Published: March 22, 2012
(TopDrawerSoccer.com Managing Editor Robert Ziegler recently spent part of a week in Bradenton, Florida with the U17 Men’s National Team residency program. Following is one of a series of articles about what he saw and heard there).
BRADENTON, FLORIDA – The U17 Men’s National Team residency program here has long been the pinnacle of the youth development program on the boys’ side of American soccer. For more than 10 years, top youth players around the country have aspired to be invited to live, train and play on the campus of IMG Academy here, where U.S. soccer has established its residency program.
The facilities and amenities are top class. From three beautiful fields, to a seemingly unlimited supply of gear from Nike, to spacious apartments for the players, to the daily shuttling to a nearby private school with a curriculum built for the players, to full access to IMG’s sport science labs and the team’s athletic trainers, the residency program provides a great soccer environment for its 32 players (currently 31).
The biggest drawback to residency is that the players are taken from their home environment at age 15 or 16. The staff of U.S. soccer and the people at IMG clearly do great work to make the experience for each player as good as it can be, but they’ll never be able to make it like home. With the continued improvement of the USSF Development Academy, there is growing support around the country for discontinuing residency and having the U17 MNT operate like other youth national teams, holding camps by invitation 4 or 6 times during the year. The federation is committed to the program through next year’s FIFA U17 World Cup, but internal discussions continue regarding the future.
As part of our recent visit to Bradenton, we talked with head coach Richie Williams in his office at IMG about his opening two months on the job since being appointed to replace Wilmer Cabrera in January.
Q: What are your priorities as you come into the job?
RW: This is the closest thing that you have to professional soccer. We all live here together, are able to train every day from 9 to 11:30. The players have three beautiful fields, a full-time staff including administrators, trainers, and equipment manager, plus full-time coaching. We have three coaches and will be adding a fourth later this month. It is a great environment for kids to develop individually and collectively. Hopefully we develop them into great soccer players and help U.S. Soccer and MLS down the road.
Q: How do you balance the evaluation and teaching components of your role as head coach?
RW: I’ve been here two months so I’m getting the chance to figure it out. All of the players are here for at least the whole semester. We couldn’t ask them to change in the middle because of school and I think it’s fair to give everyone at least a semester to try to develop and blend in. What I try to tell the players is, everybody has been successful just to get to this point, so even if we make changes, it doesn’t mean your career is over. You might just not be ready in an area. You may be ready when it’s time for the U18s or U20s.
We’re getting different levels of competition and seeing how players react and develop. In a little while we will go to France and that will be the first time I see them in international competition. We go to Houston in May and will see them against MLS academies. There will be changes in the summer and then we go forward toward next year’s qualifying for the World Cup. We’ll keep putting them in a good environment for teaching and competing and see how they develop.
Q: What is your impression of the group in terms of talent and mentality?
RW: It’s a little difficult for me to compare the team to past cycles My understanding is people believe it is a good group in terms of technical ability. I think they are good people for the most part and they are trying hard to listen and improve, Again, it will take some time to see how they react tactically in the fied, and I will get a better idea when we see them in a higher-pressure environment like we’ll see in France.
Q: How does the concept of an American style of play advanced by USSF Technical Director Claudio Reyna factor in to what you do?
RW: I work with Claudio and we all have an understanding of how we want to play, an attractive brand of soccer, playing out of the back, possessing and attacking. We want teams that are good at transition from attack to defense and back. We play a 4-3-3. We’ve had a number of conversations about using same format for youth national team camps from one age group to the next. That’s not always easy but I think we have the same ideas on what we want to try to do.
Q: Is the Development Academy and the new overall philosophy (from Jurgen Klinsmann and Claudio Reyna) making a positive impact?
RW: It’s still a work in progress in terms of what we need for our players, like getting the DA players to start training 4 or 5 times a week instead of 3, and to have better training sessions across the board. But the work is taking place to try and identify these things and implement them. It’s not perfect. There are still things to address, but I think every year it is getting stronger and stronger. We’re going in the right direction.
Q: Is there more psychology and mentoring involved here at Residency than in your past coaching assignments?
RW: We addressed the team at the beginning of my time here. With this U17 position, there are 2 parts. There is coaching and teaching on the field and teaching and developing of players off the field. It is an Important part of their lives. They need to develop into good people. We let them know, we know they are talented players, but we also need to have players who do the right things off the field, including in school. Out of the group of players here, we hope they all end up being professional players, but that’s not the reality. So we want them to know they can come and talk to us. We want to help them all around.
Friday: We Talk with the rest of the coaching staff about philosophy of player development.