Jurgen Klinsmann has spent much of his year-plus at the head of the US national team talking about big ideas and expansive long-term goals.
A few gritty rounds of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying seem to have brought out the flinty realist in him, however.
The German-American coach shared his thoughts on the qualifying grinder and his team’s overall progress in a Q&A with ussoccer.com on Thursday. And while he claimed that the rigors of regional competition have been “pretty much what I expected,” and largely adhered to his optimistic outlook, it’s hard not to believe that he’s adapting his ambitious outlook to his current circumstances.
“They are very difficult games going into countries in the Caribbean and Central America,” said Klinsmann. “You have to adjust to the environments there. You have the crowd’s influence. You have refereeing that here and there may not be the way you want it. It’s difficult. It’s very physical and tough.
“You have to respond to it with the right attitude. You have to have respect for those teams. You have to battle them. You have to win your battles first before you play nice football.”
Remember, this is the same coach who proclaimed his desire to play flowing, “proactive” soccer and stand toe to toe with world powers. A week after suggesting in an ESPN.com interview that he would even “send a tall center back up front” and go Route-1 style if the US somehow found themselves chasing the game against Antigua and Barbuda next week, Klinsmann acknowledged his own on-the-job educational process.
“From a coaching perspective, I learned a lot about having games in Jamaica and Guatemala, so I know what to expect the next time I go in there,” he said. “Every coach goes through those learning curves. At the end of the day, we are here for points. We need to qualify for the World Cup, so we need to make sure the players understand the urgency of doing things.
“Going into these last two qualifying matches of the first group stage, it’s really important that the players understand from the first second on that we have a sense of urgency in everything we do.”
Comparing CONCACAF’s underdogs to the awkward UEFA minnows his German national team wrestled past during qualification efforts in his own playing career – including a tight home victory over Wales that nearly kept Die Mannschaft out of the 1990 World Cup that they eventually won – Klinsmann acknowledged the underrated challenges that US teams perennially encounter in their own backyard.
“You have to explain to people that even if you are on paper the big favorite, for your opponent the game against the United States is the game of the year, and maybe the game of the decade,” he said.
“If you take just five percent off the gas, you will struggle. They will come away with a tie, they might beat you. It is important that the players must understand there is no easy game on the agenda. There is no such thing. Soccer is unpredictable. You can mess up again with one set piece, and then they bunker themselves in and you do not find a way through that wall and you lose 1-0 and wonder why afterwards.”
US fans can only hope that Klinsmann and his squad make sure that feeling, which befell them after last month’s upset loss to Jamaica, doesn’t return any time soon.