Not long ago, longtime U.S. national team goalkeeping mainstay Brad Friedel accepted the job as the first U19 MNT coach in U.S. system history. In an attempt to bridge the gap between the U18s and the U20s, Friedel’s U19s are an echoing result from systems run by much of the rest of the world. As of last year, the U.S. was one of the few developed soccer nations without a U19 side.
Friedel recently sat down to chat at length about that role, the state of soccer in the U.S., claims that U.S. Soccer and MLS are at odds and much, much more.
Since Friedel spoke at considerable length, I’ve broken this into three parts to give each its due, which we’ll run in three installments over the next three days. What follows is the first part.
What excites you most about the U19 job?
“I’ve been working with Tab (Ramos) for I guess a little over a year now and at various national team levels. Also with Javier Perez at the U18s, and I’ve gone into a few training centers with (U.S. Soccer director of scouting) Tony Lepore. I was very pleased to see the advancement that’s taken place since I retired (from the national team) in 2004/2005 from playing. So the actual day-to-day ins and outs from the national team have evolved in a huge way. I just really enjoyed getting involved in that side of things.
“When I first started doing my coaching, I didn’t realize I’d enjoy the youth level as much as I did. But I coached a lot in England at the youth levels, and a new program with the 19s is a very good challenge. It gives us an opportunity between myself and Omid (Namazi), who’s the Under-18 manager, to again try to get a much larger catchment area of players. And it gives another body to go out and do the scouting endeavors. Hopefully we can continue to work with the MLS clubs and USL clubs and NASL clubs and Development Academy clubs to keep pushing them to keep expanding and getting better so we can see more players.
“The more programs and opportunities we have for the kids that have the ability to play international games is imperative. There was a big gap when the U17 World Cup would end, to try to get into the 20s. That’s a three, four-year gap for the players. It’s tough for them to be ready. Now we have every age group, so it should be very good for development.”
The U19 MNT is a new invention in the USMNT system. What’s the value of it in your estimation?
“It’s another opportunity for players not to have their international soccer development stagnate. Some of the players that would play in the U17 World Cup or go through the residency program would then not have games regularly internationally from 18 and 19. Some of them would make the 20s. Maybe they’re not playing at their club teams, maybe they’re not getting games if they’re in an MLS team at a high enough level, and there are players surpassing them. And the melting pot that is America, there are people that are able to get dual nationality and other players coming into the fold at professional clubs training day to day, are they getting better development than someone who’s training twice a day? Not in every case, but sometimes.
“This, having the 17s progress to the 18s and the 19s and then the 20s, it gives more consistent development for the players and it gives them an opportunity to continue seeing international soccer. International soccer is completely different than club soccer. The quicker we can get players in front of international soccer, and the more repetition we can give them, then the better it is. Because the ultimate for the senior team for me is to produce players for the groups above me. That’s the ultimate goal. You can hopefully give Jurgen (Klinsmann) a real headache someday on selection.”
Have you established a coaching style? What do you hope to bring to the position?
“Yeah, I’ve established my style. And I’ll bring my style, and what my style is, you guys will just watch and see. I’ve been working hard behind the scenes so to speak. I don’t think a lot of people in the United States knew exactly what I’ve been doing the last four to five years on the coaching. I went through my UEFA B, my UEFA A and I’m just about completed on my UEFA Pro license now. That’s a lot of classwork and a lot of on-field training. I’ve really taken to the youth development side of things, so the psychological aspects and the social aspects and of course the physical.
“I’ll take what I’ve learned and also take my experiences as a player. I played a long time, and under a lot of great managers. So I’ll take those experiences and mold them to my personality.”
What do we need to learn from other countries, and where do we need to blaze our own trail?
“Any country should always stick to what their strong cultural traits are. So we should never lose the competitive team spirit, never-say-die attitude. That’s what’s made the United States competitive for many years. We add with that other elements of it, and that’s what we want to try to get more individuality, more creativity, a wider array of talented players. If Jurgen wants to play different systems or different styles, he has different players that he can choose from.
“Some of the teams over a certain amount of time – and this goes to senior team down – whenever they’ve lost the fighting mentality, that’s when things start to struggle. I think people get lost in the notion that sometimes, because of how good a Bayern Munich is or how good a Barcelona is at passing, they work hard. They work really hard. They’re the best defensive teams in the world. Well, the United States has incredible defensive qualities. We have to try to get the creative element but never lose that. That’s any country. You go into coaching in Holland, you should know what the culture is. In England, know what the culture is.
“I say it a lot when I do my coaching licenses in England. We go in and when Germany is going well, they study Germany. And when France is doing well, they study France. And when Spain is doing well, they study Spain. I was kind of like, I’m in England, what do you guys do? I’d like to know that. Because England is a great footballing nation also, and I don’t think we should lose our identity.”
What do you find are the biggest differences you’ve found between American and British soccer culture?
“In general terms, we think similar: on how we conduct ourselves off the field, language. There are no barriers between the two. I get asked this question all the time about comparing the leagues and the styles. It’s impossible to compare the leagues and the style, because in the United States you’ll have different weather and a different composition of players in Florida to California to Texas to the Midwest to the Northeast to the Northwest. England is small. The weather is generally the same from top to bottom, and you can play fast, frenetic football that all the fans want to see. They demand going forward all the time.
“In the United States, it’s different. Some of them are brought up supporting the Mexican league, which is a hugely supported league, and that’s what the kids grow up wanting to watch and emulate. So when you get them into your camp, you have to see how you can work those players into your style. Or is that a style you like, and you want to bring other players in and assimilate to them? Neither is right or wrong, it’s just as long as you’re consistent with how you’re doing things. Very difficult to compare the two, to say, ‘Where is MLS? Is it like the Championship in England?’ It’s impossible to say that it’s like a Championship in England or something like that. You’d have to go to a country that has more of the elements.
“All of the foreign players, like my friend Jermain Defoe goes over to Toronto, and the first thing, he says the travel is so hard. He goes, ‘I’m tired all the time. I just can’t catch up on my sleep. I’m tired.’ Because in England, you’re down in London, you go to Newcastle and it’s a 35-minute flight and you’re back home after the game at 6 O’Clock or 7 O’Clock. Nothing; it’s like you weren’t even away. In MLS, you can be in LA and go to New York, have to stay the night, get a flight out and go back and you lose a whole other day on the way back.
“All these elements. If you watch a game, an MLS game looks slower. Well, if it’s 120 degrees on the field it’s going to look slow. It’s impossible to play like a Tottenham or a Bayern Munich, a high-pressing team. Go play in Dallas. After 20 minutes you’re dead. Very difficult to compare. But the landscape of everything is so much better than when I left back many, many years ago. It’s night and day. We have a lot of work to do, but we’re getting there.”
And I’m paraphrasing, but Portland Timbers owner Merritt Paulson said recently U.S. Soccer leadership are anti-MLS. What are your thoughts?
“I can only go by the medians I have within U.S. Soccer, and by all means I can categorically say this; U.S. Soccer is not anti-MLS. They are the complete polar opposite of anti-MLS. U.S. Soccer needs MLS to get better and grow. If MLS doesn’t grow, then U.S. Soccer has a really hard time finding players. So they’re not anti-MLS. There will be discussions from club to club on where improvements can be made, absolutely, but Jurgen and Andi (Herzog) are not anti-MLS. They want a bigger pool of players to choose from, which I think any national team manager around the world wants.
“There’s a lot of poorly run clubs everywhere in the world. So you can’t just focus on an MLS club. You look at what’s going on in Bolton (in England) right now. They can’t pay their players. I haven’t heard that in MLS. You hear that in Spain… Since I’ve taken the job I’m consistently on the phones with MLS clubs. I want to go in and I want to watch, I want to see what they do. I’ll give my opinions privately if they want them. But absolutely try to work together. I would love to have 70 or 80 players at a 1998 birth year I can choose from. If I can get it up to 200, even better. Jurgen would want the same.”
What’s your take on the YNT pool now as opposed to when you were coming through?
“When I was coming through, we had no league. So your opportunity was, get really lucky and get a contract abroad, which was hard, or play indoor, or go to the west coast and play for like the San Francisco Bay Blackhawks or something like that. Or the LA Heat that would fold and come back again and fold and come back.
“The players we see at the national team camp, at a younger age they know what professional environments look like. They know what nutrition is all about. They’re educated in how to talk to the press. I didn’t know any of that. UCLA gave us some press courses, but that’s just because UCLA basketball and football were so big, and there were a lot of Olympians coming out of UCLA, so they offered the course. But it wasn’t a norm at every university. So when I played my first national team game, I was still in college. That’s a different landscape than professional.
“So now these kids, if they’re in the LA Galaxy academy, and they move up to LA Galaxy II, they’re at the stadium, they get changed there, they see what Robbie Keane’s doing on a daily basis. They get it. They aspire to that. It’s a completely different step, different level. The players, their maturity levels on what to expect when going to the next level are far greater. You don’t have to call a player in and educate them on how to conduct themselves around the hotel, because they get that in their day-to-day environment now.”