Coaching soccer in America is not like coaching soccer in Europe.
Here’s my hypothetical interview as if I were still a Head Coach using the same questions in the interview session Jurgen Klinsmann had with the Wall Street Journal.
As a caveat – there is no way I can answer questions specifically about some individual talent as I don’t see the players train – where questions like that appear I will offer what I think are the critical things any player needs to work on to play at the national level.
WSJ: How important is this tournament to you?
Very important. It’s the pen-ultimate tournament leading to the World Cup. This is a great place to test the skills and mentality of the players we’ve been developing the last two years. Critical here is learning while recognizing the intent to win. We enter this tournament expecting to win – every team does. Our next step, after this tournament, is to deal with the successes/failures we’ve had and how we can get better from them as we prepare for the World Cup – the ultimate measure of success for soccer.
WSJ: How does this tournament fit in with the transition process from 2014 to the 2018 World Cup? Is it a place to test young players or will you rely on players who have experienced big moments before?
Yes. This is the pen-ultimate type of competition you want your best skilled players (with development in mind) to get time playing against the other best players across the America’s – team development is just as critical as individual development. I don’t expect miracles like we saw in 1980 – but – in as much as ice-hockey is an individualized team sport – so is soccer. If you create the right motivational environment – give your players room to fail; accept and build from that failure they will then learn to succeed.
If failure in this tournament leads to success in the World Cup I have done my job. Bottom line here – I don’t care how well these players play for their club – they are not playing for their club they are playing for the United States. If that means each of these guys shows a different level of mentality playing for me than their club Head Coach – great – then I sense I’m being successful as their leader. If their skills and mentality are not coming to bear, on the pitch, when they play for me, then it’s my fault. It’s my job to set the right conditions for their success – when that success doesn’t occur – AND no learning for both parties doesn’t occur – then it’s time for me to be replaced.
WSJ: How are the younger players in your program coming along?
I don’t think they are coming along very well – and that’s my fault. I’ve have failed to give them the opportunity to learn from failure. As their Head Coach I need to stretch and pull their mentality every which way possible. This doesn’t just include physical training – it includes mental training. At this level what separates good from great players is their mentality…
If the players don’t have the right mentality then I’ve failed to put them in the appropriate environment to get better in that area. Does that mean every player can attain the right level of mentality? No… We have a saying in the military – if you’re a rock going in it’s likely you’ll be a rock going out (but everyone gets a chance). The key to a successful squad is throwing out the rocks and keeping the soil that can feed the plants of success that bear the fruit of victory.
WSJ: Does the learning curve need to start earlier, at 13 or 14 the way it does in Europe instead of 18?
Yes. I’ve read the training program we have for youth (that starts at the U-12 level). The word “mentality” does not appear anywhere in the primary headings of our training plans. In addition, perhaps the single most important skill, “first touch” is also not mentioned anywhere in the primary headings of our training plans. For me this needs to change.
It represents, in my view, a complete lack of understanding on how we can influence are youth development to better enable adult mentality needed in a tournament like this. In other words, it’s psychological changes in repeatedly stressing the right verbiage to drive home/reinforce critical skills and behavior I expect players to have when they report to USMNT training sessions.
The earlier in the power curve of their development the better. We mustn’t forget we were all once children – I think children are smarter than we give them credit for and the earlier we test those smarts, even if it means initial failure, the better. Most everyone I’ve ever met in my life who has been successful – has failed… entitlement is not a word that works for soccer in this country and getting the right mentality that no player ‘deserves’ to be selected needs to start as early as possible.
WSJ: Does fighting for a spot in MLS count or does it have to be internationally?
No – once my staff and I have reviewed their initial skills and how they execute those skills in their club environment – how much time they garner in playing for their club no longer matters to me. I take on players who I think have the right skills to be successful representing the United States, not those that do great for their club but don’t fit into this country’s team. Just because a player scores or gets an assist for their club has ABSOLUTELY nothing to do with whether or not they can do the same for the United States.
In my view this is where many-many people completely misunderstand individual statistics stemming from domestic soccer. The fact that Johnny scores for his club means nothing to me – why – because the team he plays for with me is a different team, in a completely different environment. I assess individual behavior that includes mentality (nous) and execution on the pitch relative to specific tactics we think will help the team be successful against our opponent.
The greater the flexibility a player has in playing under different tactical situations the better. But I do ask for and want specialists – it never hurts to have a set-piece specialist – at the same time I’d also expect that specialist to have very strong abilities to play multiple roles if injuries occur.
I’ll put it this way – if I have 24 players to choose from I’d expect at least one of them to have a throw-in that exceeds 20-30 meters and I’d also expect at least one of them to have a wicked free kick. The challenge is finding multiple players who have individual skills like these while also having the talent and understanding to play a full 90 + minutes. We should never forget set-pieces win games!
WSJ: Two years ago, you said Gedion Zelalem was talented enough to play for the national team. What happened to him?
I have spoken with one of the top statistics people at Arsenal FC. They know Gedion has the right skills to play, I trust what they offer. I would bring him in every single time we train and help him develop the mentality to play for the United States; I don’t care if he gets minutes in Europe or not. He’s here to play for me and the United States not his club. At the end of the day if he needs nurturing – so be it… If he finds playing time it’s because he’s a part of the soil that helps our country bear the fruit of success.
WSJ: How do you balance the need to give young players a chance and winning games you need to win?
In between the World Cups all competitions, for this country, are about developing for the next World Cup. Some players might have great skills but if there is a point where those skills are likely to wane in the very near future then it’s time for them to take up their responsibility to train their replacement just like I need to train their replacement. Our country is our team – if you want to play for the United States you need to learn/understand that training your replacement is part of replenishing the nutrients in the soil of our players.
WSJ: Did you expect to be still relying on Clint Dempsey and Jermaine Jones and other players already over 30?
At this stage, no. As a Head Coach I would offer it’s my fault that we don’t have at least two to three #9’s in the wings who can step in and play, fail, and get better… this same mistake has been made with respect to our midfielders.
Even now Michael Bradley shouldn’t be starting – I have should have at least two #6’s in the queue ahead of Michael if I’ve been successful these last five years. I don’t – that is my fault. Saying that – we have a special player in our team now – Darlington Nagbe – he has perhaps the best foot skills of any player in MLS.
Can he bring that to the USMNT? I think so. He should be given every chance (90 minutes at a time) to fail so that we can assess his future success. I know Michael Bradley can play – what I don’t know is how well the others can. This tournament is a learning experience first that always includes the intent to win. I must balance that winning with development and the end-state – winning the World Cup…
WSJ: Younger players say you give little in the way of instruction, that you say things like “let your personality show,” or “make a statement.” Why do you speak in such generalities?
That is wrong for me to say that. I am a teacher/coach. I should be asking them questions not telling them to ‘let their personality show’. As Head Coach my job it to enhance their skills and improve their mentality – put them in settings to help them learn to make decisions on the pitch. Some players respond differently – so I need to adjust my approach for every player because every player is different.
We have another saying in the military – don’t treat everyone the same – treat everyone differently. Why? Because we are not all the same – we are all different – therefore my leadership skills with all those players needs to adjust to maximize their learning capacity and capability. But let’s not forget – if you’re a rock going in it’s likely you’re a rock going out.
WSJ: The former West Germany star Paul Breitner made a similar comment recently. Is this a European way of thinking?
I did not make a comment, I think, that would warrant this follow-up question. If I had here’s what I would offer.
Europe is completely different to America – what works in Europe works in Europe. It’s important to find out what approaches work best in America given the different environment in which we live. As a leader I should know, given my past experience, what styles of leadership work best – whether they learned the game in Europe or America doesn’t matter once they make my squad. If I can’t adjust my leadership style to different players shame on me…
WSJ: Do you feel like the U.S. will get where fans want it to get?
I am hopeful, yes… I am always critical of myself and perhaps too critical of others – at least it may come across that way. But really, I am a very tolerant person who just has an excessive amount of passion on what right looks like – so therefore my views – perhaps delivered somewhat harshly – are not intended to be critical of others – they are intended to offer what I think right looks like.
I’ll put it this way – I’m not a yes-man… never have been, I believe passion is needed to create a better learning environment – but of that passion may mean conflicts are generated. If those conflicts remain constructive then I sense everyone gets better. Whether it’s my idea or someone else’s is okay with me.
Bottom line – as always – there is failure – hopefully I too learn from my failure. If I don’t do that very well my missus will help me with that. 🙂
WSJ: Do you like what you see from players like Matt Miazga, of Chelsea, and Christian Pulisic, of Borussia Dortmund?
From what I’ve seen – yes. They should be on our country’s team – they aren’t here because I’ve not been good enough as a Head Coach to help them get here. Mistakes are made – and in soccer that’s a good thing – except in the World Cup… The more playing time and training I give them now the less likely they are to make mistakes in the World Cup.
WSJ: What does Seattle’s Jordan Morris need to do?
Get better at his first touch, second touch, striking, passing, turning, dribbling, and fitness – but most important he needs to get better at playing when he doesn’t have the ball… i.e. improve his mentality and understanding his roles when not on the ball. This is the mantra for all those who would play for the United States. This is not a specific critique of Jordan – it’s an expectation that every player works on those things all the time. For me, there are no exceptions to that rule. Indeed – as a learning point perhaps for others — 90% of all training with the USMNT should be mental training without the ball. Ninety percent of the game a player plays is without the ball – therefore nearly 90% of their training should be ‘off the ball’.
I am not in a position to Head Coach the United States of America – but I think I understand football… and the leadership requirements behind leading a team.
In reading what Jurgen Klinsmann offered I would say he’s not got the same views that I do…
Is it worthy for me to offer criticism – I think so – I am a citizen of the United States of America – that is a right we all have… for better or worse.
And for what it is worth – I think my approach would work better than his; others may view that differently; as long as I’ve been around football it’s rude not to expect there will be differing opinions.
However viewed, like any American, I want the United States to win this tournament – the game with Colombia kicks off in about an hour or so…
Here’s hoping we win, and if not, we learn from losing…