U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team head coach Richie Williams spoke to ussoccer.com prior to leaving for the 2012 AGS Cup in Alicante, Spain. The U-17 MNT is paired with Azerbaijan, Georgia and the United Arab Emirates in group play of the tournament which runs from Sept. 29-Oct.6 and Williams said he expects the matches to be competitive. The coach also touched on playing the UAE earlier in the year, the difficulties of selecting a 20-player travel roster from the Residency Program and the importance of international trips in developing the young players.
ussoccer.com: What are you expecting the level of competition to be like among your group, which includes Azerbaijan, Georgia and the United Arab Emirates, at the AGS Cup?
Richie Williams: “We hope it’s good competition. We did play UAE in France and we were successful in that game and played well. We expect Georgia and Azerbaijan to be good competition also. We don’t know exactly what they’re going to look like and I don’t think in this day in age that you can underestimate anybody on the soccer field. Every country is competitive and every game is going to be good. At the younger age groups, it’s hard to tell which teams are going to be good. You never know which one might have a good age group coming through. We just hope that we have good, competitive games and that we’re able to compete with these teams. The key is to get our guys competitive matches and experience so that they’re ready for when we go to Panama next year for World Cup qualifying.”
ussoccer.com: Having already played the United Arab Emirates once this year, what can you take from that match to benefit the team in Spain?
RW: I remember them being very good technically on the ball. We were more of a team than the UAE. We played more as a unit. I would say we were a little bit more organized than them. We were good technically too, but I remember them being individually very good technically on the ball and you have to be aware of that and those players. At the time they were in between coaches and they now have a new coach. We expect them to be a better team and a stronger team than the last time. You can’t take anybody for granted. We need to concentrate on what we are doing and how we’ve been training and concentrate on ourselves so that we go out and show up and play at a high level. I think if we do that, we’ll be fine and able to compete in the tournament.
ussoccer.com: There are a handful of players on the current roster that played in the AGS Cup last year including Golden Boot winner Wesley Wade. How do you think that experience will help the team this time around?
RW: “It’ll help in terms of familiarity. I think with them just going through the experience and being in Residency for over a year now and having the past experience it will hopefully help us. It should. We hope that they can continue to develop and hopefully be better in the tournament than they were last year and play at an even higher level.”
ussoccer.com: After spending lots of time with all the players in the U-17 Residency Program, what are some of the challenges you face when trying to select a 20-player travel roster for an international trip?
RW: It’s hard because we think we have a pretty good group of players with us right now (in Residency). We currently have 31 players and there is a lot of competition among the team for the 20 spots that will travel. It’s good and bad. It’s good that they have to compete against one another leading up to the tournament, and it’s bad at the end because you have to make some tough decisions and maybe leave some guys that you would like to take. You have to take the 20 that you see fit and you want to bring on the trip for whatever reasons that may be at that time.
ussoccer.com: What do you look for from a player leading up to the trip that might give them an edge to get selected for the travel roster?
RW: “We keep preaching to the guys about consistency and with anything we need guys that we can trust, guys who play consistently and guys we can trust to put in international games and go out and do a good job. That’s what we keep preaching to the guys, that every day in training is important and training for the two hours on the field and all the other things we do at Residency that we’re looking at – the way they handle themselves and go about training, preparing for training, school and their responsibilities at Residency – all those things go into us evaluating the players and seeing how they’re developing and ultimately bringing them on a trip. We look for the 20 guys that give us the best chance of playing well as a team and winning competitions. In the same token, if we have certain tournaments we would like everyone to have the opportunity to get a chance to play in some kind of international competition so we can see them perform. That’s something that we try to look at also.”
ussoccer.com: Why are international trips, like the current one to Spain for the AGS Cup, important for the players and the team?
RW: “The most important thing is having our players get the experience of international competition, playing in foreign countries against foreign clubs. For us, usually we’re home playing against teams from the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, now we get the international competition, the experience of traveling, the experience of the games and they are difficult games in sometimes a difficult environment. Especially for age groups like us, the U-17s and U-20s, when we have to go for World Cup qualifying it’s a good experience to have.”
ussoccer.com: Is there an overarching goal behind the trips as a whole, or does the main objective differ with each international training camp or tournament?
RW: “I think the main goal always is to go play well, to compete and work on the things that we want to work on and to get individuals experience in international competition. With all that being said, to go out and to compete and to win also is part of the development of our players and our team. To come together as a team to compete, develop and win the games is ultimately what you look for on these trips and hope to win the tournament. At the end of the day, we want to develop the players and for the players to become better and the team to become better, but they also have to develop into knowing how to compete and win certain tournaments.”