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Q & A With U.S. U-18 MNT Head Coach Bob Jenkins as He Previews the Upcoming Lisbon Tournament

U.S. Under-18 Men’s National Team head coach and U.S. Soccer Director of Coaching Bob Jenkins is currently in Portugal with the U-18 Men gearing up for the 2006 Lisbon International Tournament. After a warm-up match against the Real Madrid Juniors, an eight-hour bus trip from Madrid, Spain, to Lisbon, Portugal, and a short training session at the beach, Jenkins took some time to talk about the U-18 team, including their fourth-place finish at the Slovakia Cup and the upcoming Lisbon tournament.

Before we get started on the trip to Spain and Portugal that you are currently on, let’s go back. The U.S. competed in the Slovakia Cup, getting to the semifinals and finishing in fourth place. Can you talk a little bit about how that trip went?

“We played three games in the first round. We played Hungary first, Malta and then Slovakia. Then we played Poland in the third place game. I think, in looking back on it, we were good enough to beat any of those teams. We watched the final with the Czech Republic and Slovakia and they were both good teams but we felt that we could have easily played with them and also beaten them. So, the problem that we had was, we lost a player in the first game pretty early in the second half. It really took a lot out of us for the rest of the week because we were up a goal and we were fighting for the rest of the half to try to keep the lead and Hungary could throw everything they wanted at us because we were now down a guy and trying to sort that stuff out in terms of how to manage the game. We expended a lot of energy so, what we saw as the week went on, that, combined with the fact that we were a year younger than these guys, the physical part really began to play a big role. When we got into the Poland game, because of the fact that we had tired legs and had some guys that were a little banged up, we went with a lineup that had some guys that hadn’t gotten time, so they were a bit fresher. We had a guy ejected 20 minutes into the game, so now we’re now down a man again. Those things obviously play a part in the tournament. The competition was very good. We definitely got a lot out of it because, one, from the standpoint of losing players and getting the players to understand the ramifications of that in these kind of tournaments is huge. Every point you get is crucial. That’s the first part of it. The second part of it is, for three of our four games we scored the first goal and yet we weren’t able to hold on in two of them. So part of what we talked about for that week and what we’re trying to address this week is how to manage the game a little bit better and not play a hundred miles an hour the whole time. We came out like the gangbusters in all of our games and yet, by the second half, we obviously had worn ourselves out. Good lessons against good competition.”

So now you’re in Portugal after going to Spain and taking on the Real Madrid Juniors. Can you talk a little bit about how your week in Spain prepared you for the Lisbon tournament?

“We got a couple of good days of training in. We stayed at the Spanish Federation’s National Training Center, so that was great to be able to have those facilities for our use. Then, obviously, getting a couple days to be able to practice together, we have five or six new players in for this camp, so trying to get those guys acclimated to what we’re trying to do, that was important. Then, being able to play Real Madrid was a really good test for us. What we wanted out of that game was to be able to have a clear picture of what we did well and also what we struggled with so that we could take the next day or two and really try to use that to prepare for this tournament in Lisbon.”

In Lisbon you’ll face Sweden, Norway and Portugal over four days. How will you deal with playing that many games in such a short time span?

“I think one of the strengths of this team is that all of our guys are capable of starting, so it’s a very strong team. I think, in that sense, we can put different lineups out on the field from day to day, especially the first two games. They’re the most crucial. If we can play our first two games, we get a day off on our third day and so we want to make sure that we can juggle the lineups a little bit and make sure that we’re getting a lot of numbers out on the field in both days so that we’re able to save us as much as we can. And, the fact that, no matter who we start, we have guys that can come off the bench and change the game. I’m hoping that that will be a plus for us.”

Obviously, you’d like to win the tournament, but also it is about getting guys playing time and hoping they develop, maybe enough to get a look at by Thomas Rongen’s U-20s. Can you touch a little bit on that and how these trips are crucial in the development of players?

“I think that this is a level that our guys don’t get back home. It’s the best that we can evaluate these players, whether it’s for the next U-20 group or the current U-20 group. By trying to find the most competitive events, it gives us very clear pictures of the kids because they’re in these environments where they have to think more quickly, they have to play more quickly. Every pass they make, every decision they make has to be very good and done early, so they need to be anticipating their play rather than reacting to it. At home, they’re able to react and take their time a lot because these kids are obviously going to be the best on their club team or the best on their regional teams and here they don’t have that luxury. There are a lot of things that they get out of this because of the level and because of what they’re forced to do in order to be successful. And, if they’re not sharp, mentally, they’re not staying in tune with the game, all those little mistakes add up to being punished with goals against us. Those are great lessons for our guys. Here is another tournament for us where we’re playing older players. This is a 1988 tournament and we’re 1989 players. We have two overage players, two ’88s, and everybody else is an ’89, so that part of it, too, is very challenging.”

You have Josmer Altidore with you on this trip. He’s a professional in MLS and has been with the U-20s and in the U.S. Soccer U-17 Residency Program, as well. What do you think he provides to the team?

“Josmer, you just take a look at him and you can see that, physically, he’s going to be a presence out there. He has a very large body, he can move very well, so he can either cause trouble because he can hold balls for us and be a good target, very difficult for guys to get around him or through him to get the ball. He’s also fast and very good at running at players. And, because he’s so strong, it’s difficult for guys, if they’re running with him, to knock him off the ball. So, just from that standpoint, he adds something to our team that we didn’t have in Slovakia. And then, the fact that he’s been in Residency and playing some reserve games for the Red Bulls, it’s going to give him a level of experience that I think is very valuable for us.

Overall, how do you think the year is going for the U-18s since the first camp where you brought in 58 players for a mega camp this January at the Home Depot Center?

“I think it’s going very well. I think that this is a good group. It’s a strong group and I think that as we go through these events, obviously, once we get to the international events, that’s when you start to really separate the guys that can do and the guys that are still struggling. We were still pleased in Slovakia even though we didn’t get to the championship game. We were pleased with what we saw this early in our two-year cycle. Again, after one game with Real Madrid, we’re still pleased with what’s going on. It is, obviously, ultimately about winning these games, but you want to make sure that winning is a byproduct of the fact that we’re doing things right. We feel like these guys are doing a lot of things right and then we’re just hopeful that, if they put all the pieces together, then the wins will start to come for them.”

What’s up next for the U-18s after this trip?

“This is it for us for this calendar year. We won’t get together again until January. We’ll just keep track of everybody. The thing about this age is that kids are still developing and they’re still becoming better players and so guys that were not really in these two international trips, we’re still looking at and those guys may end up being an important part of our pool next year. So for this six- or seven-month break, we need to be out there looking at kids and constantly looking for those guys that are blooming a little bit late.”