COSTA MESA, Calif. – With the 2018 World Cup now just weeks away, former United States and Germany manager Jurgen Klinsmann hasn’t been shy about sharing his many opinions on a number of hot soccer topics.
Klinsmann, a world champion as player in 1990 and still one of the most fascinating characters in the American game, didn’t want to wade too deeply into his five-plus years with the U.S. program. But that didn’t stop him from discussing a whole range of other topics during a 90-minute Mother’s Day interview with Yahoo Sports at a coffee shop not far from his beachside home. The rest of the conversation is below.
(Edited for length and clarity.)
Yahoo Sports: You pretty much went off the radar after you were dismissed by U.S. Soccer in late 2016. What have you been up to over the last year and a half?
Klinsmann: “I took my time off and had fun doing all sorts of things. Basically, I filled up my schedule with all sorts of bucket list items. I was able over the last year to watch my son play in the CONCACAF U-20 championship, and then at the World Cup in South Korea. I saw him sign a pro contract and went to see him several times in his first year at Hertha Berlin, which was a real privilege. I couldn’t have done that as a national team coach. I went down to Buenos Aires to watch Boca Juniors play River Plate at La Bombonera. On the way there, I stopped in Mexico City and had dinner with [El Tri coach] Juan Carlos Osorio. And I built up my Spanish very well. I took a lot of sessions. It’s still not perfect. I’m not fluent. But I know that if [a coaching job] in a Spanish-speaking environment came up, I am capable of dealing with it.”
Did you watch the loss in Trinidad & Tobago that cost the U.S. a trip to an eighth consecutive World Cup? How did you experience that game?
“I watched it at home with a friend of mine. First we are watching Ecuador against Argentina, because Argentina had to win to qualify, and I had just been down to the Bombonera. The only question we had was would Argentina win at Ecuador. I had no doubt about the U.S. Then, during the Argentina game, my wife came in — she was watching the U.S. game in the kitchen — and said the U.S. is down 1-0. I figured they would equalize sooner or later. Then she came in a second time and said it’s 2-0 in the first half.
“So we switched over to watch the U.S., and you were just speechless as it’s happening. I felt bad. We were already qualified. All you needed to do was just finish it off. One point. It seemed impossible. I watched it unfold in real time just like everybody else, and just like everybody else there were no words. Because you know the consequences of a generation of players not going to the World Cup, the consequences for the program not participating in that competition. And it’s all down to that moment, that one game. Things happen. Crazy games happen all over. Sweden bunkers in and beats Italy, and Italy’s not going either. When you talk about teams can win the World Cup, you always name Italy. So it was down to that one moment in time. They were already there.”
You maintain that you would’ve qualified the team. And the U.S. did well in 2014, advancing from an extremely difficult group. But after Brazil, things seemed to slide downhill quickly. Why do you think that happened?
“One problem for the U.S. is there is no high-profile competition after the World Cup where players have to prove they’re staying at the same level. In Europe, teams go right into qualifying for the European Championships. In South America, they’re already gearing up for the Copa America. Those players cannot relax. They’re not allowed to. Meanwhile, the U.S. program is allowed to relax. As a human, when you’re allowed to relax you most likely do. It’s understandable. But it’s a disadvantage for your U.S. national team program. We saw in the  Gold Cup, the hunger wasn’t there.
“Also, when a program is successful or not, it reflects the entire environment, from administration to the medical team to media representatives to the staff to the players to the coaches. You’re only as good as your environment. In countries like Spain or Germany or England there’s a high level of accountability for everyone involved. That culture is still growing in the U.S. It’s nothing negative, because we proved a lot already in the last 30 years. MLS is safe and expanding, and it only will grow more. But we are not there yet in terms of consistency and how we do things at all age levels. We still have a lot of hurdles to overcome, and that must be managed properly. One issue we’re consistently fighting in American soccer is inconsistency.”
You played in three World Cups and coached in two. What does a young player like Christian Pulisic or Weston McKennie lose by not going to Russia?
“It sets them back their personal development from a mental point of view. As international players always measure themselves against the best players they played against at the World Cup. So when you don’t get that chance, you feel like you missed something. I think that hurts your confidence for quite some time on the international stage. The next big competition you play, your confidence level is not what it would be coming out of a good World Cup experience, even if it was just as a sub. Can you measure it in terms of confidence or development? Probably not. But it does not help.
“There is a wave of young American players coming through now that are really good. They proved that at the U-20 World Cup. They finished in the top eight, and they could’ve been in the top four. But lacking the experience of playing in a World Cup puts you far back from the ones that go. It’s the same for the next generation in Italy, or Holland, or Chile. It’s a priceless experience and not having it is sad for these guys.”
Overall, what do you take away from your 5 1/2 years as coach of the U.S.?
“I always felt very honored to be part of that program and to connect people. The main job is to get results. But for me, bringing together the different elements in the American soccer community, talking to youth coaches, getting the youth national team system up to speed along with Tab Ramos, watching MLS grow and taking 12 or 13 MLS players down to Brazil in 2014 and also to Copa America.
“This country is fascinating. Working with players from different backgrounds was an honor. We had a lot of dual citizen players: Mexican-American, German-American, Norwegian-American. That’s America for me. My kids have two passports, German and American. This is the country of the immigrants. To be part of that on the soccer front was fascinating. When players came in from different backgrounds, they also brought different mindsets. To integrate them and get the group pulling in the same direction is rewarding. I often felt like I was the bridge builder to the European leagues, going down to Mexico and learning how things work there. I also enjoyed learning about CONCACAF. Traveling to Guatemala, Honduras Costa Rica, the islands — it was amazing. Getting to know these places and the people there opens your eyes. They think differently, live differently, have a different pace and different priorities. That’s the beauty of soccer. It was wonderful experience because we represented an amazing country. That made me feel good every time we got together.”
What would you have done differently?
“Every coach would do things differently after every game. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. There’s so many little pieces in training camps, off the field, on the field, that you would do differently afterward. That’s what’s so cool about soccer. Every game is different. It’s never the same. It’s not like baseball where it always kind of starts in the same place. The game of soccer is about chemistry and people, and the role of a coach or manager is so multifaceted that every little piece plays a role in the ultimate success. You’re constantly in transition mode. It’s just normal. When you pick 23 players for the World Cup it really is about that specific moment. It’s a fascinating process. For me the process was just interrupted.”
Your mentioned your son, Jonathan, who just finished his first pro season after two years at the University of California, Berkeley. How was that for him, and what did you make of Hertha’s goalkeeper coach calling him “too American” in an interview?
“It’s an absolutely fair comment. Jonathan had a huge learning curve, but he went through it in a positive way. He got a bit banged up — he was injured the first part of the season and at the end. But I think he became a young man.
“When he comes in with his kind of Californian way of life, making jokes and maybe being inconsistent in training there, he doesn’t get away with it the way he did here. So that [comment] from his goalkeeper coach is basically telling him he needs to take the next step. They see his talent. They like him a lot. And they need him to be ready if he has to play a game tomorrow. So I found that statement positive, actually, even if the media brought it across negatively.
“He understands now what it takes to be a goalkeeper in a Bundesliga team, and how good the goalkeepers ahead of him are. The coaches put him through the grinder but they told me he made a huge step forward. He improved a lot. He learned what the lifestyle of a 24/7 athlete is. All the goalkeeper-specific things you want, he has. He’s good with his feet, he’s tall, he catches balls easily because he played basketball. He’s very athletic but now he needs to become stronger so the power, the explosiveness, is there. It’s difficult because he’s coming from a three-month college season to a professional season. So they banged him up badly. They want to see how he comes through. The biggest challenge for him now is on the physical side. And not only was the development on the field very challenging, he grew up mentally. He’s 6,000 miles away from home. He lives in the biggest city in Germany on his own. He’s not in a dorm anymore like at Berkeley. You have to figure out how to organize your life, get around, make friends. Socially and professionally it was an unbelievable year that he went through.”
We’re speaking on the day of Arsene Wenger’s last game as manager of Arsenal. You played under Wenger at AS Monaco from 1992-94. What stands out now looking back at that time?
“Well first, Arsene Wenger is not done with his coaching career. I expect him to take another challenge. Maybe a national team. Maybe France one day or another big club. Or the U.S. I mean, why not?
“Arsene has always been a visionary. He’s always looking for ways of improving. When I played for him he was already ahead of the curve in terms of nutrition, recovery, doing things as a professional that other teams never even thought about. Tactically, he was fanatical in developing ideas to out-perform the opponent.
“But his highest quality for me was that the personal relationship he built with a player was the most important thing to him. He took decisions based on what was better for the development of the player in the long run over short-term results. That fascinated me. I was 30 years old when I went from Inter Milan to Monaco. I’d won a World Cup. We had a very young team, and he told me to take young players like Lilian Thuram, Emmanuel Petit and Youri Djorkaeff under my wing. Here and there he left one of them on the bench. We had a good team, but it wasn’t like Inter or Bayern Munich, stocked up with top players. So I asked him why he left this player out. We need him, you know? He said, ‘He’s not focused enough in training, he’s not focused enough off the field, he’s going out too much, his lifestyle isn’t what it should be.’ We were measured by results, but he needed to get this player to his highest level possible. He never let players relax, he never let them get away with anything. And in 1998, they won the World Cup for France. They were so good. And then they went on to play at Arsenal, Barcelona, or other big clubs in Europe.
“He built that culture of consistency. And now Arsenal fans demand it. He injected this way of thinking and this professionalism into the Premier League. And he did it very patiently. He wasn’t trying to come in and change the English culture right away, he did it step by step. He developed a culture at Arsenal known for a highly technical game, an attacking and entertaining style, but also a very knowledgeable style. He educated players and fans. He was always a thinker. That’s why people compare him, and rightfully so, to Alex Ferguson. These two built that Premier League. That will be his legacy. And, he’s a wonderful person.”
You’re going to do some TV work at the World Cup. What are your plans after that?
“I’ll be joining BBC for the knockout stage in Russia. But going forward I would definitely like to coach again, preferably a national team. Our daughter still has two years left of high school, and a club team requires you to live in the city where you coach. That means moving away from L.A. With a national team I can fly back and forth. I could coach a European team or a South American team and go back and forth. That wouldn’t be possible with a club team. I could imagine that after the World Cup things will open up and I’ll jump on another adventure.”
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