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Q&A With U-18 MNT Head Coach Mike Matkovich After the Australian Youth Olympic Festival

Mike Matkovich recently returned from his first international tournament as head coach of the Under-18 Men’s National Team – a post he’d taken over just weeks before he left. After leading his team to two wins, one tie and the championship at the Australian Youth Olympic Festival, spoke to Matkovich about his new role with the U-18 MNT and his successful first trip.

U.S. Soccer: You went into your first international trip just weeks after being given the reins of the U-18s. How did you make your player selection?
Mike Matkovich: “The philosophy I instilled in the mega camp from day one was that everything was based on their performance that week. Nothing in the past mattered and nothing about their club accomplishments mattered to me. The guys went through a week of training and playing games and from there we picked 18 to go to Sydney. They earned it from their play on the field during the camp. Obviously once we got to Australia, players earned their place on the field based on how they were performing there.”

U.S. Soccer: Were you involved in the selection of players for that mega camp?
MM: “I have to give credit there to Tony Lepore, John Hackworth and the whole scouting system. They hired me as the head coach but other people were the ones who did all the scouting and essentially gave me the players. I think it’s a neat thing to see that the system is working in this way and whoever the coach is can find great players right away. Obviously we’re going to enhance that process moving forward as I’ll be out scouting and I’ll be more involved with the Academy. When I was involved with Chivas USA I wasn’t involved with this process as much and it was great to see how everything came together.”

U.S. Soccer: What did you think of some of the newer players who made an impact with your team?
MM: “We had a few players who had never been in a camp before with any National Team and three of them became starters. I think that’s a tribute to the mega camp and to the whole process that U.S. Soccer, with the Development Academy, went through. It’s making sense and it is working.”

U.S. Soccer: Your transition to being a National Team head coach was thrown into fifth gear a bit. How did you handle such a quick turnaround before your first camp?
MM: “The transition was smooth for me because I’d worked with U-14 and U-15 National Teams in the past. I had a pretty good idea of the process and how it worked so from my end it was fairly easy. I think the players made a pretty easy transition, too, so the whole camp went pretty well.”

U.S. Soccer: Well your first international tournament went pretty well….
MM: Honestly, it was a great experience for the kids. Being able to represent your country at any level is an outstanding achievement. All ends of the trip were top notch from the minute we got there until the minute we left. Everything was very professional.”

U.S. Soccer: The game against China game produced a 14-0 result not often seen in international soccer. Tell us more about that game.
MM: “China brought a very young team compared with the other three teams, but the tournament was set up in a way that goal differential was a deciding factor on who would take first place. If we didn’t try to win the tournament we felt that it would have done a disservice to our players and to U.S. Soccer. Of course I felt for their players, but to be honest, our players handled themselves very professionally. We didn’t celebrate goals, we just did the job we needed to and moved on.”

U.S. Soccer: The results seemed to indicate improvement over the course of the week. Did you get that sense from your team?
MM: “We definitely improved as the week went on. Part of that was just playing together more and knowing what we as coaches expected from them. The other piece was that we had a better read on the players and how they worked. We got much better over the course of the week for those reasons. We tied our first game with Chile and I think that if we could have played them in the last game then we could have beaten them. I felt that the last game was our best game. We went up on Australia early and that really opened them up. We were clearly the better team that day and we made things happen. Tactically, we worked on a few different things and found a way that we wanted to play as a group and we had success with that on this trip.”

U.S. Soccer: How valuable was that kind of experience to these players?
MM: “Anytime you can get international experience, at any age, is valuable. It helps players prepare for travel, how to cope with different things and how to play a different level of soccer. It helps with many aspects of the National Team program. Hopefully we’re going to find players who will one day be on the Men’s National Team and these experiences will help them to be better prepared even at that level. Coping with travel, how to take care of themselves, coaching styles and all those types of things get more comfortable with experience.”

U.S. Soccer: What’s ahead for you and your team?
MM: “We have a domestic camp in April and then a couple of international events after that. In the mean time we’ll be out watching games and seeing a lot of players. There’s certainly a lot of work ahead.”