Commentary

Q&A with USMNT coach Jurgen Klinsmann

Klinsmann talks about the men's national team, expectations and Landon Donovan

Updated: March 19, 2012, 4:28 PM ET
By Leander Schaerlaeckens | ESPN.com

KlinsmannMike Hewitt/Getty ImagesJurgen Klinsmann has been in charge of the USMNT for seven months.

On July 29, Jurgen Klinsmann was appointed to be a different kind of U.S. men's national team coach. And he's certainly been that -- a hybrid German-Californian Zenned-out taskmaster with sneakers under his suit and an unfailingly cheery disposition. Whereas his predecessors glowered on the sidelines, Klinsmann spends practices racing up and down the field, coaching and encouraging players from up close, and then thanking them individually for their efforts after drills. He's introduced yoga and empty-stomach early-morning runs. Oh, and he's brought in a radically altered playing system. Wondering how all this is taking root, ESPN.com asked Klinsmann how his peaceable revolution is coming along.

ESPN.com: Jurgen, you're more than seven months into the job now. How is it going?

Jurgen Klinsmann: I think we're on a great path. Obviously the first couple of months are tricky because you start to get to know people and get your hands around it -- players from different directions coming in, and you try to get a feel for the chemistry of the team and every individual talent, and you are looking for new talent all over the place.

It's been very busy but a good busy because I love staying busy.

ESPN.com: What have the biggest challenges been?

JK: Challenges might be the wrong word. It's just been a lot of work in a positive way to get the different messages across to the players about how you'd like to build the program and add on to what's been built so far and the dynamic of it and communicating in a more vocal way.

It's: "The best players in the world are doing it this way, and this is how, why we'd like for you to do it." It's a lot of extra work. But there has been a tremendous response from the players about doing this in way they weren't doing it before.

They see that the coaching staff is there to elevate their game and to get their own personal game to a higher level. It's been a lot, a lot of communication and a lot of piece-by-piece and step-by-step work, but you start to see things coming through. You see the players, no matter where they're playing, getting to where we kind of want to get this program to. It's going to be one step at a time, but I think there's a lot of talent there in the group and there's a chance to kind of increase the pace and everything.

ESPN.com: What have the pleasant surprises been?

JK: How open my team was to different approaches, their willingness to learn, their eagerness to understand where their next levels are. And also the support from U.S. Soccer to say, "OK, Jurgen, guide us through those different approaches you might have in mind, and we'll support you where we can."

ESPN.com: That's very different from when you worked for the German federation.

JK: It's a very different starting point with U.S. soccer. The whole complexity in the United States is different than a country that has a completely different way of doing it, that has an infrastructure for many, many decades going back and also from where the game in the country has been. Soccer in the U.S. is on a very positive rise, but it's not big yet on the level where football, baseball and basketball are.

When you talk about soccer in Germany, Italy or England, you talk about the big game for 95 percent of the people. What it means is the kind of emotional connection of people and the interest of people in Germany and the social pressure that comes with that is very, very different. Not having that makes it easier here to change things. I went through two years of making changes with Germany, and every little change caused an earthquake. Eventually we broke through, but it was difficult because of where the game is socially. Some changes we've already made here in the U.S. weren't really noticed by the media but would have been noticed in Germany.

The decisions we can make now are easier.

ESPN.com: You seem to do a lot more actual coaching than is customary for a national team head coach. Most of them just tune players up physically, and work on tactics and chemistry. Why is that?

JK: All the elements are really important. Once you work with the players, you have to realize where your priorities are, and for us we wanted to teach them how to benefit from everything we offer them. Everything you give them is to allow them to make them better. It's about empowerment, to help them become better.

And to help them understand that, as a national team player, you have to be better than everybody else in your club. You're a chosen one, in an elite group. There's a lot of recognition that you need to do more. It's about your personal commitment to your future and your career. It's not up to the coach. The coach doesn't make the decisions on the field. You make that decision. I think the players more and more buy into that. They take really charge of their own situation.

I'm pleased that they're coming back to us and ask questions. This is really important because it means they're eager to learn, to improve, are hungry for the next level. This is what you want as a coach. You want them to come back and challenge you. They did that. Clint Dempsey asked me, "What does it take to become a Champions League player?"

ESPN.com: So what did you tell him?

JK: You've got to constantly be on the move, pick your one-on-one battles closer to the goal -- there's a time for the one-two touch game, and there's a time for going at people. He's getting that. The difference of his team right now and a team that plays Champions League football is the flow of the game and the speed of the decision-making.

"

We need Landon with the team to move forward because the train has left at 200 miles an hour and he was not on the train for eight games, which was not ideal for us but it is what it is.

" -- Jurgen Klinsmann

ESPN.com: How close are the national team and the job of its coach to what you expected it would be?

JK: I'm not coming into a new adventure or a new work relationship with specific expectations. I come in, and I want to evaluate where people are, whether it's the players, administration or medical staff -- everyone involved in such a big program. So that's what I did. If I could bring people on board to help elevate everything I did, so that the players get the idea that if I could improve the support staff, I would.

I'm not living by expectations. I'm living by working and seeing what the job gives to me and expects from me, and hopefully I can catch up with that and everything that [U.S. Soccer president] Sunil Gulati and [U.S. Soccer CEO] Dan Flynn expect from me.

I know the job and love what I'm doing because I know it's never the same every day. It's different to talk to coaches in Europe or in Mexico or MLS, and the complexity of my job and the diversity makes it a really kind of an interesting challenge. I love that stuff. I'm pretty confident about my work. I'm not worried about new challenges and going into Central America for the qualifying situations, which will be very different, because I can adjust to environments.

ESPN.com: Is that due to your globe-trotting playing career?

JK: My playing career has helped me a lot for now living in a soccer environment that is global. You need multiple languages, you need the network that's global, and you need to understand football in Africa or Europe but at the same time Central America and the rest of the CONCACAF region. It's been great that I experienced all the things I've experienced as a player because I learned from a lot of high-profile coaches in different countries but I've also learned a lot from living in the U.S. for 13 years. That's all added to my personal background and hopefully helped me do a good job for the U.S. team.

ESPN.com: Tell me, what exactly is your vision? At the 2014 World Cup, what does this team look like? Or is 2014 not the end goal?

JK: Soccer is not a game where you're content with what you did in the past. We're in a constant learning curve and in a constant environment of change leading to 2014. There's a lot of growing up still left for us. We have the feeling that we're growing, that we're improving, that we now understand better where we want to play with the best of the world, that we want to play with them and not just defend against them.

The kind of work we're implementing and the message that we're spreading is that we want to play and challenge the best in the world down the road. We want to go into Brazil and go eye to eye with the big ones knowing they have a tremendous amount of talent. We want to build the confidence, and also the technical and tactical capabilities to match ourselves with them.

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Claudio Villa/Getty Images Clint Dempsey teammates celebrate the only goal scored in a 1-0 friendly win over Italy.

It means getting out of the group stage and then challenge them and see how far we can go there. We want to build the confidence over the years that every player who comes into the national team program knows that every game remains to be played and for other nations to know that as well. The [Feb. 29 1-0 victory] in Italy was a signal.

It was just a quick momentum, but I got a lot of response from people from in Europe, saying, "What's going on there? What are you guys doing there?"

Yes, the Italy coach wanted to see some youngsters play, but we sent out a signal. It's: "We're going to meet you down the road in Brazil and we're ready for you." This is what, from a mental side, we want to implement in the players' brains and into [the media's]. You need to know that we're working on a psychological picture. We don't want to be an outsider a few years down the road.

ESPN.com: What does your team look like tactically?
JK: We need to learn to think ahead much, much better. We need to learn to read the game faster, anticipate it faster, be smarter moving into spaces ahead of time. This is a big learning process that we have in front of us. If you don't close down spaces ahead of time, you get caught and you get killed. Italy had three big chances in the first 20 minutes. If [Sebastian] Giovinco is a little bit more patient, we're down 2-0 after 20 minutes. They have to be very alert, very sharp, very awake during games. And you only get that alertness from playing against the best.

ESPN.com: Does your ideal look like the current Germany team, which you helped build?
JK: No, not at all. The ideal U.S. team is built on the strength of all the U.S. players we have at our disposal. It's built on their characteristics. It's very different from what Germany is now. That's the beauty also of the work as a soccer coach. You take the material that's at your disposal and try to make the best out of that group of players.

ESPN.com: How would you grade the results you've gotten thus far?
JK: I leave that up to [the media]. A coach lives by the response of his team but he also lives by the response of the people from the outside, judging the group and the overall performance of the team and the overall momentum. There were good moments in there but there were bad moments like against Belgium or even France or against Costa Rica in L.A. when we should have given them four [goals] after 20 minutes. When there's criticism then from the media after the game, it's totally legitimate.

I'm not hoping that after every game there will be compliments. I can put it in the right perspective. As long as I see the team is moving in the right direction, I'm fine with it.

ESPN.com: In the Italy game, you got a result but seemed to be reverting to old form in the second half. Was that on purpose? Was that a necessity to compete against a team like that?
JK: Definitely I'd like to have players being in shape physically to play the same pace and rhythm for 90 minutes. Down the road, I'd like to have two strikers and have a Clint Dempsey underneath, but you also have to adjust.

We didn't have the players or the depth on the bench. You adjust to what it takes them to hopefully get a positive result, and in that moment, you have to adjust and say not to panic and to only play long balls and to stop going for the second or third goal even if you would love to be able to in the future. We had a lot of players out, but they had to do the best with that situation.

[+] EnlargeLandon Donovan
Victor Decolongon/Getty ImagesKlinsmann says there is no rift with Landon Donovan.

ESPN.com: There has been speculation of a rift with Landon Donovan, who has been absent a lot more than he has been present in your tenure. Is there an issue there?
JK: No. There's no problem at all with Landon. It's for us way unfortunate that he wasn't available for the last eight games, whatever reason it was. We take it as it happened and are straightforward in our relationship, and obviously we want to see him back in the team. This time it was bronchitis. The other times was other injuries that hit him. There's absolutely no problem with Landon.

But we need Landon with the team to move forward because the train has left at 200 miles an hour and he was not on the train for eight games, which was not ideal for us but it is what it is. [Friendlies in] May and [World Cup qualifiers in] June comes quickly, and that's when Landon needs to be there and understand where is the team. We need him here as soon and as quickly as possible.

Leander Schaerlaeckens

Contributing writer, ESPN.com
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for ESPN.com. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Washington Times and UPI.