JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The current World Cup cycle has been uneven to say the least for the U.S. men's national team and manager Jurgen Klinsmann. There have been brutal defeats to Jamaica in the 2015 Gold Cup and to Guatemala in World Cup qualifying. Yet the U.S. performed well overall at the Copa America Centenario, achieving Klinsmann's goal of making the semifinals. Progression to the final round of World Cup qualifying remains on track, though there is still work to be done ahead of World Cup qualifiers against St. Vincent and the Grenadines on Friday, as well as Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday.
So as Klinsmann settles into his chair at the team's hotel, he remains his upbeat self, even taking time to indulge the good wishes of a fan who passes by. But he knows more than anyone that if the U.S. is to break into the upper echelons of the international game, there are numerous moving parts that will need to come together.
NOTE: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
ESPN FC: The U.S. is about halfway into the cycle toward qualifying for another World Cup. Where do you see this team in terms of the progress made this cycle?
JURGEN KLINSMANN: Difficult to say. We're kind of in the middle, between the two World Cups still. The Copa America was priceless [for us] not only because it was successful, but also because of the experience. If every two years we could have a Copa America, it would boost our program tremendously because you need to play the best nations out there, and the best nations are in Europe and South America. So that learning curve hopefully pays off two years from now -- hopefully.
So this was really huge. We still are in the middle of a kind of transition, with experienced older players hanging on; younger players are still not where we want them to be. So they have to push harder, they have to [show] more personality, they have to become more consistent. But this is normal; this is just a normal process. By the time [we reach] a couple of months prior to the World Cup, hopefully we see a clearer picture.
I think overall it's exciting what happens all over the place, starting with our youth national teams, which are getting very respectable results wherever they travel. They are getting taken seriously now, when they go to Europe or other places. Obviously [MLS] is growing, getting stronger and stronger. The presence of the players -- if it's Tijuana or Pachuca with Omar [Gonzalez] -- it's really nice to see, and also seeing some younger players trying to break through the European system is exciting.
On many different fronts, there's a lot of stuff happening. So we gather all the information we can week in, week out. We evaluate the players, we are in touch with the players, we are in the background helping wherever we can, but obviously at the end of the day, it's [up to] the players. They are in the driver's seat. They need to push it at the highest [level] possible.
I think the Copa America was a great benchmark for us. We saw that we could compete but we also saw when we hit our limits and when there is not the confidence yet to approach a team like Argentina, because usually they only see these players on TV. If you have the chance to play them more regularly, and say I played them every year once, and I see Lionel Messi every year once, then they lose that "too much respect" and maybe they are more confident to go into a game like that.
ESPN FC: Is there any disappointment that more youth guys haven't broken through yet?
KLINSMANN: Yeah, we hoped for more push from the younger generation. Our consistent message when they are with us is that you've got to make your case. You've got to come out of your shell. You've got to speak up and ask questions. Push the older ones out. This is your job.
In general, my experience over the past five years is that American talent takes longer maybe because the college culture is still there in the middle of it. Meanwhile, you have European or South American kids at 18 or 19, biting the legs off the older ones. Here he needs to be maybe 22 or 23, that kind of personality jump comes a bit later with our players. We nurtured Bobby Wood for two years and now this year is the breakthrough year. But remember where he was two years ago. He was somewhere on the bench at 1860 Munich -- he didn't get playing time at all and we worked him through that.
[We are doing the same with] others now. Where Bobby Wood was two years ago, a Rubio Rubin is there now. He's coming off the bench, starting maybe a game. What we tell him is, "Listen, you gotta go and push through. You gotta show your coach that you are not compromising things anymore, you're not happy with being on the bench." Yeah, we would have loved some young ones to be further than they are right now: a [Gedion] Zelalem, Julian Green, others. There are a lot coming through different pipelines.
Also in MLS, we hoped for far more young players getting playing time and starting games. They're not. It seems like once they get their professional contract, it comes with a sense of contentment. "Now I got my contract." And suddenly we don't see them anymore. A lot of them are getting put out on loan instead of saying, "I want to get in the team." Or they're getting parked on USL teams. That's not what we expect them to do as youth national team players.
At their age group, youth national team players belong to the 20 best players in the country. We expect the youth national team players to break into the starting lineup of an MLS team. That's our expectation. If you are a youth national player in Germany or England, and you come through the U-19s, you have your professional contract, then it's expected that you break in and you kick an older one out of the senior team. This is not happening fast enough in our environment here.
ESPN FC: How important is it to win the qualifying group in this semifinal round. Does it matter so long as you make it to the Hex, the final round of World Cup qualifying?
KLINSMANN: Yes it matters, it absolutely matters. It's a very tricky one. You watched St. Vincent against Trinidad and Tobago, and [T&T] were very lucky to get away with a win there. St. Vincent was up twice. That game on Friday night is hugely, hugely important. I know if we win Friday night, we're going to win also on Tuesday. But it is hugely important to finish first in the group.
KLINSMANN: You feel for the players. You just wish them a fast recovery. With Clint, we hope he gets cleared as soon as possible after doing whatever testing they're going to do. Hopefully we have a better picture by next week. These injuries, unfortunately they are just part of the team environment. It's part of your athletic career, that you're not only having nonstop good years. You're having moments where injuries set you back and you have to come back.
We are waiting for younger players with really serious injuries -- like Josh Gatt, Joe Gyau, Terrence Boyd -- to come back that we haven't seen for the past two years because they are still in our plans. They just picked up training with the team again. Gatt is back on the bench. Boyd is back on the bench. Gyau is getting close to being back to playing. So whenever something happens to a player like Clint or Gyasi, on the other hand other players are coming back.
ESPN FC: Given that Dempsey has meant so much to the team on the field, scoring goals but also being involved in the build-up play, how much do you anticipate having to change the way you play?
KLINSMANN: You put your puzzle together and it's always important what key elements you have and he's been a key element for us over the past five or 10 years. Then once he's not on the field, you put it together differently. You have a different approach then. We always often try to find the ideal partnerships for him, the ideal tactical approach with him because everybody has strengths and weaknesses.
I think in the Copa we were able to get the best out of Dempsey playing a little bit behind a striker like Bobby [Wood]. He could roam backwards; he could get the ball and go back in there. Defensively, Bobby dropped a little bit and helped out the midfield and Clint could rest. It was exactly the opposite when we had the ball. He could drop and Bobby went up front. That was ideal to see.
[Dempsey's] not only a huge influence on the team, but he has also a certain standing towards an opponent. An opponent looks at you differently if you have Dempsey on the field, or if it's a younger player trying to become the next Dempsey. The way teams often look at each other is, "Who is over there?"
That was kind of my talk about the Argentina game. We just had too much respect because we're never used to playing them, we never had the opportunity to play them because of the calendar -- whatever, it didn't happen. And then all of a sudden you see Messi, [Javier] Mascherano, [Gonzalo] Higuain. And it was too much for some players. It's just like, "I just saw them in the Champions League on TV."
So this kind of standing that a Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones or a Michael Bradley has is important. It's a signal to the other team that, "We've done a lot of things in the past, and we are ready for the next one." So that's why it's a pity not having Clint, and it's also not ideal to not have Michael and Jermaine. But I think we have built some players over the last couple of years and they are ready to step in and get the job done.
ESPN FC: How much do you speak to players ahead of a transfer? Did you talk to DeAndre Yedlin about his move to Newcastle and Christian Pulisic about his situation and the reported interest from Liverpool?
KLINSMANN: I talk to them but in a way that if they have a question or if they want to know something, I'm a phone call away, 24/7. But I want them to make their own decisions. I always tell them, "Whatever you feel comfortable doing, when you make your decision you've got to be 100 percent behind it. It's OK either way." If you stay where you are or go somewhere else, it's important that you make your decision in order to grow. So you've got to follow your feelings. I'm not in [their] shoes. I don't know what's going on where [they] are right now. I'm not calling everybody around [them]. So they call me if [they] need anything.
ESPN FC: What did you make of Alejandro Bedoya's decision to move to MLS?
KLINSMANN: It's totally cool with me. We saw that coming over the last year with his Twitter activity. I always tell the players: You guys make your decisions in whatever way you feel comfortable, but then once you made them, you've got to go 100 percent with it. Don't come later on and say, "Oh I should have done this or that." No, stick to it. So it's totally cool.
[Bedoya has] been tremendous overseas, he played for good clubs, learned a lot of things and now he's entering another chapter in his career. He has a little child, he's more settled and now coming back here -- it's the right time. It's totally fine.
ESPN FC: Getting back to Yedlin for a second, any disappointment at him dropping down to the Championship? It really seemed like he proved himself at a Premier League level last year.
KLINSMANN: I think he's Premier League level, absolutely. Obviously playing for a tremendous club like Newcastle United, it feels like Premier League [level]. That club has only one goal and that's going straight back up, so hopefully that's going to be the case.
The league itself is a brutal grind because there is no real time for coaches to work in between games. It's going from game to game to game. That will be a huge challenge. It's going to be different to the Premier League. But he's grinding it through, he continues to mature and from a club point of view, it's totally fine. But it will be a different style of play. It will be different what he sees there and how he experiences it. Yeah, it will be a big growing year for him.
ESPN FC: There were a lot of rumors linking you to the England job and that they were interested in you. Was there any truth to that? Did they reach out to you?
KLINSMANN: No. And at a certain point I get tired of [denying rumors]. If I deny this, now the next rumor comes and then I deny the next rumor and the next one. I just said to [U.S. men's national team media officer Michael Kammarman], "I'm out of this. I'm not commenting on anything here because it doesn't really matter anyway.'"
Obviously people are throwing out all sorts of rumors and [the media are] getting calls as well. But my message since I took over this role, since five years ago, to all of them -- if it's clubs or countries -- is, "I'm very, very privileged to have this role, and I feel very honored, and I will respect my contract which goes until Russia [at the 2018 World Cup] and then we will see."
But I knew after this Copa America that there would be some rumors coming in. I just decided that I would take myself out of everything for a couple of weeks.
ESPN FC: Do you want to coach this team beyond Russia in 2018?
KLINSMANN: That depends on the results. It depends on how things develop over the next two years. There's no hurry to decide anything on either side, between [U.S. Soccer president] Sunil [Gulati] and myself. But I think if you are now five years in this position and you see certain things developing, not only with the senior team, but we build a complete new infrastructure of all the youth national teams at all age levels. We are making big strides in coaches' education. We're trying everywhere to kind of step it up.
The federation tries big time to step it up in all different fields. Younger players that I saw in youth camps five years ago -- U15, U14 -- they are suddenly pros. I see them popping up, one at Villarreal, one at Fiorentina, one at Schalke. I see [Christian] Pulisic when he was 15 playing at Bradenton playing the Nike Friendlies. It's just nice to see now that all this nurturing, talking to parents, talking to the players, talking to the clubs and trying to pull the strings together with the youth national team coaches ... that is a lot of work for [coach of the U.S. U20 team] Tab Ramos, who is my connector [to the youth setup]. That is why he is always with me here because here we talk at least one or two hours a day about the youth side. Who is next? What happens to them? Who is signing where? Who needs help?
I think that over the past couple of years, we've made huge strides. We can still be much better, there's still an awful lot of work everywhere in soccer in the country but we started connecting with the college system. They're trying to come out of their shell. They're pushing a 10-month season. We had the first college U23 national team camp. We've tried to connect to 10-12 Division I coaches on a regular basis. We're building the network. So there is a lot of stuff happening in the background that isn't part of World Cup qualifying or Copa America, but it's enjoyable to do.
ESPN FC: So just to be clear, have you talked to Sunil or Dan [Flynn, U.S. Soccer secretary general/CEO} about coaching the team beyond 2018?
ESPN FC: What did you make of Lyndon Gooch's start to the season with Sunderland and why wasn't he brought in [to U.S. camp]?
KLINSMANN: It's wonderful to see a kid break through at the start of the Premier League season. I spoke to him, and for him now it's a case of, "I just broke in. I've got to digest that for a second, and I've got to make sure I keep my spot."
This is World Cup qualifying right now. Yeah, we brought a couple of youngsters in but we give priority to the group that got Copa America done. So we've got to get results now. The next seven days is purely results-driven. Maybe in October, we have the opportunity to bring some youngsters in, give them some playing time. It's a completely different scenario.
We also have to be careful schedule-wise with some youngsters because we don't want them to lose their spots right away again. The disadvantage of our players is they lose another day flying back to their club teams in Europe. That costs some games. Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Timmy Chandler... it cost them starting roles over the past few years on occasion, which was mainly related to World Cup qualifying. But the reality is playing Tuesday, fly back Wednesday, arrive in Europe Thursday. On Friday and Saturday they're in training camp for the [league] game. A lot of them will struggle then. You have jet lag, tired legs, a long flight in your system. A lot of European coaches will then leave them aside which costs them their spot.
ESPN FC: Jermaine Jones has struggled with injuries over the past couple of years and Kyle Beckerman is 34. Is the center of midfield an area where you were kind of looking for more guys to break through? How big a concern is that?
KLINSMANN: It's not a concern because they hold their ground too. I'm not looking at the age necessarily. But I want the younger ones to push harder. Caleb Stanko made a move away from Freiburg because he said "I need to play." He called me too and I said "go and get your starting role." And he made a very good impression in the camp leading up to the Puerto Rico game. Kids like him and others, we want them to become stronger.
Perry Kitchen was injured and just got back into the team [at Hearts]. That's why we left him out. Emerson Hyndman was injured; now he's back but he's not getting enough minutes. We want them to make their case and [we'll listen] as soon as they make it through their club teams and play regular time.
Gooch needs to stay in the picture; don't get pushed out now. And then when the time comes and fits in perfectly, it's no problem at all. But they need to make their case stronger in order to make that transition happening.