EXCLUSIVE: US Olympic coach Andi Herzog on Rio 2016, MLS, over-age players and more

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MANCHESTER – Sitting down in a hotel in the suburbs of Manchester, assistant coach of the U.S. men’s national team Andi Herzog is relaxed and full of smiles.

He is currently in the middle of a week-long training camp with the U.S. U-23 team as they prepare for CONCACAF Olympic qualifying in October against Cuba, Canada and Panama.

[ MORE: Three things we learned from Preston ]

The U.S. failed to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics but head coach Jurgen Klinsmann has made qualifying for Rio 2016 a main goal for U.S. Soccer and Herzog, 46, is the man tasked with delivering it.

After narrowly losing 1-0 to a hugely talented England U-21 side at Deepdale in Preston on Thursday – nine of England’s starting XI were in action for their Premier League teams last weekend – ProSoccerTalk sat down with Herzog on Friday to discuss this camp, the progression of his young squad and how things look heading into the all-important Olympic qualifiers next month.

Plus, he talks about his role for the U.S. from his Vienna, Austria base and wades in on the Major League Soccer vs. Europe debate when it comes to developing young U.S. talent.

A hugely talented player in his day who is the all-time leader in appearances for the Austrian national team and his clubs included Rapid Vienna, Bayern Munich and Werder Bremen, Herzog has a pivotal role alongside Klinsmann in delivering success for the U.S. in every tournament.

Only one thing is on his mind right now though: qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil next summer.

Here’s the full transcript from our chat. I, JPW, am asking the questions, Andi is answering them.

JPW: How have things been since the promising third-placed finish at the Toulon tournament this summer? Lots of new faces around, are you guys in good shape ahead of Olympic qualifying?

AH: We have some young players, some kids in from the U-20 that played in the World Cup in New Zealand. We are missing three of four key players but I think we will have a very good roster for the Olympic qualification in the beginning of October.

Were you happy with the display against a very good England side who had lots of Premier League experience?

When I saw the lineup and the names, I was expecting it. Even if they are young players, when you see the teams they are playing for, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, they are already starting some games in the Premier League so I was expecting a real tough game for us. But I think we did a good job defensively and after conceding a stupid goal because we were not alert at this time, I then made a tactical change and brought on a number 10 with two strikers so I thought we could create more opportunities to tie the game but I thought the last 20-30 minutes England had more chances and we didn’t create a real chance to tie the game.

I asked Gareth Southgate afterwards about his assessment of the U.S, he said it was “a really good test, we were never comfortable” and as a nation you have made “enormous improvements” through all the age groups since Klinsmann came in. What does praise like that mean?

It is respect. We obviously give respect to the English, they have more tradition than we have in soccer but I think for us the key is to qualify for the Olympics and for the men’s national team is to beat Mexico and qualify for the Confederations Cup. October will be a decisive month for us and we have to be ready for these games and like I say we missed three or four players here but we have a deeper roster now and we can see some new faces up until September 17 when I have to make the final roster. It will not be easy because of different situations we don’t have that much depth, especially on the wings. We have to find a system that fits best for our players.

That vision of the Olympics next summer, are you even thinking about that right now? All about qualifying?

The Olympics is something special and we always think about it and talk about it. But first of all the focus is on qualifying. That is normal. It would be huge to be there for the first time, for all of the staff and players it would be great for us to be part of the Olympics.

source: Getty Images
Herzog is the man tasked with taking the U.S. to Rio after failing to make London 2012.

Is there more pressure on you guys to succeed given the failed qualification in 2012?

That’s fine. You have to deal with pressure. That is normal if you want to have success. You have to go through pressure, you have to go through bad times and enjoy the good times. But especially in the good times you have to keep working even harder because normally if you have success it is normal that every human being thinks ‘okay, that’s fine, now we can drop the intensity.’ We must keep working really hard but I think we have a good group. I am very optimistic to qualify for the Olympics.”

This U-20 class, the guys who did well at the World Cup, how have they settled into the squad? Are they ready?

They are good. I was not able to start everyone but we have a second game now against Qatar and I will get the chance to see every single player and let them have the chance to show they can be able to be part of the qualification. It doesn’t make sense if only one player plays five minutes but you want to win the games. It is always the mixture between finding the balance between winning games and getting the group together and finding a lot of optimism or finding new players and giving them the chance. That’s the thing we have to deal with.

What have you learned from the players in this camp so far?

Obviously with Matt Miazga I was really impressed. Eric Miller did well for me from Montreal. We have a few guys here who are with us for the first time and they did really well. The goalkeepers are good. Cody Cropper had a good game. The other two kids are good with Ethan Horvath and Zack Steffen, they look really, really good. For me it is good to see new players and I can expect a lot from them. Hopefully against Qatar we can have a few more chances to score that would be important for the offensive players. That’s what we have to work more during the next two to three days, the attacking patterns. Against England we knew it would be tough so we were more focused on the backline doing a good job and I think they did well. Obviously if you lose a game it is not really good, but overall we can say it was a good performance defensively. Offensively we will have to do better.

So, can you explain a little about your day-to-day work over here in Europe?

With Matthias Hamann we do a lot of scouting in Europe and I’m still the assistant coach of the men’s national team so it is a lot of work. Right now it is important to focus. It is not possible to have 50 percent on this, 30 there, 20 there… so now I am just focused on my Olympic team. We have to qualify. For me that is the most important thing. Of course, I support Jurgen wherever I can if he calls me and says ‘can you please watch this guy?’ it’s my job. But right now I am really focused on the Olympic team.

Trapp and Hyndman seem to set the tempo for the side, will they play a big part going forward?

We have a lot of central midfielders. That’s like in MLS, most of our players in this group, if they start [in MLS] then they are holding midfielders. I mean Matt Miazga is a regular starter for the New York Red Bulls as a center back but most players, if they start, are holding midfield players or midfielders. We have a lot of midfielders and that makes it even more competitive for every single player.

What about forwards, Hernandez and Rodriguez caused a lot of problems against England. Happy with your forward options?

We have Jordan Morris. He is our fastest player. We missed him as he’s with Stanford University. So we have four or five very talented strikers up front with different skills. Jordan is our fastest player and then we have another powerful striker from New York City, Khiry Shelton. He has been injured for the last couple of weeks which is not good. We have other strikers like Alonso who is from the Mexican system and style and he is more technical and smart who reads difference situations. We have to find the right options for every single game.

The identity of the team, is it tough to put together with so many different players from all over the world, different backgrounds in MLS, the collegiate game and teams in Mexico and Europe? 

No. It is like in every national team. If you coach a national team in Europe you get some players from the German Bundesliga, Premier League… so as a national team coach you have different situations. In the U.S. you have the European players, in my team we have the likes of Morris from college and academy kids and MLS players. For me the most important thing is that we have one philosophy and our players have to be convinced with our philosophy and if one is not going our way I have to look for another player. That is how it is. Otherwise we don’t have success.

source:
Are Kaka and other DPs in MLS blocking the pathway for young American attackers?

The debate over MLS vs. Europe: Is there a big difference between players at academy levels in both places? Why does someone like Carter-Vickers who has come through at Tottenham seem more ready to be a pro at a younger age?

It is always about the individual character. We have the same discussion in Austria because most of the players now, in the last couple of years they left at the age of 15 or 16. I am the most capped player in Austrian history but if I would have left my family at the age of 15 I would have never been a player because I needed my family around me. Every player is an individual. Maybe the one thing that is different in Europe is that when a player is 17 or 18 and is really talented, the teams tend to push him to play already at the highest level. In MLS it would be good if more young players get more opportunities to play. Especially for the future of the men’s national team.

It is good if you bring in a lot of superstars like Kaka and all these guys, but most of time they play in key positions and how do you want to give a young forward in MLS a chance to improve and get starting time if the best players are in those positions? On one side it’s good to bring the superstars into the league and on the other side, at least for the national team, it is a little bit risky, because if they play in the key positions and the young talented players aren’t able to play in positions like striker or the No. 10 role, then in a couple of years we will not have enough players in those positions. The pool of players for the U.S. will have no experience playing in this positions. It is a little bit of a dangerous situation which a couple of nations in Europe have had problems with already.

Over-age players: is there a shortlist yet? Any timeline for that? 

No, not yet. First we have to qualify and then I have to see which player could help me most and if I have a position where I need leaders. Maybe an attacking leader, defensive leader or a goalkeeper. I didn’t make any thoughts about this right now. First we have to qualify, then we have enough time. It doesn’t make sense if I say now for next August he is my over-age player for the Olympics and then one year later he is injured and it’s not working.

That is a normal question. First we have to qualify and of course we have a great chance to qualify. I am optimistic but first we have to do our job.

Balance of the squad for Qualifying with the Mexico game, how difficult will that be?

I mean John Brooks and DeAndre Yedlin… of course they would have helped us a lot. It looks like Jurgen keeps them because he has a decisive game too. That is normal. We have a really good relationship and we talk nearly every day. We will find the best way to have both teams getting success.

Do you expect to be able to call on Julian Green and Jordan Morris? 

We have a 35-man roster. We have already had to make that roster and it’s not only players in this group here in England. We have a few other guys who have a chance. At the end we will hopefully find the best players.

Has anybody surprised you in this camp?

Eric Miller, it was his first time with us. He already looked really good in every single training session. He was confident. I mean, we were facing a really good side as his opponents play in the Premier League every week. He either had to mark Nathan Redmond of Jordon Ibe and I think he did a really good job. Matt Miazga was really good. Shane O’Neill did a good job. So the backline did a good job, I was happy with them and that is important. Goalkeepers looked really good. The game against England was more for the defensive players to shine and do a good job and hopefully the next game our attacking players will shine.

source: Getty Images
Morris is highly-rated by Herzog.

How good can this group be? Do you expect a number of players to come through to USMNT in a few years? Just like Guzan, Bradley and Altidore came through from the 2008 Olympic team?

One thing for me, and it’s the same for every country if you have an Olympic team and you talk about players between the age of 20 and 22. If we have 20 or 25 players and we are not able to bring through five to seven players out of this age group into the men’s national team then we did a bad job. That’s how it is. It has to be the last generation, the generation before and then out of every cycle you have to bring through at least five to seven players. Otherwise, something is wrong because you will not get enough young players and good competition into the national team. Fresh blood and all this stuff, that is what I am looking for and hopefully we will do it.

Solskjaer warns “could have been one of those nights” for Manchester United

Manchester United Solskjaer
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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was clearly relieved after his dominant but wasteful Manchester United finally beat goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson and Copenhagen in extra time of their Europa League quarterfinal in Cologne.

“I think it was just one of those nights,” he said after the win. “I think we deserved to win, that’s clear, but they made it very hard for us.”

Johnsson made 13 saves as United out-attempted the minusM-1000 underdogs from Denmark by a 26-9 margin. The Red Devils blocked several Copenhagen chances in tight, making the Danes’ total of zero shots on target a bit deceiving.

[ RECAP: Manchester United 1-0 Copenhagen ]

“Their keeper was unbelievable and we hit the post a few times,” Solskjaer said. “It could have been one of those nights that you end up with a shootout. We had to block, defend well and they made it hard for us.”

But United was clearly the better team on the day, as expected. Juan Mata entered late in the game and was an influential sub in extra time.

He says the Red Devils were a bit beat up on a hot night in Germany.

“The team is quite tired physically,” Mata said. “At this stage of this season it is important to win games like today and we go through. We stay in Germany for quite some time and hopefully we can win.

“Both teams got a little tired and there were more spaces and more chances. They played some good football and credit to them. We could have scored more goals in extra time but we are through.”

United will meet either Sevilla or Wolves in a dynamite semifinal in one week.

Manchester United breaks through Copenhagen in extra time

Manchester United - Copenhagen
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Manchester United – Copenhagen: The Europa League’s biggest underdogs of the quarterfinals took the tournament favorites to extra time before succumbing 1-0 in Cologne.

Bruno Fernandes highlighted his Man of the Match performance by converting an Anthony Martial-won penalty in the 95th minute for Manchester United, the only way past Copenhagen’s terrific goalkeeper Karl-Johan Johnsson.

But Fernandes gave United a scare, needing care for his hamstring at the final whistle.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Johnsson made 13 saves, seven from inside the box, to keep Copenhagen within a sucker punch of eliminating the Red Devils over 90 minutes.

Manchester United heads to Dusseldorf for an Aug. 17 semifinal against the winner of Tuesday’s tilt between Wolves and Sevilla.


Three things we learned

1. Copenhagen plays prime tournament soccer: The heaviest underdogs in the quarterfinals, Copenhagen executed a traditional 4-4-2 in a less-traditional low block for much of the match. The low block wasn’t the surprise, but instead of two banks of five, the rows of four with two men hassling up front challenged United for time and helped spring a number of dangerous counters. The Danes opened up in extra time after going behind, but taking it to extra time was more than many expected out of them.

2. VAR denies the Red Devils: A rout would’ve been on if this match was staged a year ago without VAR, as the assistant referee twice allowed United goals to go to video. Harry Maguire was offside before assisting the first would-be Red Devils goal, while Mason Greenwood was off before ripping a rocket off the far post and into the goal.

3. Bruno is a beast: Fernandes was everywhere, cueing up his teammates for chances when he wasn’t smashing them off the frame in a bid to win it himself. The Portuguese playmaker registered three key passes, put three of his five shots on target, and won the majority of his duels on top of scoring the game’s lone goal (SofaScore). Now United must hope his late leg injury was just a product of 120 minutes and nothing major.

Man of the Match

Fernandes, and yes we had him here before he smashed his penalty home. Fernandes is now the Europa League’s leading scorer with seven goals between Sporting Lisbon and United.


Manchester United – Copenhagen recap

United has plenty of the ball in the first 10 minutes but Copenhagen provided legitimate danger that Eric Bailly managed in his own six.

Aaron Wan-Bissaka blocked a cross with his face and needed treatment, looking quite dazed before returning to the game.

Another Copenhagen chance was blocked in the six by Bailly (again), who proved a wise choice over Victor Lindelof.

VAR had a look at an early United goal and rightly chalked Harry Maguire offside in the build-up. And it took Mason Greenwood’s hammer off the far post off the board for offside early in stoppage time.

Copenhagen was in it at the break. Would United pay?

[ MORE: Lukaku leads Inter past Bayer Leverkusen ]

The early stages of the second half remained with the Red Devils, Copenhagen parking all its men behind the ball at times.

Rashford flubbed a chance to shoot or pass to Paul Pogba when Bruno Fernandes spotted him at the back post just after the hour mark.

Fernandes tried his luck from distance in the 63rd, ripping a shot off the far post.

Ex-Everton man Bryan Oviedo nearly put Copenhagen ahead in the 66th only to see Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Bailly clog his shooting lane after Rasmus Falk dazzled to get into the box.

Karl-Johan Johnsson made a flying save on Anthony Martial to force an 84th-minute corner that came to nothing for United.

Johnsson denied Martial again in-tight at the start of stoppage time, but the high was short-lived as the Frenchman was dropped in the box moments later.

Fernandes stepped to the spot and used a stuttering run-up before blasting his penalty home.

Martial nearly had it 2-0 after the restart when he dribbled through the Copenhagen 18 but took it himself instead of laying off to Juan Mata in what would’ve been a fairly straight-forward chance for the Spaniard.

Johnsson denied Fernandes at the end of the first 15 minutes of extra time, United unfortunate to not score on the ensuing corner when Mata’s shot was blocked to Lindelof, who fired off the outside of the post.

Lindelof made a fine intervention to block a close-range equalizer bid in the 116th.

Inter Milan rides early goals past Bayer Leverkusen

Inter Milan - Bayer Leverkusen
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While Manchester United and Copenhagen played chess across the country, Inter Milan and Bayer Leverkusen were staging double jumps all over a checkerboard in Dusseldorf.

Romelu Lukaku and Nicolo Barella scored twice in six first-half minutes before Kai Havertz answered in the 24th to account for all the goals in Inter’s 2-1 defeat of Bayer.

Lukaku has scored in nine-straight UEL matches, a new record.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Inter now waits for an Aug. 16 semifinal in Cologne, where it will meet the winner of Tuesday’s match between Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk

Bayer now must settle for the Europa League again via its fifth-place finish in the Bundesliga.

The three goals in the nine minutes were highlighted by Lukaku doing his best “Harry Kane versus Leicester City” falling down finish.

Nicola Barella put Inter ahead after a quarter-hour when he made the most of a loose ball outside the 18.

A Manchester United connection saw Inter ahead by two when Ashley Young found Romelu Lukaku and the Belgian striker maintained his composure while being dragged to the ground, beating Lukas Hradecky with a low shot.

Kai Havertz and Kevin Volland’s interplay near the box ended with the transfer rumor mainstay slipping a shot home to bring Bayer back within one.

Lukaku had penalty decisions taken off the board by VAR in each half.

Who’s next for Manchester United if Sancho stays at Dortmund?

Chiesa to Manchester United
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The transfer rumor mill is usually buzzing this time of year, but it’s nearly a cacophony following Michael Zorc’s announcement that Jadon Sancho will be staying at Borussia Dortmund.

[ MORE: Liverpool announces new left back ]

Reports say Manchester United is not quitting on the idea of Sancho at Old Trafford, but here are some other targets if the Red Devils have to look away from the English phenom.

Federico Chiesa, Fiorentina

Linked with United for some time including a Monday nod from Football-Italia, Chiesa’s approximately $80 million price tag is high but half of what Dortmund is asking for Sancho.

The versatile playmaker has often been linked with Juventus, though Fiorentina is loathe to do business with The Old Lady unless absolutely necessary after big sales of Roberto Baggio and Federico Bernardeschi to Juve in the past.

The 22-year-old already has 17 Italian caps and scored 10 goals with six assists for La Viola this season in Serie A play, career bests in both.

Douglas Costa, Juventus

This one could become even more feasible if Juve latched onto Chiesa.

Juve desperately needs to get younger and Costa doesn’t figure to fit into the plans of Andrea Pirlo, a month away from his 30th birthday.

Costa works better on the right side and would be a worker bee looking to set up Rashford and Martial or cut back for Bruno Fernandes. He boasts double-digit assist seasons in the Bundesliga (Bayern), Serie A (Juve), and Ukraine (Shakhtar Donetsk).

TURIN, ITALY – MAY 19: Douglas Costa (Photo by Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images)

Raul Jimenez, Wolves

This one still feels like a long shot of long shots given the players’ age and status at Wolves, but the El Tri star has been linked with United in the past.

Jimenez doesn’t solve the wing issue presented by Sancho staying at BVB, and you’d fancy the Red Devils to go after one of Wolves’ wingers before Jimenez.

But Solskjaer enjoys Marcus Rashford at left wing and could use Anthony Martial at right wing a bit more often than center forward. Throw in Mason Greenwood and the boss would have a lot of permutations to use around Bruno Fernandes in a front three or four.

Ivan Perisic, Inter Milan

Mentioned as part of a swap deal for Alexis Sanchez, that’s less on the cards after the Chilean accepted a Man United payoff to move to Inter for free.

The 31-year-old favors the left wing and Inter would be happy to offload him after Bayern declined its option to buy the loanee who managed seven goals and 10 assists in just over 1600 minutes.

That’s pretty good output for a part-time player who kept some tread on the tires.

Perisic to Manchester United
MOSCOW, RUSSIA – JULY 15: Ivan Perisic of Croatia (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

James Rodriguez, Real Madrid

If you’re sensing a thread amongst most of these players, it’s no surprise considering United has a wage scale to meet the needs of many wantaways.

Real desperately wants to get something for Colombian star James, who at 29 played less than 800 minutes for La Liga’s champions this season.

His two-year loan stint at Bayern also saw him as a part-time player, but like Perisic a productive one. James scored 15 times with 20 assists over two seasons with the Bavarians.

Kingsley Coman, Bayern Munich

This would cost a lot of dough.

The 24-year-old has been a part of nine-straight league winners between Paris Saint-Germain, Juventus, and Bayern.

Okay that’s cheating a bit considering his Ligue 1 crowns came off a handful of appearances over two seasons at the Parc des Princes.

But the left and right winger might be on for a change of scenery with Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sane set to dominate the preferential places at Bayern.