Peter Nowak: One-on-One
U.S. Under U-23 Men's National Team head coach Peter Nowak handed ussoccer.com his report card on the team's first camp with him as head coach.
ussoccer.com: What were your goals heading into this first camp as head coach of the U-23s?
Peter Nowak: “We had two main goals. The first was to get to know each other and set the tone for the future. I know most of the players from either MLS or previous camps, but it was important for me to set the tone from the beginning so they will know that we are trying to build something special. The other part was to make sure that this camp and the two games against China were very competitive. I think they have responded very well. It’s been a tough 12 days. I think for most of them, they experienced something that they have never experienced before. Unlike with their club teams where they have a contract to show up every day, they are here because we think they have something special. It is their choice what they are going to do with the opportunity to be part of this program. Even though they know each other from different programs, either in MLS or on younger international teams, it was important to mix the characters together and try to find out what is the best combination. They will have another three months to prove to all of us that they deserve this chance. I think they have felt some pressure from the beginning here. They are learning that every practice is important, and it is also important how they behave as professionals off the field. Nothing in this program will be meaningless. Overall, the first impressions have been very good.”
ussoccer.com: With the qualifying tournament less than three months away, how important has the opportunity to get this group together been for you in terms of the building process?
Peter Nowak: “It’s been very important. Being together for 18 days is a long time. It’s not only about learning the tactics and systems and seeing how fast they absorb all of this information, but also how they handle all the little details off the field. This match schedule is a lot like qualifying where you have a game every two or three days, so we have to know how the players think and respond to this situation. So it was crucial to put them in this circumstance to evaluate how they handle it. I think they did a pretty good job. As far as the games go, I don’t expect things to be perfect. The important thing is to let them feel that they can be creative and play their own game, but also to stay within the structure and maintain tactical discipline. There have been a lot of positives. Moving forward, we will have a look at some different players in January, and see how those players fit in with the group. At the end of the process we will choose the best team to give us a chance to qualify for the Olympic Games.”
ussoccer.com: Even though it has only been two weeks, can you already see some leaders emerging within the group?
Peter Nowak: “We have some players who have been involved with the senior team that have an understanding of how we want to operate, and they have done a good job in helping the younger players along and show them the way that we want to work. It’s difficult even for them to just emerge as leaders. It’s a process. For me, the leadership comes from performances on the field. The real leaders will be determined by who follow up their words with actions.”
ussoccer.com: You chose to have your first two matches as head coach in China. What was the rationale behind making this trip?
Peter Nowak: “The most important reason was to get them playing in an environment that would be beneficial for the future. Coming to China nine months before the Olympics helps us learn all the details - from the food, to the people, climate, hotels, jet lag … all these things are important. Sometimes we forget that although the game is played on the field, actually there are a lot of things around it before and after the game that make a huge difference. When we play in some U.S. cities, there is not a lot of pressure. Two nights ago, there were 30,000 people in Changsha. It was a great atmosphere, and our team felt pressure from the home team and the home fans. This is good not only to help us with qualifiers, but also for the future. I truly believe that in nine months we will be back here to play, and if we play China again they will know what to expect.”
ussoccer.com: One of the things that is evident from being here is how big an emphasis China is placing on getting results in the Olympics. There are clearly great expectations, and you can already sense what the atmosphere will be like. Does being in this environment help our players understand precisely what they have a chance to be a part of? Does it give them an appreciation for the light at the end of the tunnel?
Peter Nowak: “I think being in the host country of the Olympics has been great. Our players have to feel that they are part of something special. For all of us – our country, our fans, and our program – the Olympic Games are very special. Coming here and playing in front of these crowds, to be surrounded by media, to get all this attention – it gives them a taste of what it will be like. These things are all part of a tournament like the Olympics, and it reminds our players that they are part of something very important.”
ussoccer.com: This is your first time leading this group as head coach. How have you approached that task?
Peter Nowak: I have stressed a lot of things they don’t expect. You have to be really prepared. We look after all the little details so we won’t be surprised by anything. We have a lot of meetings, not just to educate them, but also to give them a sense of what the game was like 15 or 20 years ago, because the game is still a very simple game and these guys need to know how the game has evolved. Our younger players don’t know much about the tradition of the sport, mostly because we don’t have a lot of history to our programs. These guys need to feel like they are part of a tradition, one that began before them and one that they are contributing to for the future. I let them know from day one that they are the future of U.S. Soccer. What we are trying to instill is a winning mentality. We want to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
ussoccer.com: You are two weeks and one game in with this group. Do you like what you have seen so far?
Peter Nowak: “I have. There are a lot things to work on, but I have enjoyed the time with the group. We are trying to continue the ideas that we began with the full team in January, and also make sure they understand what still is missing. On the field, we want them to relax, to enjoy the game and to use their creativity. As our first game went on, they started to see that the ideas were working. There were a couple of very good moments. Of course we made mistakes, but our goal is to minimize them. Overall, I think the understanding and communication was very good. This is just the first step, but we made the first step in the right direction.”
ussoccer.com: Are you having fun?
Peter Nowak: I am, and a big reason is because of how the players have responded. For young players, the mental part is hard. Being away for two weeks after a long season, knowing that Christmas is around the corner, and wanting to be with your family is not easy. I have really enjoyed seeing that these players are appreciating the opportunity that we have. On the field, they are using their imagination and creativity and at the same time understanding that we must be disciplined as well. You can see in their eyes and sense the energy on the training field that this group can be something special.”