Few countries on the youth international stage can boast the experience that comes with having 11 previous world championships under their belts, but that is exactly what the U.S. has on its bench before even arriving in Egypt for the FIFA 2009 U-20 World Cup. In fact, the only other team in the USA's group that has world championship experience on the sidelines is Korea Republic, as head coach Hong Myung-Bo was an assistant coach at the 2008 Olympic Games.
To go along with Thomas Rongen’s two previous U-20 World Cups in 2003 and 2007, his assistants at the 2009 event have experience at the U-17, U-20 and Olympic levels.
Dave Dir was part of Rongen’s staff in ’03 and ’07, and also traveled to the Netherlands under Sigi Schmid for the 2005 U-20 event. Juan Carlos Michia was on the U.S. staff for both the 2001 U-20 World Cup in Argentina under Wolfgang Suhnholz and in Canada 2007. Tim Mulqueen was also in Canada, and has been responsible for the goalkeepers at the 2005 and 2007 FIFA U-17 World Cups and at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.
“We have a good understanding of what to expect in terms of travel, training facilities and stadiums,” said Rongen. “The ‘dos and don’ts’ and knowing what has gone well and what hasn’t gone great for us in previous World Cups were all invaluable experiences. We draw upon those experiences in order to put our team in the best possible position to be successful, so there are the fewest amount of distractions and we can focus on playing to the best of our abilities.”
Though it is difficult to be prepared for everything that might occur at a world championship, the U.S. coaching staff is confident there is not much that would surprise them at this point off the field.
"We put together some good presentations so the players know how the other teams are doing," said Michia, who will be attending his third World Cup in 2009. "Essentially, what we try to do is see the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent and see how we can take what we know about soccer to provide some variables for the coach. In the end, Thomas is the person who makes the decisions.
"Here we try to be two steps ahead, to see what's going to happen tomorrow and the day after."
On the field, of course, anything can happen. But, from upset wins against Argentina (2005) and Brazil (2007), to heartbreaking defeats against Nigeria (Olympics 2008) and in the Round of 16 in 2007, this coaching staff has been through a wide variety of situations and scenarios.
“I’ve been fortunate to be a part of beating Argentina and Brazil in these events,” said Dir, the first coach of the MLS side Dallas Burn in 1996. “Those are really the games that stand out for me because those are countries that you play so many times and the performance of the players and the thrill you have of accomplishing something no one thought you could, it’s outstanding. Beating Argentina and Brazil are the two biggest games that I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve been a part of championships as a professional coach but [those international games are] a completely different experience, and really something that I’ll always take with me.”
Those types of games do not come along often, though, which Mulqueen is quick to remind his players of.
“One experience I take with me is from the Netherlands game at the Olympics,” added Mulqueen. “We had an opportunity to take advantage of a moment and we didn’t. We let it slip. I try to tell the guys that when you have these chances, you have to take them. You can’t let them slip. You have to enjoy the moment, and there is going to be pressure on you that you’re not used to, and that you haven’t experienced before but that’s all part of the maturation process for these guys.”
Along the way, the coaches have taken in their surroundings and embraced their own opportunities.
“I remember getting bitten by a camel, and just getting to ride camels in Dubai and experiencing that country was incredible,” said Dir. “But the times I’ve spent with the coaches and teams in each of these countries is what really stands out for me. Every cycle has been different, this group I think is a younger group but they have their own talents and it’s exciting to have a different approach to this trip and a different style each time.”
While it is up to the players to do the business on the field, the kind of experience the U-20 staff possesses can translate positively to the 2009 team as they look to have a solid outing at the World Cup.
“I think anytime you have a staff with experience, and that has been together for so long, it helps the staff know what to expect and make it easier on the boys when they go into those environments,” said Dir. “Not only sharing the expectations but just how we can cut out distractions before they happen and make it a smoother, more enjoyable experience. We’ve done things that we’ve learned from and that’s the nature of it – we’re always learning.”
Mulqueen, echoed Dir’s thoughts, understanding that expecting the unexpected can help keep the team at ease.
“I think between all of us and our experiences, we’ve seen the crazy games in qualifying, and World Cup games, all that kind of lends itself to us being able to keep a level head,” he said. “The other coaches are better at that than I am but we take that experience in, and we’re able to tell the guys what we can expect and how to handle it.”
With 13 players playing in their first world championship event, having a sense of composure on the sidelines will surely benefit all 21 players in Egypt.