Breakfast with United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann: Today’s topic – individual improvement

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I was among a small group of journalists who had breakfast late last week with Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. national team coach whose methods and player selection tendencies can sometimes lean to the less conventional. The results so far have been mostly favorable, even if the aesthetic hasn’t always risen to expectation.

Over the next week or so, we will extract one element each day of the extremely informative conversation, where Klinsmann expanded candidly on subjects ranging from Jozy Altidore to evolving player roles to Jermaine Jones to future matches and all points in between.

Today’s topic: Embracing discontent

Somewhere, somehow, Jurgen Klinsmann’s chief vehicle for United States national team improvement got lost in translation.

We all got this notion that Klinsmann’s chief method for program progress was getting the team into a more aggressive mindset on the field, to attack a little more, doing so with a  certain loveliness in the craft. So there has been grumbling and grousing when the games have looked, in critics’ minds, a little too similar to games under former manager Bob Bradley.

No question that Klinsmann wants his team to attack a little more. And he surely wants to create a “no kick ball” zone.

But that’s not really the main emphasis of his quest for U.S. progress. If we pinpointed the presiding initiative of Klinsmann’s time in charge, it would be his drive to hammer into every single player the blessedness of discontent.

Those are my words, not his. But they fit.

It’s about getting more from the talent in place.  More specifically, it’s about getting the players to get more from themselves. It’s about them becoming greedy for self improvement, about having the drive and determination to get there in a comprehensive way. This comes up in every single conversation that lasts more than three minutes with the 48-year-old German.

“Everything has a purpose. If it’s food, if it’s recovery, if it’s training itself. And they went through that learning process [in the last few months], and they are starting to appreciate it. Even if it’s a little more demanding, even for the European players. Because I know what they do [in training] in Europe. I know the rhythm.

“We want to make them understand, we are trying to move up!  We can only get better, we can only get closer to the best in the world if we do more than them. We are not getting to their level if we do less. Or even the same! We only get better if we work more, do more, and talk more … make them understand they have to be professional off the field as well, they need sleep, that they need the right food, all those lessons. It’s coming along. But it’s a process. They are not changing their habits [in one day].”

“Some guys are greedy for it. ‘Tell me, tell me …!’

And then the contrast …

“Some guys are used to training once a day, having off, then they lay in bed until 11 … ”

Klinsmann said he was lucky to have recognized this as a young player. He quickly gained the appreciation of the extra session or added emphasis in a certain area. Do the extra work, he figured out, and he could move past players, figuratively and literally.

source: Getty Images

“And it gives you confidence. The last 15 minutes in a game, that’s the time I was waiting for. “OK, I am going to kill you guys now.’ ” .. When the players understand that, If I add another session a week, or two, or maybe a run here or there, it’s for the players. You are not running for the coach. If you feel better, strong, if you recover faster, if you eat cleaner, if you live a bit more conscious, it will pay off for you.

“Maybe it’s a good question to ask Eddie [Johnson], ‘What do you think? You are 28 or 29 now. Are there some things you could have done better?’ It would be an interesting discussion.

“It’s a culture. The culture is still that, ‘This is a team sport and I go with whatever the team demands.’ But that’s not the culture for a top athlete.”

The longer U.S. camps always begin with tests of stability, flexibility, power, cardiovascular fitness, etc.  From there, any deficiencies are identified and the staff lays out a plan for improvement. But obviously the athletes can be around the national team staff only a few days a year; it’s up to the players to go about the hard business of betterment.

Not everyone has gotten on board. Klinsmann gave hints that some players were clearly not making the strides he asked, so he laid it on the line for them. Those cannot be pleasant conversations, but even the affable, highly encouraging Klinsmann says he’s had them. It’s about accountability, he said.

“If we see there is no improvement at all. You know, ‘We told you, to improve your stamina or your endurance. But we see there is no improvement there. You come in, you have the same numbers!’ Then I have a talk. ‘You know, it doesn’t seem to me you want to get to the next level. You have settled for that level, you think you are good enough.”

Tomorrow, we can talk about how all that affected on player … Jozy Altidore.

(MORE of the Klinsmann conversation: explaining Jermaine Jones)

(MORE of the Klinsmann conversation: Landon Donovan’s career crisis)

(MORE of the Klinsmann conversation: the man is OK with being wrong)

(MORE of the Klinsmann conversation: Jozy Altidore’s recent roster omission)

(MORE of the Klinsmann conversation: tough friendlies ahead)

 

Wasteful Poland snatches late 2-1 win at Montenegro

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Poland was in control for much of the game, but failed to finish in front of net until Borussia Dortmund full-back Lukasz Piszczek found the winner with eight minutes to go as the visitors increased their lead at the top of World Cup qualification Group E.

Robert Lewandowski put Poland in front five minutes before halftime with a brilliant free-kick that left Montenegran goalkeeper Mladen Blozovic completely baffled, but Montenegro looked sturdy at the back for much of the game and dangerous on the counter. They’d hit just past the hour mark as Stefan Mugosa headed in to level the score.

Lewandowski had a pair of massive chances in the second half, but couldn’t get either to go down as Blozovic was there to turn him away, and Montenegran defenders cleared off the line as well. Luckily for Poland, they had Piszczek who burst down the right to beat Aleksandar Sofranac, and he produced a stunning finish looped over the closing Blozovic from a tight angle, dinked off the far post, and into the back of the net.

That would do it for Montenegro who had little attacking ability outside of their countering abilities, and with Poland happy to ease out the clock, the hosts didn’t have enough.

The win pushes Poland six points clear at the top of Group E, a sizeable lead with five matches remaining. The battle for the second-place spot is tight, with Montenegro still in command on seven points, level with Denmark but ahead on goal differential. Armenia and Romania are even with six points each.

Netherlands manager Danny Blind fired after Bulgaria loss

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The Netherlands are in real trouble, and the manager has paid the price.

The Dutch national team has parted ways with Danny Blind the day after a 2-0 loss to Bulgaria left the Dutch fourth in their World Cup qualification group halfway through.

The move garnering all the headlines from Saturday’s loss was Blind’s decision to start 17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt. The Ajax youth product, who has just two Eredivisie starts to his credit, made two crucial errors and yanked at halftime, but the damage had been done. Spas Delev scored twice in the opening 20 minutes for Bulgaria, and that was all the home side needed as the Dutch offered little in front of goal.

Blind was also criticized for not getting Memphis Depay on the field as they chased the game. The Netherlands held 74% possession, but could only manage 3 shots on target. Depay has been in good form since his January move to Lyon, with five goals in his 10 Ligue 1 appearances.

This decision was something Blind saw coming. He told national broadcaster NOS immediately after the Bulgaria loss, “I blame myself. It can’t go on like this. Things have to change.”

“I need to think about [my future]. I do not throw the towel in here. I’m incredibly disappointed, especially since I had a good feeling about this match. It makes sense that I put myself in front of the mirror.”

However, the problems for the Dutch go far deeper than Danny Blind. They missed out on Euro 2016 largely thanks to the failed 2nd tenure for Guus Hiddink. His assistant Blind took over, but the results have been equally as poor. The Netherlands sit fourth in UEFA World Cup qualification Group A, with losses to Bulgaria and France plus a draw with Sweden. It’s not over for them though, as they sit three points back of a second place spot with five matches to go, and three of those five at home.

With the Netherlands still yet to play their friendly against Italy this coming week, former goalkeeper Fred Grim takes over on an interim basis. Grim collected 101 caps for the Netherlands, and has served as the Netherlands U-21 manager for the last two years. Before that, he took charge of his first full managerial job as head man of Dutch 2nd-tier club Almere City.

Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery, scores in England win

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Jermain Defoe’s friendship with terminally-ill Bradley Lowery has been special to watch unfold, and the Sunderland striker brought his little buddy to Wembley today.

Then he notched a match-winner.

Lowery walked Defoe out onto the field in a replica England kit before Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, and then Defoe scored his 20th goal for country.

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It was his first since 2013, the last year Defoe was called up for the Three Lions.

Here’s the goal, which was followed by a second-half Jamie Vardy tally as England stayed atop Group F with a 2-0 win over Lithuania.

Two Russian soccer fans stabbed in Serbia

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) Two Russian fans have been hospitalized with serious injuries after being stabbed following a friendly soccer match between Red Star Belgrade and Lokomotiv Moscow.

Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said Sunday police were looking for the knife-wielding perpetrators who attacked a group of Lokomotiv fans in downtown Belgrade late Saturday.

Serbian media reports said the Russian fans were attacked by supporters of Red Star’s rival Partizan Belgrade.

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The match, which Red Star won 2-1, was meant to promote Serbia’s traditional friendship with Russia.

Stefanovic says “nobody should think they could hurt the Serbian-Russian friendship” with such attacks.

Serbia has seen a surge of fan violence inside and outside stadiums. In 2009, a French football fan was fatally beaten in Belgrade.