October 17, 2014 / 4:53 PM / 3 years ago

European experience vital for lofty U.S. goals, says Klinsmann

Jurgen Klinsmann, head coach of the U.S. men's national soccer team, speaks to the media during a news conference in New York City, May 30, 2014. REUTERS/Mike Segar

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif., Oct 17 (Reuters) - It is not that Juergen Klinsmann is an expat snob who thinks the top European soccer leagues are the only place for American players to hone the skills he hopes will take the United States to the 2018 World Cup semi-finals.

But he knows it is the unrelenting pressure to perform in the world’s most competitive leagues in England, Germany, Spain, and Italy that will help forge the quality to make his team accomplish the goal he has set for the tournament in Russia.

Klinsmann wants to see many of his players polishing their games in Europe, a stance that has put him at odds with the domestic Major Soccer League (MLS) which wants to keep the best talent at home to boost the status of the 18-year-old league.

“Our players who go outside the U.S. in England, Germany, Spain or France get used to the pressure and used to getting criticized if they have a bad game,” Klinsmann told Reuters in an interview near his adopted home in Southern California.

“They hear about it from the local people in the supermarket or at the shops or in the streets. The pressure is everywhere.

”They’re used to having to justify themselves for their performance all the time. Shifting that into the United States would be a huge step and is high on our wish list for the future.”

Klinsmann -- a prolific striker for clubs in Germany, Italy, France and England who helped lead West Germany to the 1990 World Cup -- admits he loves living in sunny Southern California.

But he knows the round-the-clock pressures of playing in the world’s toughest leagues in Europe are a priceless proving ground.

For the 50-year-old former Germany captain, a coach with a penchant for stirring things up ever since he led Germany to the 2006 World Cup semi-finals, there is no substitute for the constant pressure.

WORLD CUP EMOTIONS

“We’d like to build on the energy created by the World Cup in Brazil to make people understand we need a system of accountability,” he said, referring to his team’s strong run to the last 16 thanks to an upset win over Ghana and a thrilling draw against Portugal.

“If an MLS player has a bad game, we want them to be accountable for that. We want them to be pestered and bothered by the people in the supermarket or the baker or the butcher because that’s the way people react to the game all over the world where soccer is the number one sport.”

It is highly unlikely that soccer will ever become the number one in the United States with the lure of established American sports like basketball, baseball and American football.

But Klinsmann, coach and technical director since 2011, believes the country has tremendous untapped potential and cites the unexpectedly positive reaction to the team’s run in Brazil.

That came despite the fact he was widely criticized before the tournament for warning that his team not ready to win the trophy, an honest statement but one which Americans considered heresy.

“I’m really happy with everything that gives people a connection to soccer,” said Klinsmann. “I think it’s really important that people see the emotion of the sport.

”At the World Cup we won a lot of people over in the United States who were never before connected emotionally to it.

”That’s the beauty of soccer. It’s a very emotional game. That’s what really fascinated a lot of Americans.”

HAVING A BLAST

Klinsmann has also stirred controversy in the U.S. with his call to introduce a promotion and relegation system to the top three soccer leagues but he has enjoyed his first three years as national coach.

“Personally I’m having a blast,” Klinsmann said with a wide smile.

“There’s so much happening at different areas in the United States. We have so much potential to grow at every level: college, the youth level, education for coaches. We have to get better in so many areas.”

One area that Klinsmann, who has led the United States to 33 wins in 57 matches, thinks needs improving is his players’ attitude.

“When we face big countries I think we’re still a little bit intimidated,” he said, even though the U.S. have beaten Italy, Germany and won in Mexico since Klinsmann took the reins.

“There’s a bit too much respect for the big names in the soccer world. I think we need to kind of loosen up on that. We need to have respect, yes, but also have the courage to go eye-to-eye with the big nations.

”That’s why we’re playing friendlies against so many South American teams and European teams because we want our players to understand that we’re not that far behind.

”But developing this kind of bigger belief and bigger confidence level is one of our major goals. It’s a huge mental game and on the mental side we have to become a lot stronger.”

Although Klinsmann is pleased by his team’s victories against European powerhouses, his tireless drive to schedule matches against the best teams is becoming more difficult.

“Yes, it’s been fun for us to see with those successes but this was all noticed by the competition,” he said.

“We always want to play the biggest teams because we want to learn. Before the World Cup we wanted to play friendlies against some big European clubs but they didn’t want to play us anymore.

”I guess it shows that we had gained a lot more respect from the other nations. Obviously you want to win your games right before the World Cup to go into the tournament with a lot of confidence. So we struggled to find some tough competition. It’s a huge compliment for us.”

Editing by Ed Osmond

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