ussoccer.com: You set a goal before Copa America Centenario of reaching the semifinal. How do you feel about that achievement?
Jurgen Klinsmann: “I think for our team, setting a goal like getting into the Quarterfinals for a Copa America was a huge mountain in front of us. Step-by-step, getting into this tournament, we showed the team it is all about the momentum, the belief, the chemistry of a team, but also to adjust to that level of the game. The level of South America is ahead of what we are used to in CONCACAF. We are so grateful to participate in this tournament because it gives us the unique chance to play against the top teams from down in South America in really meaningful games. Reaching the final four, reaching that goal, is huge. Our players now see that we got a lesson from Argentina in the Semifinal, but also that if they raise their own game to another level or two or three levels higher from what they’re used to playing in CONCACAF, things are doable. You need to have that chance to play those teams, and the more often you play those teams, the more you believe you can go eye-to-eye with them. It’s a fantastic achievement to be in the final four. We wanted to win the third-place game, and it was a fantastic match with Colombia. They had that one goal and kept a clean sheet, so we didn’t put it in at the end of the day. But I think the learning curve we came through in this tournament was tremendous, and you have to give our team a huge compliment for the way they played.”
ussoccer.com: The U.S. obviously suffered a difficult defeat in the semifinal against Argentina. What did you think of the team’s response in their performance in the Third Place Match against No. 3-ranked Colombia?
JK: “The team’s response after this game against Argentina - the number one team in the world - was outstanding. They kind of said, ‘Well, let’s swallow it and let’s give Colombia a real fight!’ Colombia took it the same way; disappointed with the defeat against Chile, but they also wanted to give it a real game. The level of the third-place game was unbelievably high. I think it was one of our best games within the last couple of years. For us, playing these types of games in such an environment is huge because it makes our players grow; therefore, their response has been fantastic.”
ussoccer.com: From a team perspective, what’s your biggest takeaway from the tournament?
JK: “Our biggest take away from these last six weeks is the chemistry that this team developed, the talent we are bringing through one step at a time - there might be a step backwards then we have to make two forward, like the Argentina game is a step backwards, then the next one is two forward. It’s a team that really understands to drive it more and more themselves. I’ve always told the players to take things in their own hands. We want to empower the players to drive their own careers and they drive it to the maximum of their capabilities - it’s not the coaches, it’s not the outside, it’s themselves. It’s wonderful to see how they reacted to the first loss against Colombia and stepped it up against Costa Rica, which played really well the first 15 minutes, but then we turned on a totally different gear. This is the reaction you want to see from players - you want players to understand the moment and really take over. In this tournament, you saw a lot of players who took it on themselves, and this is big for a coach because you see that they’ve become stronger and confident to drive it themselves.”
ussoccer.com: In addition to playing against the top nations in the world, this was also an opportunity for the United States to demonstrate its ability to host a world-class event. How did the organization fare on that front?
JK: “I think the United States showcased itself as a wonderful host. That was one of our goals. Obviously we wanted our team to do well from the technical side, but also you want to show the world that we are ready to host another World Cup and we are ready to host this type of competition with the infrastructure we have in this country, which is second to none. The stadiums we played in, thanks to the NFL as well, are unbelievably beautiful. All the teams participating in the Copa America were just in awe; they saw the amazing stadiums, and stadiums that were packed. In the beginning, it took a bit of time for people to understand how big a Copa America really is, and then suddenly the stadiums became packed, the games were top-level and it’s televised all over the world. A lot of people now - no matter in Europe, Africa, Asia or South America - believe the United States is ready to host another World Cup. From that perspective this has been such a tremendous showcase of the game.”
ussoccer.com: Along those lines, the fan support for the U.S. team was impressive – sometimes encouraged enthusiastically by you from the sidelines! How important is that connection between the team and the supporters?
JK: “We always said throughout the years - before I came on board and Bob Bradley did the program and managed it tremendously and Bruce Arena before him - that we want to see a steady growth of the sport in our country. If you look back over the last 10 years, the growth of the fan base of the National Team now is unbelievable. We were carried by the fans in Chicago, Philadelphia, Seattle, Houston and now in Phoenix pushing a team to the very last second. This is cool, and the whole educational side of the game is becoming more out there. Nobody will ever have the same opinion, which is beautiful in soccer, and everybody can debate his standpoint. But that we have that discussion, we have that debate, we have conversations going on where people really talk the game is so cool because it gets emotional. It makes people love it because it’s such an emotional game.”
ussoccer.com: You talk to other coaches and players from around the world. What has been their response to the tournament?
JK: “Talking to a lot of the coaches that we faced from outside the U.S., they were amazed about how beautiful our country is, the infrastructure, the way we organize things, but also they were pretty amazed with how we played in this tournament. Besides the Semifinal with Argentina, where we had too much respect for these wonderful players, we gave every team a real tough one. I think a lot of nations around are looking at us and saying that it’s not that easy to play the U.S. It shows the growth of the game in our country, our program and our individual players, no matter where they play - in MLS, in Mexico, in Europe. A couple players came out real big in this tournament and they should be proud of themselves.”
ussoccer.com: The Copa America Centenario came almost precisely at the midway point between the World Cup in Brazil and the upcoming championship in two years. How valuable were these games in building towards Russia in 2018?
JK: “Having this tournament taking place this summer is a real gift to us because these tournaments make your program grow and make your players understand how to look at down the road to the next World Cup, because this is World Cup level. Having Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, all these teams here and going eye-to-eye with the CONCACAF nations, this is the real deal. Looking now two years after the World Cup in Brazil where we came through the “Group of Death” and continuously building with younger players, the first year we had a Gold Cup we had a hiccup and didn’t play how we wanted to. This tournament showcased the growth of some younger players that we patiently worked with over the last couple years, and now they show personality and more confidence. Now having players on our team from a DeAndre Yedlin to a John Brooks to a Bobby Wood, to younger ones breaking in like Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe with a half year as part of our program, this is what you need to say you have a whole new wave of players now competing with the older ones. It’s also fun to watch the older ones defending their territory. With Clint Dempsey scoring three goals in a tournament, Jermaine Jones being all over the place and Michael Bradley managing everything in the midfield as the captain, Tim Howard and Brad Guzan there - they are not giving in. Certain players really played on the highest level - Geoff Cameron the whole tournament, really top notch - and this gives you a really good feeling going into very difficult World Cup Qualifying games. Obviously we have to finish off the first group in September and then going into the Hex. Whenever there’s a chance for us to participate in a Copa America, we have to be there. We have to take advantage of it because this is the only way to improve.”