a lot of different situations with the players. Now everybody is in full swing and prepared. I’m convinced if the players give everything they have, we are going to take care of it.”
ussoccer.com: You have been pushing players to try and reach the next level in their careers, and in the case of Clint Dempsey he wound up at your former club and got a big result this past weekend. What are your thoughts when you see Clint score a big goal like he did for Spurs against Manchester United?
JK: “You almost celebrate with him! As a National Team coach, you are connected with all the players at the different clubs wherever they play. When they score, you get a smile on your face. Your goal is to help those players get to their next level, wherever that is. With Clint in particular, I told him all year ‘you need to push the envelope. You need to get to higher-ranked team. You need to play Champions League one day and prove to the top players in the world that you can compete with them’. He took that well. He worked hard for it. He had a very, very good season last year and then he was in an unknown place during the summer break with his club situation. It came at the last moment, and fortunately it came with a team that I played for, so there are even more emotions connected to it.
“So you try to explain to a player what it takes to get to their next level, and I think they buy into it. They understand it. At the end of the day, it’s only the player’s decision. Their inner drive determines if they want to go up or not. You have the phenomenon also that players are happy where they are. They become content and get the feeling they have made it already, and then you have to tell them to their faces that no, you never have ‘made it’, there is always another level waiting for you. You identify these personalities over time and you help them to change their mindset and look at it differently.”
ussoccer.com: What do you think it’s going to take to get six points from these next two games?
JK: “The situation is very clear. Everyone can look at the table in the group and see there are three teams with seven points. You have to give 100 percent from the first second on. You can’t underestimate Antigua for one second. They have done amazingly well in the group, even if they just have one point. They had Guatemala right down the stretch in Guatemala, leading 1-0 for a long period of time. They were giving Guatemala a lot of problems in their home game, and obviously they tied Jamaica at home. This is a team that you have to take seriously. You have to keep the tempo high, create chances and finish those chances off. With Guatemala we know we have a very tricky team. Carlos Ruiz always is a guy that creates problems, and it’s a technically gifted team, so again we have to keep the tempo high. Now it’s really about zooming in and focusing on every little element, because it’s always the little details that make the difference. I think if we have the right attitude from the first day on in camp, if we’re determined and we are ready for it, we’ll get the job done.”
ussoccer.com: This upcoming camp will mirror the schedule of the training and games in September. What do you learn from that experience?
JK: “You learn obviously that you can’t take things for granted. Every game from CONCACAF, especially away from home, is very, very difficult. You have to be focused and mentally prepared for it. We gave the game away in Jamaica because we were not ready to fight against them, to take the physical challenges and respond to them. We gave away free kicks away in situations where we shouldn’t have and we paid the price for it. It tells you that with a month longer of the players being in a rhythm, you try and pick up where you left off in the home game against Jamaica where they played really well. They created a lot of chances. We should have scored more goals than just the one winning goal from Herculez Gomez. We just need to get the rhythm going again.”
ussoccer.com: Do you think people outside the region underestimate the challenge of qualifying in CONCACAF?
JK: “I think everybody familiar with CONCACAF can tell you that it is not an easy qualifying campaign. It’s very tricky, especially the first group stage where only two teams out of four are going forward. In every group you have three very strong teams, like we have in our group. You have to adjust to the different environments, fields, refereeing ... everything comes into play, so you have to really give everything you have in order to win or tie those games on the road. And then obviously you are always under pressure to win your games at home. I think that is very underestimated from people outside the CONCACAF region. Europeans and South Americans may think that this region looks pretty easy because they don’t play here and they never experienced it. European coaches tell me you should qualify no problem, and I tell them ‘why don’t you come over and I’ll take you to Guatemala and Costa Rica and Jamaica and you’ll see’. It would be an eye-opener for a lot of people in Europe to see our qualifying campaign. But at the end of the day, we need to qualify, we have to qualify, and we will qualify. But you have to prepare yourself in a perfect way.”
ussoccer.com: Now that you have been able to fill up your mental database on the teams in CONCACAF, how would you describe the experience you have had so far coaching these games?
JK: “It’s pretty much what I expected. They are very difficult games going into countries in the Caribbean and Central America. You have to adjust to the environments there. You have the crowd’s influence. You have refereeing that here and there may not be the way you want it. It’s difficult. It’s very physical and tough. You have to respond to it with the right attitude. You have to have respect for those teams. You have to battle them. You have to win your battles first before you play nice football.”
ussoccer.com: How different is the experience that you went through as a player and a coach?
JK: “As a player, it’s not very different to be honest. It’s a different atmosphere and environment, because every country is unique. But all qualifying is difficult. If you’re in Europe and you are a Germany or Italy or England and go to play in places like Albania or Azerbaijan, they also encounter a lot of difficulties.
“From a coaching perspective, I learned a lot about having games in Jamaica and Guatemala, so I know what to expect the next time I go in there. Every coach goes through those learning curves. At the end of the day, we are here for points. We need to qualify for the World Cup, so we need to make sure the players understand the urgency of doing things. I think that we lacked that a little bit in Jamaica. That’s why we gave that game away, which made me furious. So now going into these last two qualifying matches of the first group stage, it’s really important that the players understand from the first second on that we have a sense of urgency in everything we do.”
ussoccer.com: It seems like qualifying for the World Cup is almost taken for granted in some circles. How do you explain the challenge to people?
JK: “World Cup qualifying is a very difficult marathon that you have to go through. You have to explain to people that even if you are on paper the big favorite, for your opponent the game against the United States is the game of the year, and maybe the game of the decade. They will rise to the occasion and give everything they have for 90 minutes. If you take just five percent off the gas, you will struggle. They will come away with a tie, they might beat you. It is important that the players must understand there is no easy game on the agenda. There is no such thing. Soccer is unpredictable. You can mess up again with one set piece, and then they bunker themselves in and you do not find a way through that wall and you lose 1-0 and wonder why afterwards. Every game starts from zero. Every game will challenge you from a new point. There is no guarantee that you will qualify at all.
“In 1990, Germany won the World Cup, but we almost didn’t qualify. In the last qualifying game in 1989, we had to win at home against Wales. We were ahead 2-1, and it was such a tight game. Two minutes before the end of the game, they missed a 100 percent chance, a header from three yards out. Thankfully they missed or we would never have gone to the World Cup.”
ussoccer.com: Against Antigua and Guatemala you got four points out of six, and you felt like a couple points were left on the table. How do you approach the games this time around to try and get two wins?
JK: “The attitude and the mental approach have to be a little bit better. They were focused in the previous camp. The attitude was good, but it wasn’t at the top level. You really have to be at your best in order to get those points. Now the situation is clear – we need those six points in order to make sure everything is taken care of and we want to through in the pole position as the first-place team. If the players have that approach and they work hard from the first moment on and have a sense of urgency in Antigua we will get it done. Then we come back to Kansas City in front of a wonderful, emotional and excited crowd. But again, there is no guarantee for it. You have to have the right attitude going into the 10-day stretch.
ussoccer.com: You have said that at this point the most important thing is getting results in World Cup qualifying. In the long term, how do you gauge the progress of the team?
JK: “We just want to see the team progressing over time in the stretch of three years towards the World Cup. At the same time, we have to take care of business and qualify. So there are two things happening parallel. You have to qualify, and you want to improve the level of play: see progress in passing, in movement of the ball, creating more chances, the backline pushing up higher, learning how to high pressure teams, and we want to start to play with bigger teams more on an eye to eye level. We are trying to do this, and it is actually getting better. This comes along at the same time with the individual improvement of each player in his club situation. When a Clint Dempsey now gets games and is able to score against Manchester United, that will help him. When Michael Bradley gets games for AS Roma against Inter Milan or AC Milan, this makes a difference. Every player that improves his own personal situation with their club team is more likely to improve his own personal game within the National Team environment. That’s why these two things really work hand in hand. We want them to get the highest level possible in their club career, and at the same time we want to get a little higher and better with the national team program. It’s quite a challenge, but very enjoyable.”