Jurgen Klinsmann: 'I'd rather go forwards'

Jurgen Klinsmann is already leaving his imprint on the U.S. national team, but he says overall it will be a slow process. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

CARSON -- He's a German legend with real California flair, and so Jurgen Klinsmann might be uniquely qualified to steer the U.S. national team along the next step or two in its evolution within the world's game.

Klinsmann, 47, succeeded Bob Bradley as U.S. coach at the end of July, and this week's camp at Home Depot Center is only his second time with his team. He debuted Aug. 10 with a 1-1 draw against Mexico in Philadelphia and guides the Yanks in friendlies Friday night at Home Depot Center against Costa Rica (ESPN2 and Galavision, 8 p.m.) and Tuesday in Brussels against Belgium (ESPN, 11:30 a.m.).

U.S. Soccer had talked twice with Klinsmann, 47, before about taking the reigns, but the time, he says, was right this time, and his presence already is being felt. He's brought a positive spirit and energy to the team, encouraging them to take risks while accumulating the information he needs to plot the path toward the 2014 World Cup and beyond.

Klinsmann arrives with ample knowledge of the world game at its highest level. He played in three World Cups, winning one (in 1990) and scoring more goals on the sport's biggest stage than all but two other men, and starred for clubs in Germany, Italy, England and France. As a coach, he reignited a stagnant German team, taking it to the 2006 World Cup finals, and doing so with a very American mindset, especially in regards to physical and mental preparation -- concepts seen as wildly controversial in his native country.

They were borne of 13 years in America. Klinsmann's wife, Debbie, and their two children are American, and so, for that matter, is Klinsmann, at least in part. As such, he's the most accomplished soccer figure the U.S. has ever possessed, and he's brought with him big expectations for American soccer's future -- and faces an immense amount of work to come close to meeting them.

We had a chance to talk with Klinsmann on several occasions this week. A few highlights:

Are you going to enjoy this job?I think a lot, yeah. I think a lot. I do already. I really enjoy every second of it already. ... I feel really privileged to get the opportunity, because when you live here and you experience soccer in this country, and you experience the development over the last 10, 15 years kind of first-hand, and you talk to so many people involved in the game ... and now you can take your own hands and develop something further, it's exciting.

I'm excited about the opportunity. And to get the chance to hopefully implement some of those thoughts that you've discussed with many people over the past years, to give it a shot.

You're married to an American and have lived in Orange County for more than a decade. Do you feel American?

I really feel kind of a mixture of all sorts of different cultural backgrounds. Soccer was kind of my college, traveling the countries, learning the languages and meeting wonderful people all over the place. I feel part of all the places I've lived before.

In the U.S., it's 13 years. We came over after the World Cup in 1998. Obviously, because of the influence from the family -- the whole side of my wife's family -- you feel strongly connected then to America. And I said after the game [against Mexico] in Philadelphia, it was a special feeling for me, the American anthem and feeling a part of this, even though I grew up in Germany and represented Germany throughout my life.

What are you looking to accomplish in these games, against Costa Rica and Belgium?

We'd like to get to know the players a little bit better. We've had only one get-together, with the game against Mexico, and now we want to see even more from them. We've gathered a lot of information, we'd done a lot of testing the last couple of days -- a whole battery of fitness tests, from lab work to fitness work to stability, flexibility to functional testing -- so we really want to get our hands around this group of guys.

We want to develop a style of play that the people would like to see, that they identify with and that gives [the players] confidence to play a style that they enjoy themselves. This means a little more attack-minded, a little bit more on a higher pace, if possible. So we'll see how far we can stretch it now, the next two games, and every game we try to improve things.

What is your philosophy?

It's not really important what my philosophy is. I think it's more important what the people's philosophy is. I think the national team should reflect at the end of the day the overall sense of people living in this country. We want to have a style of play down the road that the people really enjoy to watch, and especially then the players also enjoy to play.

Being a former striker, I'd rather go forwards than backwards. It doesn't mean I don't emphasize the defensive work. What we'd like to do over the next couple of months is teach the players to go both ways -- defensive and offensive -- know exactly what they have to do, what role they have to play within the team concept, and then, hopefully, it's going to be something that the people enjoy it.

When you came to the U.S. in 1998, was this a job you thought you might want?

Not in '98. In '98, there was a real switch in my life because now comes the after-career start. It was very helpful to have good people here in the U.S. that guided me through that process. What kind of people? I worked for companies. I took classes at different colleges. I went up to Portland, where adidas [has its U.S. headquarters], and they gave me a lot of help. I started the post-career development, basically.

It was a very interesting period, because nobody [here] knew me. I was totally anonymous, and you could do what you thought is the right thing to do. In Europe, I couldn't have done the same thing. I couldn't have gone to a local college and taken classes in computer or Spanish or whatever it is, because the moment you walk into that school ... but here it was all doable.

And it helped me a lot to settle and to realize, hey, you start from zero again. The new chapter starts at zero. So you get back into the real life faster than I would have gone back into the real life in Europe. Because here my past isn't important to anybody. It was very helpful.

When did you start thinking what you might do if you were in control of a team?

Because you're always connected to soccer, those ideas come up sooner or later automatically. It took a couple of years, because first I had to settle into a different type of life and then figure out how can I educate myself and how can I use my brain more than I did with my feet. And then step by step, you learn about many different aspects of sports, the business side of it and other sides of it, and that's when you start also to see things from the outside perspective, that maybe if you got this opportunity or that opportunity, how would you do it.

You start with your own thoughts and ideas, and here you have resources beyond what we have in Europe and South America, because you have the other big sports that are top-notch and are differently driven than soccer. You can learn from other sports.

Every sport has something to offer, invaluable information for your own game. So I had to opportunity to go out there and spend the day with [former Lakers coach] Phil Jackson, spend the day with Pete Carroll [the former USC football coach now guiding the Seattle Seahawks], go to a seminar from Coach K [Duke University basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski]. Had I lived in Europe, I would never have had that opportunity.

Are your ideas starting to take shape with the U.S. team?

No, it's too early. For the next two or three months, we will go through a lot of observation, getting as much data and information as possible about our players, building our networks, communicating with club coaches -- all that needs to be established.

We haven't been able to [figure out] all the different schedules from all the different players. How our goal is to extend their season to an 11-month season, no matter if they play in MLS or wherever. This all needs to be gone through. Next will be talks with Sunil [Gulati, U.S. Soccer's president] and Dan Flynn [the secretary general] about the coaching structure underneath the men's national team: under-23 Olympic, under-20, under-18, under-17 academy.

I want to study as many [of the players'] characters as I can study, because the mindset plays a huge role when you go to the World Cup, so I need to figure out early what players are really up to that task, can live with the daily grind and have the right attitude, are open-minded to improve themselves, no matter what level they are on right now.

That's really the stuff that goes on the first couple of months.

How important is it to find an identity or build upon the identity the team already has?

I think it's important for everyone, because we want the people to identify with their team. When they go to the stadium, we want them to be happy with what they're shown, the energy level they have, the fighting spirit, also a certain risk-taking approach. ... We see the characteristics of the players one step at a time, and based on their characteristics, we also try to build a style of play and an energy that suits them. And if they really love to move more forward and want to play high-pressure, then step by step we can develop that kind of system.

It's not going to happen overnight, because let's say if you play a high-pressure game and you go a more attacking style and you are emphasizing pressuring the opponent in their half, you need to be in very good shape. That's why we're gathering now the information, to see what shape are they really. Are the capable of playing that style or not.

It's important the players identify themselves with that process and that they also have their say. We ask the [Tim] Howards and the [Landon] Donovans and the [Clint] Dempseys and the [Carlos] Bocanegras and [Steve] Cherundolos of this team, [the players] with a lot of experience, we say, you know, is this what we can play? Or do you rather think it is not what we can play, and then we adjust it. The players have to back it. You can't ask the players to play something they're not comfortable with.

Ideally, I'd like to see a team that goes forward, that takes riskes and expresses itself, and say we also want to have a good time. I always tell players that if you have a smile on your face, you can't really make a mistake, it's difficult, because that means your mindset is positive and you are convinced of the next step. If your mindset is negative, then you will lose that 1-on-1 battle probably. It's just like any other aspect of life.

What do you like of the exisiting identity?

I think a lot of things that have been built over the last years are very positive. I think every player here is extremely proud to come into camp and represent the United States. There already is a very good chemistry.

Now my work is where does this team stand now compared to European teams, South American teams. What is lacking in this. Obviously, [the U.S. team] fits within CONCACAF and throughout the last 20 years is expected to be alongside CONCACAF alongside Mexico.

What is the picture now toward Europe? Where do we stand toward a team like Italy or France or Germany or England, or the big South American ones. And this is where, hopefully, we can help the players to be realistic that we still have a long way to go.

We can say this is how a Spain team works tactically and technically and the pace they're working at, and this how we're capable right now working, because if [Spain goes] another level up on pace and speed, they actually have the ability to keep calm, and their heartrate is not going 200 [beats per minute]. They're heartrate is down at 110. Ours is at 180 or 200, and that's when you make all the mistakes in the world.

Will you work with the pool of recognized national-teamers? Are there other players we don't know?

I think there are players we don't have on our agenda yet. [Former U.S. U-20 coach] Thomas Rongen did an extremely good job of identifying all the 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds all over the world that have an American background. So we have a whole list that we need to get our hands around. That's why it's really crucial now to make decisions on who is guiding the Olympic and under-20 teams, because that's the player pool that will be fed by those talents out there. And there's a lot of good talents supposedly out there.

I don't feel restricted to the pool we have right now. I'm totally open to anybody -- for me, a good player is a good player, and I don't care what his background is.

How soon might some of these players start showing up?

Oh, they are already. Some are on our radar screen, and we've thought about it. But in our internal talks, I said first I need to get my hands around the established [players] -- it's also fair to them. There are some youngsters now breaking in, and they have the potential to maybe attack the established players, and we will slowly feed them into the program.

How different is the culture here than in Germany?

Every culture's different. You communicate differently to Germans, to Italians. The way Italians look at the game is completely different to other countries -- it's a different approach. I learned from my end [while playing for clubs in Italy, France and England] that I have to adjust to the approach that the people have around me. I'm not coming here with a German mindset, I'm coming here with, hopefully, the right adjustment to the American culture and the American way of doing things. And I still can bring a lot to the table of telling you, well, we could also do it this way or that way, which is a mixture of my experience.

I think I was lucky that I could live in those other countries -- and adjust to those other countries. And if you don't adjust, and you expect the German lifestyle in Italy, then you will run against the wall after two months and go crazy. ... I was luckily able somehow to get to a point where I said to myself: You've got to take their cultural approach, and you've got to change. Otherwise this is not working.

In Italy, if your washing machine is broken and you're getting an appointment the next day at 2 o'clock, then they're not showing up until next week. You have a choice, and the German choice is to go at them and become angry, and they you will become angry every day. Or you just accept it the way they're doing it, say, “OK, next week, I'll leave you the key maybe,” and then you'll get your washing machine fixed.

England was another adjustment to me, being provoked because Germany won [the 1966 World Cup] in England, and then comes the whole Second World War story, so I understood you have to joke with them, otherwise they won't accept you. So I started to joke with them, and suddenly you score a couple of goals, and everything is fine.

Your culture is unique in the world. America is unique, with all the extremes. America is the country of extremes, in all aspects of it, positive and also negative. But there's so much to learn and so much to discover, and your country has everything, from amazing cities to amazing national parks -- you have everything in this country.

I've lived that now for more than 25 years, always going back and forth between different cultures and places. It's made my life a wonderful experience, and I'm really thankful. Soccer gave me that entrance. Soccer opened the door.