US SoccerUS Soccer

w/ U-17 MNT head coach John Hackworth

You’re doing your daily reading on and you come across a name you don’t recognize. First thought: “Who is that?” Second: “What’s their deal?” Possible third: “Is that the same Jim/Mary/Bob that I dated in high school?” Well, you’ll find your answers here. We want you to be up-to-date on all the newest players and coaches that make their way to the full and youth Men’s and Women’s National Teams, so sit back, read on and get to know one of our newest members.

Known simply as “Hack,” his nickname has nothing to do with his defensive prowess during his playing days (at least we don’t think). Rather, it’s short for Hackworth as in John Hackworth, the new head coach of the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team and headmaster of the 40 players in U.S. Soccer’s Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla. An assistant under former head coach John Ellinger, Hackworth was promoted to head coach in November of last year, taking over one of U.S. Soccer’s most successful youth teams as they get set for another run towards the FIFA U-17 World Championship. Read on to find out why Hackworth thinks he has the best job in America, if he feels pressure to keep the U-17s qualifying streak alive, where he likes to ride his mountain bike and how he knows what’s cool in teenager-land.

Compare being an assistant under John Ellinger and now being the top dog of the U.S. Under-17 MNT?
“I always told John Ellinger that I had the best coaching job in America as his assistant. The reason was because I got to coach a lot and teach and work in a fantastic program, but ultimately he had to make all the decisions. Now, all those decisions, all that responsibility falls on my shoulders and that’s the main difference. I still feel like I have the best coaching job in America, but now there is a lot more pressure and the responsibility is all mine. That’s not a bad thing, but it is definitely a change.”

At 35, you are the youngest men’s national team coach in the U.S. Does that help, hinder, not make a difference?
“I really don’t think it matters. I’ve been very fortunate in my coaching career to have a lot of fantastic coaching and soccer experiences. Now that I’m a leader of young men, I feel like I have a good relationship with the players, and I can understand the anxieties, pressures and the fears that they have. It wasn’t so long ago that I was in the same position myself. I remember those times and I think that helps me be a better manager, better coach, and a better leader.”

The U.S. U-17s are the only country to qualify and play in every FIFA World Championships at this age level. Does that put extra pressure on you as you prepare the team for the CONCACAF Qualifying Tournament (Group B) in Costa Rica from April 12-16?
“I love when people remind me of that (laughing). Not only am I the youngest national team coach, I am now at the helm of a program that has never failed to reach the world championship. I just think it is what it is. I have complete confidence that our team will be successful in qualifying for the world championship in Peru. This is a new group of players going through this experience for the very first time and that’s really what it comes down to – are we going to be able to do a good job of preparation. I don’t think we can worry about streaks or anything like that. It’s a streak that is out there, but nothing more.”

Who has been the biggest influence on your coaching career so far?
“That is a very difficult question. I think one reason why I am where I am today is because I had such great mentors. It all started for me playing and then coaching with Walt Chyzowych – no question. And that opened the door of opportunity to coaches like Bob Gansler.  Bruce Arena, from the time I was playing and coaching against him in college, then being hired by him, to now being able to be around him and pick his brain on a regular basis. Coaches like Glenn Myernick, Jay Miller, Jay Hoffman, and Jay Vidovich, who I first started working under at Wake Forest, have been a big influence. However, ever since I was a young coach going through coaching schools John Ellinger has always been someone I looked up to greatly, and he’s the one that gave me the opportunity to become a national team coach. I will forever be in debt to him and the things I learned under him in the three years I’ve worked with him have been immense. I’ve been very fortunate to be around a lot of influential coaches and I’ve been able to try and learn something from each.”

You were an assistant coach at Wake Forest before moving on to be the head coach at the University of South Florida in 1998 at the age of 28, and in your first year you were named Conference USA Coach of the Year after leading the Bulls to a regular season and tournament championship. Did that in a way validate to you and others that you could coach at a high level?
“I don’t think it’s about the accolades or the championships. I think it’s that people recognize personality traits or characteristics that they think will allow someone to improve down the road. I’ve always tried to be hard working and confident, but also be humble to know that there is so much more I can learn. That has always been a recipe for success in my coaching career. One of the biggest things was while I didn’t have all the knowledge and experiences, I was in a situation where I had to make the coaching decisions. All the things involved with being a head coach at a Division I school really helped me grow as a coach.”

Over your time coaching the U-17s, you’ve seen a lot of the youth teams across the world. How is the U.S. progressing compared to the rest of the world?

How difficult is it to choose the new players that you bring into Residency each semester?
“It is a tremendous challenge and we work extremely hard putting in a lot of hours trying to identify the top players in our country. We then select the players and try to figure out who will be successful in our environment and can go on to the next level. Every go-around we seem to find new kids that need this environment to make them better and become the player they are capable of being. That is what it is all about. It’s a monumental job that is always evolving. Hopefully, we are getting better and better at it.”

You began coaching the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team as an assistant since 2002. What is the best memory you have had during that time?
“There’s been so many good memories. The thing that comes to mind as a coach and as a teacher is being able to have played an integral part in a lot of fantastic young men’s development from Freddy Adu to Eddie Gaven to Jonathan Spector to every other player as the list of names can go on and on. I also think being in a world championship and going through CONCACAF qualifying are two of the most amazing experiences that you can’t get that unless you actually do it.”

Who is the most talented player in U.S. Soccer’s Residency Program you’ve ever coached?
“In my brief experience with two age groups coming through Residency it is probably Freddy Adu. He has unbelievable ability and unbelievable talent. But, it should be said that I also think there are a lot of players that have played different roles that have been as talented. Playing as a defender you have much different responsibility then if you’re playing as an attacker. I think Eddie Gaven deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done in his young career so far and Jonathan Spector is right there as well, moving from an attacker to a defender and proving he can play at the highest level.”

Most amazing goal you’ve seen from a player during Residency?
“There are so many, I don’t think I can pick just one. I’d give Freddy the nod in terms of slaloming through guys with unbelievable creativity to score a goal. His goals in the world championship and one of his goals in qualifying against Jamaica were pretty amazing, no question. A few other memorable ones were Eddie Gaven’s goal against Costa Rica in Lancaster that hit the underside of the crossbar and then the post before going in and Steven Curfman’s absolute bomb from at least 45 yards against Poland in South Korea where it seemed to knuckle and hang and keep going, locked in for the upper-right corner. The current guys in Residency have had jaw-droppers too, with Ryan Soroka’s blast against Australia during the Nike Friendlies last year and Preston Zimmerman’s goal against Peru in Peru off a fantastic serve from Quavas Kirk.”

Moving on to the personal side of things. You played professionally with the Carolina Dynamos of the A-League, helping them to a runner-up finish in 1997. Any thoughts of playing for Major League Soccer?
“When I graduated from Wake Forest in 1992, you pretty much could go play indoor or you could play in the USISL. Walt Chyzowych was trying to start a similar league called the United States Development Soccer League, which I played in. We had a fantastic team that was basically an ACC All-Star Team with guys I played with from Wake and players like Eddie Pope. By the time I actually got a contract in the A-League, which was really just as a reserve player, I was really focused on becoming a coach. I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my heart and soul. To be honest, I knew I was a good player, but that I was an overachiever. I thought I’d be a much better coach than a soccer player.”

What’s the best game you’ve ever had personally during your college or professional playing career?
“I’m not sure. One game in college that sticks out was when we were playing Virginia at Wake Forest my senior year and I played pretty well. I made a deep run and I served the ball across the middle to our forward John Dugiud, who just missed over the bar.  However, Claudio Reyna actually ended up hitting the winner in double overtime, so not a great story. As a defender, I think the most memorable situations where I went up against some great attackers. I was able to hold my own in one-v-one confrontations with guys like Roy Lassiter and Dante Washington in college, which were pretty memorable. And I remember playing for an amateur team against the Carolina Dynamo and having the dubious challenge of marking Stern John out of the game and fortunately for 90 minutes I was able to do so. Actually, that is how I was signed by the Dynamo at the time.”

Hanging around teenagers all day, do you consider yourself “IN” with the younger crowd? Do you keep up with the latest fashion trends, listen to the hottest new bands, know who Lindsey Lohan is dating these days?
“Lindsey who? (laughs)  I do feel like I’m exposed to it all the time, whether you’re on the bus, on the airplane, or sitting in the airport on a long layover. You get to see what they wear to school, or hear what language they use, or find out the movies they like, so I’m pretty much around it all the time. Plus, I have an eight year old and a seven year old who think they are teenagers anyway, so that always keeps me on my toes.

What’s more tiring: dealing with your three kids (ages 8, 7 and 3) at home or the 40 teenagers in Residency?

As an avid mountain biker, what’s the best place you’ve ever had the opportunity to take a ride?
“The best place where I get to go riding is probably in the brief times I get up to the mountains of northeast Georgia and North Carolina. There are some long rides where you get in the woods and never see pavement for a long, long time.”

Are you still biking to work at IMG Academy?
“I try to ride at least two or three days a week. Life is a little hectic, so I have to figure out a way to use my time wisely. It is called an economical lifestyle. If I can get a workout on my commute to work, then I try and do that.”

How many marathons have you run?
“I’ve only run one marathon, that was the Tampa Bay Hops Marathon. I’ve done a couple adventure-type marathons, which are trail-running marathons. I’ve run the Shut-in Trail Ridge Run in Asheville a couple of times.  They are just sick runs. It’s an 18-mile run to the top of Mt. Mitchell, where you gain almost 6,000 feet of vertical elevation during the run.”

What’s your ideal night out with your wife, Tricia?
“Any night out alone with Tricia is special, but I would say it is going to the northern tip of Anna Maria Island and watching the sunset, then having an unbelievable dinner at the Beach Bistro. My wife is an amazing person and anytime where we just get a chance to talk is pretty cool.

The last concert you’ve been to?
“Keith Fulk, his wife, Mara, and Tricia and I went to Steel Pulse a couple of weeks ago.”

Besides soccer, what other sports to you like to watch?
“Is there another sport besides soccer?  Seriously, I am a big sports fan, but if you ask my wife, she will tell you that the only thing I watch is soccer.”

So, how much soccer do you watch in a week?
“Between breaking down our own game film and some of our practice sessions, and then getting my daily report on the Fox Soccer Channel, quite a bit. I don’t actually get to watch that much TV as there doesn’t seem to be enough time in the day, but I always try to watch a game from La Liga or the English Premier League and when the MLS is playing I for sure try to catch one or two games a week. A lot of times after I put the kids to bed and when the wife is asleep I sneak into the den and catch a game that I’ve taped.”

“Well, the 40 kids in Residency, they listen when I say something. So, it is probably the three kids at home.”

“The visionary idea of U.S. Soccer’s Residency Program where we bring together the best players in the country and put them in a daily environment is fantastic. It has allowed us to really become one of the best youth programs in the world, but we are still a bit behind other countries in Europe, South America and Central America, where the predominant sport in kids lives is soccer and they are exposed to the sport since the day they were born. I think we will be challenged to make up that deficit in our culture, but things obviously are growing though with MLS and national team success, which now give our young players a true goal past high school or college. I think we’re getting there.”