ussoccer.com: This game is unique in that the U.S. has never played in a one-off final before, and you face your biggest rival to boot. How much did experience factor into your choices for the roster?
JK: “Well eventually what happened in the Gold Cup this summer turned now into this CONCACAF Cup final. It’s a one-off, and a one-off always has its own dynamics and that’s why you need a roster of 23 guys where you really feel as a coach that in this one specific opportunity that they are the right ones to get the job done. That’s why this roster is obviously full of experience. There are a lot of players that experienced different challenges over their careers and managed them and bring now their experience into this one-off clash against Mexico. That’s why you look for players - like a DaMarcus Beasley, a Jermaine Jones, Michael Bradley, Brad Guzan, Tim Howard, Kyle Beckerman and Chris Wondoloski - these types of players that have done so much for the National Team program that they understand exactly now what this is all about. This is about momentum. This is about high energy. This is about belief and a high-level of aggressiveness in a one-off game to beat Mexico and to get to the Confederations Cup.”
ussoccer.com: What is the approach you want this group of players to take?
JK: “When you look at a one-off game, it’s a final. It’s a trophy. It’s an opportunity that will not come back to you anymore in your career. You need players that really now embrace that moment and say ‘shoot, whatever happened has happened in the Gold Cup.’ Whether or not it was controversial, it’s in the past. Now it’s about winning a trophy. It’s about in 90 or possibly 120 minutes in front of a sold-out Rose Bowl crowd of 90,000. It’s about performing. It’s about representing my country. It will stay with you for the rest of your life. They can be excited about it and always look back and say I was there that special day. You want them to understand that from the first second they come on in camp. This is the CONCACAF Cup. This is the ticket to the 2017 Confederations Cup in Russia. It’s a unique opportunity.”
ussoccer.com: Team spirit is always an important element to success, but you’ve stressed that for this game it’s even more critical. Why?
JK: “I think team unity, chemistry, the atmosphere between the players, the bonding, is huge in this game. It’s probably one of the key factors in order to win. It’s that they are there for each other. They understand that this is not about me, this is about the United States, this is about representing my country and this is about winning a trophy with my teammates. I think the word chemistry is huge approaching that Mexico game.”
ussoccer.com: There are some familiar names not on the list that weren’t able to beat the race to return to fitness …
JK: “Obviously it’s a specific moment now, and in that moment John Brooks is not 100 percent. Aron Johannsson is not 100 percent. Greg Garza actually had surgery a few weeks ago. There are always players that you’d love to have be a part of games like this that are just not there. It’s unfortunate for them, but it is reality.”
ussoccer.com: What is the message to the players who didn’t make the final roster?
JK: “Every time you have to cut down a roster like now from 35 to 23, there are some players that do not make it and it looks like they are not good enough, which is not the case. The competition is very, very tight. Not having Omar Gonzalez or Mix Diskerud on this roster, for example, is not because they are not good enough, it’s just because you see another player that is better in their position right now in this specific moment. Those are always tough decisions that a coach has to make, and we believe everyone in that roster will get the job done and the other ones are there to support. They also need to be ready still because they are on standby in case someone goes down in training and they get the call.”
ussoccer.com: Did the team that you expect Mexico to bring have any impact on your roster selections?
JK: “We’re looking at their roster and their qualities and we think we know a way of getting the job done, but it doesn’t really have too much impact on our selection of players. I think our selection of players is based on our strengths, based on how we want to play the game, based on how much in the flow in a rhythm they are right now. Everyone’s in a different situation. The players in Europe are in a different situation. The players in MLS are in a different situation and the players that play down in Mexico. For us coaches, it’s always kind of a new picture opening up and deciding what is best now for the National Team in order to win a game.”
JK: “I think this new rule now from CONCACAF to have the winner from the Gold Cup against another winner of the next Gold Cup, which if not the same team ends in a one-off final, gives it a very special spice. It’s huge, especially if it ends with the U.S. playing Mexico. It can’t get any bigger in our region. I would love to play that game in Azteca Stadium. That would be even more exciting, but the decision is made. The game is at Pasadena. We know that many Mexican fans will be at the stadium as well. It will be rock. It will be a special atmosphere. It will be high intensity from the first second of that game. This is what you’re hoping to experience as a coach, as a player, as a fan. You want to go into these very unique games and experience it and really enjoy that moment. This will be a game that for the next two or three years to come is probably the biggest game because it decides who goes to Russia in 2017 and it gives you a CONCACAF title, so it’s difficult to beat the importance of that one.”
ussoccer.com: For both players and coaches, the chance to play for a trophy is always special. What makes this game different?
JK: “It’s a unique opportunity for every player to really write a piece of history. How often do you play in a CONCACAF final against your biggest rival that people will talk about for a long time? Obviously Mexico won in 2011 at the Rose Bowl and it was a big bummer for the whole team and the whole program, but these moments are remembered and I think when you have that opportunity now in front of you, you can set the tone and you can write this little piece of history that a lot of people will talk about for a long time. You’ve got to grab that moment. You’ve got to come into camp and say ‘let’s do it’. I think the team is more than ready. There’s a lot of frustration after what happened in the Gold Cup. There’s no doubt about it. The only controversial stuff that was said and done is behind us. It is now a final and you have to go in there and just embrace it and give everything you have. If they give everything they have, then I’m pretty confident that we’ll come out as the winning team.”
ussoccer.com: There are quite a few veterans in the group that have seen a lot at the international level. Do you see this as a different opportunity for them?
JK: “I think it’s really an interesting moment now because you have a core group of players that are kind of running out of time and I just want them to just embrace that moment. We’re going to play for a trophy. We’re going to play for a trip to Russia in 2017, and maybe you’re not there anymore for that because you are now 32 or 33. We have players on our roster that have done so much for the National Team program, but that are also not getting any younger. All these guys in their thirties, they need to realize ‘you know what, I’m may not be getting these opportunities any more. This is it. We better take that trophy.’ However it looks like, we’ve got to go and get this thing. This is really about chemistry and getting the group together and making it a really special atmosphere the whole week leading into the Rose Bowl moment.”
ussoccer.com: The rivalry with Mexico in some ways is a legacy passed down to each generation of players, particularly from those who were able to help turn the table and establish the USA’s dominance at home. Is there a “responsibility” to beat Mexico?
JK: “USA-Mexico is a unique situation, and it’s comparable for me as a German to when you play Holland. The whole country rocks. For me, it was interesting over time to learn how much this rivalry really means to the people that really love soccer, whether it’s the coaches, the fans, the kids, or the players. When we beat them the first time at the Azteca stadium three years ago, for me it was not as big a deal. Yes, it was big that we won there and we’d also won in Italy and now in Germany, and those are always something special. But the response that I received from a lot of people in the U.S. after that win in Azteca was so different. It showed me then - and it was a learning curve for me as a coach - how much it really means to the people to beat Mexico, to have this rivalry going in a healthy way, in a respectful way. There’s a lot of admiration there for the Mexican soccer team and the players because the people love that sport. It’s their number one sport. I think in a certain way, do we have that responsibility to our fans? Yes. Are we accountable for what happens at the Rose Bowl? Absolutely we are, and obviously the players that were on the field for that CONCACAF Gold Cup final that we lost 4-2 - the Michael Bradley’s, the Tim Howard’s, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey - there is something in them that is still burning. There is so much energy now being generated towards that game, it is just awesome. I want the players to enjoy that and to just grab that moment and get the trophy.”
ussoccer.com: At the same time the Senior Team has the clash with Mexico, the U-23s are attempting to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. How big a week is this for U.S. Soccer?
JK: “I think it can’t get any bigger than the next 10 days for soccer in our country on the men’s side. The Olympic team starting the qualification for Rio de Janeiro is huge. This is big for everyone. We’re going to give them all of the support we can, and hopefully the fans come out in numbers to all the venues they play in and give them big, big support because that is what they need to help them to qualify for the Olympics. At the same time, we play the clash with Mexico which decides who goes to the 2017 Confederations Cup. So, within the next 10 days it doesn’t get any bigger. The senior team is going to watch the Olympic Qualifying games and cheer for them. We know they’re going to play the decisive semifinal on Oct. 10 before we play Mexico that evening, and they’re going to sit in front of the TV that night and they’re going to scream for us. We are there for each other.”