ussoccer.com: A lot of people are saying that the 2-0 win against Panama was the best performance of your tenure. What were your thoughts on how well the team played in the win?
Jurgen Klinsmann: “A main reason why this was such a complete performance is because all the positions on the field were connected. The back line was connected to the midfielders and through to the strikers. Everybody was working for each other. Defensively everybody helped shifting and closing the gaps. They didn’t allow Panama anything to go forward. Then when we go forward everybody tried to help each other and make the runs off the ball. It’s more important to make the runs off the ball than what you do with the ball. If you have the ball and you have no options to pass it through or do something with it, then you’re not getting anywhere. The whole team connected the dots all over the field, and therefore and the energy was great. The atmosphere was tremendous, the fans helped us a lot to get that high pace, high rhythm and high energy, and I think the players really enjoyed their time.
ussoccer.com: With five games out of 10 out complete, your team sits in first place. How would you summarize the first half of the Hexagonal?
JK: “It proved how difficult the Hex really is. You’ve got to go through that stretch and adjust to different circumstances and get the job done. We had a very difficult start - three away games out of four in the beginning. We had the experience in Honduras where we simply couldn’t adjust to the climate and circumstances. After that defeat we managed the whole process really well. The whole team grew and rose to the occasion. With the snow game in Denver their energy was really all together. Now in first place and having another home game, we’re in a very good position, but you’re only as good as the next game. Now it’s really important that we prove the point against Honduras and get those three points.”
ussoccer.com: What are some of the things you’ve learned in the first half that need to be applied in the second half?
JK: “Going through that stretch everybody’s learning. Coaches learn, on the organizational side U.S. Soccer learns and the players learn. You bring younger players through that haven’t been in those places yet. The more experienced ones know what to expect, but at the same time you want to raise the bar and say ‘I want to go into these places and I want to win it. I’m not satisfied with a point on the road.’ That’s a change of mentality. You could’ve said ‘one point in Jamaica, that’s always good a point away.’ No, I’m not happy with that. I want three points, and that’s what we achieved. There’s always another challenge waiting for you, another level waiting for you to achieve and in that process a lot of the players are on a very good learning curve.”
ussoccer.com: What are some of the things the team is doing well that they’ve improved on in these last five games?
JK: “Collectively we know a lot better how we want to play. Going forward we know it’s better to have pairs on both sides and pairs up front with Clint and Jozy. We have a very strong pair in the middle with Jermaine and Michael, or if it’s Geoff Cameron or whoever steps in, they know how to play. Our back line is coming along. They are getting more confident, more fine-tuned. Also the players in a holding position that are right there in the second spot, they know exactly what to do. We’re not worried about yellow cards, we’re not worried about an injury, because we know that whoever steps in knows what to do right away. Therefore I think this whole group is growing moving forward and the fine-tuning is getting better, and the youngsters know what they have to work on going forward.”
ussoccer.com: How much are you looking forward to playing Honduras after the result in San Pedro Sula on Feb. 6?
JK: “I think it was an important experience that we had in Honduras. In our first game we got the loss, and they had the goal of the century with the bicycle kick. With the heat and the humidity, not being able to adjust to that, everybody was simply exhausted. Even the coaches on the bench were exhausted. That loss remains in your stomach. I still have it there and I think it’s really important to get these three points. Our European players just finishing up their seasons want to finish on a high note. You don’t want to go on vacation without the best results. It can upset your vacation time. The players in MLS or Mexico who are still in a full run want to continue that stretch now. This game against Honduras is a big, big game. For me it’s almost a six-pointer. You want to win this game badly.”
ussoccer.com: What are some of the areas you will focus on in the week ahead of this World Cup Qualifier?
JK: “We will focus on our tactical approach, meaning how to close certain areas and how to shift better and how to exploit them with one-two touch passes going forward. We will work on fast transitions once we win the ball back, which we did extremely well against Panama. You want to work on that and fine-tune it more. Also, to have the mentality that hopefully after we score the first goal in the first half to add the second one, and not think ‘okay we have the first one, let’s simply manage the game.’ No, you want to finish it off in the right way and add another one. There are still a lot of elements we need to get better on. We want to improve, and by working you will improve.”
ussoccer.com: When the team is in a good place like they are now, how do you make that momentum carry over to each game?
JK: “It’s always a balance between relaxing a bit, giving them a good time, giving them more time off and not overloading them with work. But the closer you get to the game the more you zoom in, the more serious you get in what you’re doing because everybody is eager to get those three points and look really strong in our group as the number one team.”
ussoccer.com: There’s a sellout crowd here in Salt Lake City. How much is the team looking forward to playing in front of another great crowd?
JK: “Everybody was thrilled to experience Seattle. Everybody said afterwards ‘wow, this was definitely the right decision to go all the way to the Northwest from Jamaica.’ We spent eight hours on the plane, but then we were thrilled because the support was just amazing, and we expect the same at Rio Tinto Stadium. We know this is a very passionate crowd, they love soccer here in Salt Lake and what happens with Real Salt Lake similar to the Sounders is just wonderful. It shows how strong the MLS has become, how strong soccer has become in this country. It’s more proof of it, and therefore we can’t wait to start that game. I’m sure the fans will carry us through the game, help us to push the envelope, help keep the energy high and help get these three points that we badly need.”
ussoccer.com: This Hexagonal group has already had more draws than each of the previous three cycles. What have you made of the group and how competitive it’s been so far?
JK: “This Hexagonal group proves how difficult it is and how balanced North and Central America is now in soccer terms. The Central American countries caught up. They challenge Mexico, they challenge us. There is no easy game at all anymore. You first have to somehow break them down, score your first goal and go from there. If you don’t break them down, which happened down in Mexico a few times, you struggle. Because teams are physically very strong, they keep the pace high with you, they keep the rhythm and they are tactically very well organized. They all go behind the ball once they lose it. There’s always a wall of nine or ten guys behind the ball. As we saw, Panama did everything to not open any gaps for us, and then it’s crucial that once you have a chance to score, or maybe two, you’ve got to score. You don’t get many goal scoring opportunities like in a club environment. Say Jozy gets four or five chances with Alkmaar in his club games, if he’s lucky he gets one or two chances with us and he knows he has to put that one in. This is really the big lesson, and this is where I think Mexico right now really struggles. They control the game, they try to create but they’re not creating as many chances. If Chicharito or maybe de Nigris is not putting that ball in right away, they end up with a tie. They’ve done that now three times at home, and that’s why they are now behind in the table.”
ussoccer.com: You’re friends with top coaches around the world and all of them have a view of what it’s like to try and qualify in CONCACAF. Having had this experience now, what do you tell them?
JK: “Well when you talk to people outside of the CONCACAF region, outside of North and Central America, you explain to them how difficult this group is and now they watch the games. They are televised in Europe, they’re televised in South America and they get back to me and say ‘I watched your game in Jamaica, I watched your game against Panama, holy moly this is a whole different dimension.’ I tell them you’ve got to go through it. You’ve got to tell the players day-in and day-out how difficult it will be so they are prepared for it and have the will to really go to their limits in order to get those crucial points. A lot of people over the last few years, especially in Europe, have realized how difficult our region is and you see that now. More and more players from Central America, from Honduras, from Jamaica, from other countries - they play overseas in Europe now. They play for very good clubs and that wasn’t the case 10 years ago. Therefore we’re gaining a lot of respect worldwide with our region. “