Dennis te Kloese
SOCCER AMERICA: U.S. Soccer is planning to hire a general manager for its men's national team program. Have they contacted you?
DENNIS TE KLOESE: It would be an honor, but no.
SA: Is it something you would consider?
DENNIS TE KLOESE: At this moment, no. With the World Cup coming up, and the project we're trying to build -- I'm very committed to the Mexican federation, obviously.
SA: What does your job entail, as Mexican national team director?
DENNIS TE KLOESE: I oversee all aspects of all the national teams on the men's and women's side, from the full national teams to the U-15s. We have a scouting department where currently we have a number of scouts full-time in Mexico, and three full-time scouts in the U.S. We have several departments -- video analysis, technical stats -- all these new technical development programs. We have a nutrition department, a medical department. A sports psychology area. Basically, I oversee the entire administrative side.
I'm very happy with it. Being here a long time I do feel very much identified with the Mexican culture and obviously the soccer culture. To be director of the national team program, as a foreigner, I consider it a big honor and a big responsibility.
SA: Obviously, the major topic in USA-Mexico soccer relations is 18-year-old midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez's switch to the Mexican national team. What are his chances of being on Mexico's 2018 World Cup team?
DENNIS TE KLOESE: It would not be easy for him to make the team for this World Cup, but there is the possibility. Our head coach [Juan Carlos Osorio] had told Jonathan and his family that if he would be called up in January, and hopefully again in March, that he needs to fight for a spot, he needs to show himself in training and in games that he's worth taking into account.
He's playing for a very important team [Monterrey] here in Mexico. He made a good name for himself last season and based on that he earned a call-up in January. We're very happy that he gave a good first impression in January.
SA: So the 2018 World Cup is a long shot for him?
Jonathan Gonzalez with parents Mireya and Alonso after winning the 2017 Copa MX.
DENNIS TE KLOESE: He's come in pretty late into the process, which is not in his favor, but on the other hand, he's very good player. He's still very young. He showed well against Bosnia. His chances are there, but it's also a position that's very much competed for. It will be interesting to see how the coming months turn out for him.
Part of our discussions with him is that we also want to go step by step. There shouldn't be too much pressure on him to now make it to a 23-man World Cup roster. He has an honest opportunity, he can fight for a spot, and it would be an enormous achievement if he makes it. And if doesn't make it, there's still a long-term plan in place for him to be involved at different age groups and obviously fight for a spot at future World Cups. And we're very happy to have him, and being able to groom a player like him.
[Editor's note: Gonzalez played for U.S. youth nationals teams U-14 through U-20 but was not selected by the USA for the U-17 or U-20 World Cups. He is eligible for the 2019 U-20 World Cup and the U-23 team that will aim to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. We interviewed Gonzalez in December, shortly before he switched to Mexico: Californian Jonathan Gonzalez reflects on his remarkable rise to teen star in Mexico.]
SA: What was it about Gonzalez that enabled him to win a starting position at a club like Monterrey, which has one of the highest payrolls in the Western Hemisphere?
DENNIS TE KLOESE: For his age, he's a kid who is very mature to take very clear decisions. To give up everything that is comfortable for kids -- being around your family, his brother, his friends, the school -- to pursue your dreams, without any guarantees, without things that are given to him. He decides by himself to go to this club. It was his decision and supported by his parents.
He goes to a club which is not easy to break into the first team. They have always had young players, they have a very good academy. It's very well run. The residency program is very formal. They've had a good amount of experience with Mexican-American players, it's pretty close to the border. So there are things that make it easier than to go to another big club in Mexico. But on the other hand there's no guarantees given to a 14-year-old kid.
He starts to play in a youth program, which at the Mexican level is pretty successful. He played in a more offensive role than he plays right now. And then, all eyes on him ... they have an enormous stadium ... for him to hold his position and compete with national team players like Jesus Molina, or Alfonso Gonzalez, and foreign players. … With Monterrey's payroll they have no need to put in a young player. They can easily buy players from South America and Europe, like they've done. They've bought players from big and renowned clubs like Benfica or Milan.
I think these opportunities for young players, you have to be there at the right moment, at the right time, with the right coach. There have to be a whole lot of things that fall together like a puzzle, which gave him an opportunity to compete.
Now, he's still very young. He still needs to fight for a spot. There's still a lot of competition. When a team like Monterrey loses one or two games, they already start to get a little bit nervous sometimes. On the one hand, it's an extraordinary experience for a kid of that age and on the other hand it's not so easy. You have to give him a little bit room. You have to give him a lot of support.
SA: Do you think there clubs in the USA capable providing a young player with the environment Monterrey created for Jonathan Gonzalez to help him reach a high level so quickly?
DENNIS TE KLOESE: It's very difficult to predict what happens. It has to do a lot with the expectations of the family and the individual player -- where he wants to go.
There are a lot of opportunities in the U.S. that you cannot wipe off the table. There is college soccer, with scholarships and education -- probably for the biggest percentage of players that's the best opportunity because there is big chance of being successful in life with a great education, and obviously the level of education in the U.S. is incredibly high. So those are not things you can lightly brush of the table to follow your dreams and become a professional player.
I think you have to be careful with that decision. In the end, I think the type of player Jonathan is, with his physique and his technical abilities, and the position that he plays in -- he might be appreciated more in Mexico where the style of play is more geared toward his characteristics than in the USA. I don't think I would be the first one to bring that up. It is not a judgment or lack of respect toward anything that happens in the USA.
On the other hand, I think, little by little, from what I've seen when I used work in the USA, and by continuing to follow the U.S. game, there is more and more awareness that there is a lot of talent, that there are a lot of things that should be done for young players, that there should be created a better pathway for young players to make it as a professional. But it's not something that you create from one day to another. ... I do think that it's important that MLS at some point creates the possibility for younger players to get more minutes.
SA: What is there about the Mexican setup that particularly benefits player development?
DENNIS TE KLOESE: In 2008, 2009, the league installed U-17 and U-20 national leagues for all the first division teams. So if, for example, if Chivas plays Pachuca at home, then also the U-20s, in the stadium, the U-17s in the training ground, and even sometimes the U-15s, play the same game.
They travel and they start to get used to highly competitive and demanding games every week. What also happened in the first few years of those youth competitions -- because it's all public -- the clubs that didn't start off that well didn't want to stay behind, so that forced them to scout better, to create a better infrastructure, to create better conditions to attract better players.
A U-20 Club America-Chivas game actually draws fans and draws attention from the press. A lot of people are aware of it. It puts extra pressure on the clubs that they need to do their job well and they need educate their kids well, and organize their residency program in a good way. You can train all you want, but if the games aren't that good, or not that demanding, they don't force the players to take quicker and better and more high quality decisions. ... It's development through competition and it makes it easy for us to scout.
From Amsterdam to Mexico
Dennis te Kloese grew up in a small town 20 minutes outside of Amsterdam. He played in the Ajax youth system, and "managed to play a little bit in other clubs at a second and third division level, but not very high profile." He experienced knee problems at young age and started studying law at the University of Amsterdam. "I worked for a company called PricewaterhouseCoopers, because they were part of a sponsorship program and an internship program of the Dutch national team, which I played for U-17s and U-20s. I took advantage of those opportunities to get a little more educated on the other side of the soccer industry." After working part-time as an international scout for Ajax, he was invited by Hans Westerhof, who had been hired as Technical Director of Chivas Guadalajara, to set up Chivas' youth scouting department in 2003 and formalize its youth academy program.
After his stint with
Chivas USA, he became Academy Director at Tigres UANL, "which is a completely different club than Chivas. Chivas is always focused 100 percent on Mexicans and obviously very focused on youth
development out of necessity. A big club like Tigres, where they buy big names and foreign players, the youth development part is important but not a priority. And that was a very good experience for
me to see the other side." He became director of Mexico's youth national teams in 2011 and director of all national teams in 2017.
DENNIS TE KLOESE: I spoke some Spanish before I arrived. My wife, Monserrat, is from Mexico. We met when I went on vacation to Puerto Vallarta in 1999. To work in Chivas Guadalajara, which is 100 percent Mexican, you need to speak good Spanish. I needed to study, I needed to work much more on my Spanish. To adjust on a personal level is very easy, because it's a country with very warm people, very welcoming. It's great country to live in, with great food culture and a lot of things that I like and appreciate.
On a professional level, it's not so easy. It's highly competitive league, it's high competitive atmosphere. As a foreigner, there are a lot of eyes on you and they demand more of you, as it should be. And little by little I adjusted. I had a lot of help from a lot of people, within the club of Guadalajara, to understand more about the culture. And little by little you also understand that it's not the Dutch school, and the Dutch style of playing is not completely adjustable to Mexico. You can take certain points that can be a complement on what they already have. Mexico has always had a great pool of talented players.
SA: What are some of the differences you noticed between Mexican and Dutch players?
DENNIS TE KLOESE: Physical qualities in Holland and Mexico are different. What has always been very positive and drawn the attention is the technical ability of the Mexican players.
When Mexican youth national teams and youth academies go abroad, most of the people are very much impressed by the technical abilities of all the players on the field, defenders, midfielders, and forwards. That enables you to play a very high-paced technical game. They can so easily pass the ball from one to another. There's hardly no time lost in the first reception or the orientation of the game, or where they want the play to go.
And that makes it very enjoyable to work with these kids. The typical Dutch way of coaching is very much focused on technical ability and passing and receiving and simple movement. And here they sometimes make it simpler because their technical ability is so high and it makes it a joy to watch and to work with.
SA: Why do Mexicans players have that technical ability?
DENNIS TE KLOESE: I think it's because they appreciate technical part of the game so much that from a very young age, in academies and on the streets, and wherever they play, it has to be technically well-executed.
Obviously, the physical ability has grown over the years. You can't play against England or Germany or Brazil without bringing some physicality to the game or physical fitness or things. So there's a lot of attention to that.
But always, the first priority is technical ability. If you ask academy clubs or scouts, where would you look at? And the first thing is always technical ability. Anything else can be taught or forced or pushed toward certain directions that the player allows you to, but for very young players to already have great technical ability -- then they're already one or two steps ahead.
SA: There will likely be more Mexican-American players deciding between the two nations. What do you think should go into that decision?
DENNIS TE KLOESE: As long as I've been involved in the Mexican federation, we've had a lot of discussions with parents and kids with dual citizenship, and at the end it should always be a family decision and the individual player's decision. It shouldn't be pushed by certain promises that we make and later we can't fulfill because in the end there is so much competition and so much difficulty to get into a national team in Mexico you can't just promise things, and tie these kids down to one federation.
Sometimes we've even recommended stay a little more where they're at and see how they evolve and develop. There's no rush in these things. I think it's better to hold off than make the wrong decision. I think in the case of Jonathan, he was very clear and he was very committed and very much sure about his decision, and we're very happy to have him, because he's a very, very talented player who for years to come we hope to benefit from.
SA: What did you think of the USA not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup?
DENNIS TE KLOESE: I think it should be seen as an incident. And I think -- I've tried to stay updated on soccer in United States since I enjoyed working there and I know a lot of people there -- that in the last few years the youth national team program has grown and has been more competitive every year, except for the Olympic program. I've seen that there are a lot of capable people working in U.S. Soccer who really have an idea of what they do and why they do it.
But I believe that you do feel that they're still searching for an identity. What is their ideal style? What is the style of play that's actually American?
It has nothing to do with dual citizenship or where their parents are from. If you're born in America, you're an American player. You're eligible to play for the U.S. How do you take advantage of all these great influences and turn it into something beneficiary for American soccer and the American player?