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Q & A: U.S. U-18 MNT Head Coach Mike Matkovich Talks About the Team's Trip to Tel Aviv Talk about the four-team tournament in Israel. What were some of the positives that you can take away from the experience?
Mike Matkovich: “Anytime you can play Germany and France in your first week is a great experience. Our purpose at the U-18 level is to give these guys exposure to the international level and hopefully find some guys for Thomas Rongen for the next U-20 cycle. As far as the games went, we got better as the week went on. Obviously our guys aren’t used to playing in those types of games at that level and by the end of the week you see a big improvement. It’s an ongoing process to push these players along and give these guys that experience of playing against those types of players. For me it was a positive, I think the players got a lot out of it and we’ll push the group along and get them back in and keep looking at different players.” The players on this trip were all born in 1993. What were you looking for at this stage in their development?
MM: “Out of our 20-man roster, for 10 of them, this was the first time they’ve been on an international trip. So that’s half your team. That’s what part of our process is. These guys are the odd age for residency so they’re not put together as a group so this is kind of the first phase for them to be together. We try to keep it all in a process while we’re doing this thing. Almost everybody got a start and everybody played a good portion of the games and again that goes back to the developmental piece versus winning piece.” Playing three games in a five-day window is never easy, especially with players who are a bit inexperienced at the international level. How will that help them moving forward?
MM: “I think it’s positive because part of the experience is to get guys that are going to be in with Thomas [Rongen] and the U-20 team. Obviously it doesn’t mirror U-20 qualifying exactly, but you kind of get a feel for what it’s like to play in a round-robin tournament and to try to advance out of a group. Playing these games back to back wasn’t ideal, they don’t do it in the World Cup obviously. But it mirrors what they’re going to see a little bit and I think that’s a positive from that end just so that they can get a feel for what it’s like to be in that type of tournament.” What do you think the players take from playing three talented European sides?
MM: “Now they’re getting exposed to a more technical game than they’re used to seeing and the guys on the other team are all good on the ball, they all can play and tactically they have a very good understanding of the game. They’re also very gifted athletically. We get to see all of that. For some of our guys, playing Germany and France is probably a once in a lifetime experience. To play two of the traditional world powers in one week doesn’t happen very often so it was a great experience for these guys not only short term, but long term.” What was it like to play a team like Israel on their home soil?
MM: “The game against Israel, I think, was a game we could have won. We had our chances and they had their chances, but we just didn’t finish. I still think the Israelis play a little bit of a European style which is good for us. I think we matched up well with them and it was more of an even game. Whenever you can play another national team on their own field, with their own refs is great. I give our guys credit that we did tie them. It’s a good experience for them to learn how to play in an away environment in the international games. The neat thing was we played in all professional stadiums. Their infrastructure at the professional level is pretty good so we played all our games in stadiums and that was great for the guys as well.” Obviously the results on the field weren’t what you wanted, but with the youth teams, winning isn’t everything. How do you balance that competitive nature with making sure the players take something away from this trip?
MM: “There’s always got to be a balance. We don’t step on the field to lose. We always try to win, but within that there’s a lot things that go with it. Giving guys experience is very important at this level. We brought 20 players and wanted to give them all a taste of it. You want to see which guys can do what. When you start adding everything together, sometimes winning isn’t the most important thing. It’s developing the players and giving them the experience to play against these teams and to have an understanding of what it takes to play in a game like that. I will use the game against Germany as an example. We were winning 1-0 with 25 minutes left and we lost the game. Lessons are learned there. I think that’s a game if we’re playing more together and have a better understanding of each other and we’re playing to win, we probably could’ve gotten a point or a win out of that game. You balance it all out. At the end of the day, my job is not so much to worry about winning games. It’s to give these guys experience and to find guys for the next U-20 cycle. The more guys we can expose to this level and see how they do I think that becomes the most important thing and within that the developmental piece they gain from it is invaluable.” Israel is certainly a unique back drop for an international tournament. What was it like to be in Tel Aviv?
MM: “It was great. We went to Jerusalem so that was neat to see all of that. It was a great experience, not only on the soccer end but to be in the Middle East. It was great to see Jerusalem and we went to the Dead Sea as well. That end of it was very special. Those are once in a lifetime experiences and I think the guys will always cherish that and that was just an experience in itself, beside the soccer part. Overall it was great.”