NEW YORK – US national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann hopscotched around New York City as part of U.S. Soccer’s Centennial Celebration on Friday, beginning his day at a historic press conference on the steps of City Hall before a detour uptown to help illuminate the lights atop the Empire State Building in the red, white and blue.
He also stopped by Major League Soccer’s corporate office for a roundtable conversation with select reporters, discussing the US team’s recent CONCACAF World Cup qualifying matches, this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup and the pending return of LA Galaxy star Landon Donovan.
Among the items discussed during the interview:
On US – Costa Rica: Klinsmann said that despite the adverse winter conditions during the team’s CONCACAF World Cup qualifier on March 22 in Denver, he was happy with the team’s performance, and the result should have been more lopsided than a 1-0 win.
“If you play that game against Costa Rica on a normal surface, we [score two or three goals] that day,” he said. “Obviously second half, you play on three inches of snow, it’s almost impossible to create real chances. We watched the game right away again the next day and the way we played the first half on a still OK surface, was outstanding. I wish that game would have been played on a normal field, and we would have looked even more positive.”
On Landon Donovan’s return: The LA Galaxy star (right) made his first MLS appearance of the young season last weekend in Toronto, and then came off the bench during the team’s CONCACAF Champions League match against Monterrey on Wednesday. He told the media last month that despite his lengthy winter layoff, he wants to return to the national team fold once again.
“I’m kind of just observing, to see where he’s at and how he gets back into his rhythm,” Klinsmann said. “We will watch his games obviously and judge his performance. I always said over the last two years that it’s totally up to Landon what he intends to do and what he proves to us on the field.”
Asked if he expected any resentment from other US players towards Donovan upon his pending return, Klinsmann answered briefly: “No.”
On the pressure facing MLS players in the United States: Klinsmann revisited comments he’s made previously about the lack of pressure facing players in Major League Soccer because of a potential lack of soccer awareness in the United States.
“Look at Landon … if he has a bad game here, maybe he won’t be bothered going the next day to the Whole Foods market to get his groceries,” Klinsmann said. “If you have a bad day in London, Milan or where I lived, you might not go to the market the next day.”
Klinsmann said that players who live in that pressure-packed environment feel accountable every day for their job, and that’s not something players currently experience in the United States.
“Hopefully down the road … the players will feel accountable about a bad game towards their fans, the people that love the game and the people who live the game day in and day out,” he said. “It just makes you feel more responsible, more accountable for the job.”
On MLS players moving abroad: While Klinsmann asserted that the top leagues in Germany, Italy, Spain and England are still superior to MLS, he asserted that he’s put no pressure on MLS-based players to seek out a career in Europe, and that every player must make that decision for himself.
Players like Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi (right) have all been linked to potential moves abroad in the past 18 months.
“What I tell the players no matter where they play … it’s down to the individual himself. He needs to be the decider, and have that wish to move on in whatever they’re doing. Once we have those conversations, I’m always there to help. But for me, to select them, it doesn’t depend on if they play in Europe, MLS or Mexico. I make no differences there at all. But I want them to step it up in their own careers to whatever they believe is the right path for them.
“If they say, ‘My career is going straight through MLS the whole time,’ that’s cool with me. But if a player says he’s ready for the jump to Europe and prove himself in Europe, I’m not shy to talk to people in Europe about that opportunity.”
He also added that a move abroad could broaden a player’s horizons and help them mature.
“Is it a jump of quality going from MLS into a secondary European league? Question mark,” he said. “Teams are not the same, challenges are not the same, the players you play against are not the same as the ones in the top four or five leagues in Europe. But you move out of your comfort zone, and maybe you mature as a person.”
On MLSers in Europe: Klinsmann said that regular playing time is the major factor for why he calls in certain players for US camps, and that it’s a “big problem” when a former MLS player is sitting the bench for a European team, like Bolton defender Tim Ream or FC Augsburg defender Michael Parkhurst.
“If you’re on the bench overseas, you lose your confidence,” he said. “And you see a lot of characters falling apart if they go overseas and they’re not breaking through, it kind of knocks them down. For me, the most important thing is, you gotta play week in and week out.”
On the backline: Klinsmann said that despite a number of recent changes in his defensive group – including the surprise omission of veteran Carlos Bocanegra for the most recent round of qualifiers – he’s still trying to find the right mix ahead of the next matches in June and that no starting four is set.
“You want to see the next generation breaking through and you to give them the opportunities to jump in the cold water and swim,” he said. “Only in those moments can you see if they’re up the task or not. At the same time, you know what you have in very experienced players like Carlos Bocanegra or Clarence Goodson, and guys that have been with the program for a long time. You want to show them the respect they deserve and you want to tell them honestly, you want to see competition there.”
On Brad Guzan: Despite posting two shutouts in matches against Costa Rica and Mexico last month, there appears to be no argument that goalkeeper Brad Guzan (right) will once again serve as the backup to Tim Howard, now that the longtime starter has recovered from a back injury suffered with Everton in early March.
“Tim is No. 1, undoubtedly,” Klinsmann said. “The level [Guzan] played at in those two qualifiers make you feel a lot better about having such a strong No. 2, but there’s no question about Tim Howard being the No. 1.”
On Michael Bradley: The veteran midfielder was one of the team’s driving forces during the previous two World Cup qualifiers, and jumped to condemn the players who anonymously criticized Klinsmann in an article released days before the Costa Rica game. Klinsmann said he’s attempted to be honest and upfront with Bradley – the son of Klinsmann’s predecessor, Bob Bradley – since Day 1.
“We had that talk right away, because of the special circumstances, and because I have a lot of respect for Bob,” Klinsmann said. “To see Michael grow over the past couple of years … it’s fantastic. He’s a real example out there, and he’s not shy to take the next step … he’s very ambitious and very focused, and that goes back to his family environment. That’s why I always give them a lot of complements.”
On the Gold Cup: A number of players who make the game-day rosters but don’t figure prominently into World Cup qualifiers this summer could appear more prominently in this summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, meaning the US won’t field a traditional “B Team” during the tournament. Klinsmann also expects to field a number of players from the team’s Under-23 roster that failed last summer to reach the London Olympics.
“We hope to see some positive surprises,” he said. “We are still very ambitious going into that Gold Cup. We want to win that tournament.”