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Training Camp Review with U-18 MNT Head Coach Javier Perez

The U.S. Under-18 Men’s National Team recently completed a successful training camp in the Netherlands that saw the team earn a 3-1-0 record against a variety of competition, including a 4-2 win against the Netherlands U-18 MNT on Sept. 11. U-18 MNT head coach Javier Perez took some time to catch up with to review the team’s performance in the camp and look ahead to the future with a strong group of talented players. What was your overall impression of how the training camp went in the Netherlands?
Javier Perez: “It was a very good camp for two reasons. One, we had for the first time only ‘95s in this group. Most of the players have already been with us, but we had other players that came for the first time. They were very well integrated into the team and the dynamic of the group and the system of play. That was very good news that we have a solid group. The other reason is that we wanted to offer the opportunity for the team to be in a very competitive environment and compete with different types of play with teams from Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. It was accomplished and the good thing was the team received good results. We had three wins against the Netherlands, Borussia Dortmund (Germany) and Feyenoord (Netherlands). The Netherlands senior team were the runners-up of the last FIFA World Cup and Borussia Dortmund, they are German champions so I think it’s a very good reference for us and where we are at this point.” The U-18s beat the Netherlands 4-2 on Sept. 11, can you talk more specifically about what you saw from the team during this match?
JP: “It was outstanding. It was a very consistent game and very difficult. The players are not used to that level of game. When we have the opportunity to play against such a big nation in the soccer world, we have to embrace it. I think the players did. At the beginning, the Netherlands was very aggressive with the ball and they were moving the ball well. We came down and were concentrated and well organized and little-by-little we started to take control of the game. We have to give credit to our players. We have talent in the team and being focused in the game and being mentally strong – the mental strength was probably the most important thing in that game. They are quality players. We scored four goals against one of the strongest soccer nations in the world and all four goals came from four different players. They completed a remarkable game and outstanding performance.” In four matches, the team had seven different goal scorers and two shutouts, what does this say about the team dynamics?
JP: “I think it proves that everybody is engaged with the system of play we are developing. Everybody is being part of that system and making a big effort. We want to have different options, we want to be as unpredictable as possible and have many different options to score. The other thing that we’ve been putting extra effort into is the set pieces. The players are making an effort in both ways – to not concede goals on set pieces and to maximize the opportunities to score goals on set pieces. We have players from different positions scoring goals – even our center back, Michael Amick, he scored a couple of goals. It is remarkable that all players are engaged in the game defensively and offensively. Both parts are tremendously important.” What did you learn about this group of players during the training camp and matches?
JP: “During this camp, (U.S. U-20 MNT head coach) Tab Ramos was with us and that’s good because next September in 2013 this group will be part of the U-20 National Team. We have been clear from the beginning that we want to build a solid group of players and we want that group ready for when they have to make the jump to the U-20 National Team. That’s always a question mark. What I learned is that we have the talent and the capacity to adapt to different styles of play. This is good news for us as a nation and for U.S. Soccer. We are going to be capable of competing at a very high level.” How do you continue the development and progression of this group of players?
JP: “I think now they understand that they are part of something special. We are building something special. This trip reflects a lot of that. Being able to go to the Netherlands and play against some of the best teams in Europe is very remarkable. They feel good and part of the team. From my part, what I want is to provide them with as best an experience as possible. U.S. Soccer has been very supportive with this task that we want to accomplish. Right now, we just want them to keep coming to the National Team and building their experience so that when they have to compete constantly at the highest level, they are ready. What has been more challenging with this trip was playing with such a high level of competition, winning games and focusing on the process of playing with our style – defining our style. The players are developing that winning mentality and are playing according to the plan and the style we are developing.” What are some aspects of the game in which you think the team can continue to improve?
JP: “More important than anything, the team has been to Europe to play at the highest level, play at a high pace and make decisions quickly. In the future, what we want to make better is to increase the speed of play and make decisions much quicker. Sometimes, when we invite the players in, because they are talented they feel comfortable, but when they play at the international level they make the comment that this is a different level, and it is much more demanding and they have to make very quick decisions. This is why we went to the Netherlands to keep working on these two elements. There are always things to improve. I think we were very good in this camp, but I think we can integrate more rotations on the players and better integrate the team when we make changes so everybody can get adjusted better. We have room for improvement in aspects like set pieces. That’s a very important part of the game and concentration is a key element. For our players, what we want – and this is one of the reasons we went to the Netherlands – is to be capable of being concentrated in the game for 90 minutes. That’s difficult because even the senior teams have difficulty staying focused for 90 minutes; it’s a long period of time. I think the training these players are receiving is going to help them be at the highest level. I think we can improve on that part of the game.” What’s ahead for the U-18 MNT?

JP: “We have one training camp in November and hopefully we can come with more-or-less the same players. In this past camp we had three players that were never part of the National Team before – Julian Green (Bayern Munich U-19), Piakai Henkel (Amiens U-21) and Jacori Hayes (Baltimore Bays Chelsea U-17/18). In November, we are going to bring these players together and keep working on our system of play and bringing the team to the next level.” Speaking of those players making their first appearance with the U-18s, did you have a chance to talk to them about the experience?
JP: “I don’t want players to leave the camp and say that the coach didn’t speak to me. One of the important aspects in this group is the human part and having that personal approach with the players. I like to be in contact with the players and speak individually. Maybe before the training session or game, I can speak with one or two and then by the end of camp we have individual meetings with each one of the players. We can give them feedback about how they performed during the camp and which aspect they have to improve. We want to hear what the player has to say. That’s extremely important for us to have the human side of the relationship with the players. I think it’s important for the players to feel like part of the team and to be engaging in the project. I think we are covering that part really well.” Do you have any final thoughts?
JP: “I’m very happy with the dynamic of the group. I feel like we are almost like a family. The players are responding very well, the coaching staff is excellent.”