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Q&A with U.S. U-17 WNT head coach Albertin Montoya What are the main goals and challenges of the U-17 team at this point in the two-year cycle?
Albertin Montoya: “Right now we are still going through the process of identifying the group that we’re going to have through qualifying and eventually the World Cup. Once we’ve got a good number that we feel very comfortable with, then it’s really about starting to put it all together and getting them to understand the way we would like to play. It’s been a combination of identifying players and starting to instill the belief that we can play an attractive game, but at the same time being effective and putting chances away while creating plenty of them. My goals have always been to play a game that entertains fans but also gets the results.” How important is it for young players to gain international experience before heading into next year’s important tournaments?
AM: “I think that going into qualifying we are going to be making sure that we get plenty of games, whether it’s from international teams coming in to play us or traveling abroad. In January we played Germany and got two very good results. Coming up in August we’ll be playing Japan, and then we’re looking to go overseas either in January or February to get some international games that way. So I think we’ll be prepared as far as quality games against top competition. It doesn’t get much better than playing Germany or Japan, so our players will get a taste for that.” How can playing quality opponents like Germany and Japan help you find your own team’s identity?
AM: “Our goal is to make sure we play our way, our style, and impose that on other teams, and that’s why these domestic camps are going to be extremely important. I want to make sure we know our identity and the way we want to play and maybe not worry so much about other teams. We’re going to have to respect them and we’re going to have to know exactly what other teams’ strengths and weaknesses are. That’s the role of the coaching staff, to make sure that we prepare our players in our domestic camps so when we go internationally they’re ready for anything that’s thrown at them.” How has your coaching experience in the WPS helped you prepare for the challenge of coaching international-caliber 16- and 17-year-olds?
AM: “One of the things that I can bring to this team is obviously having coached some of the best players in the world, just seeing them day in and day out, how they act as individuals and professionals. I see how seriously they take the game and how committed they are to being the best that they can. It’s a lifestyle that you choose, and that’s something that I’m trying to get across to these U-17 players. We all make sacrifices (in order to play for the U.S. U-17s) and you’ve chosen a path that’s very special and that very few can do. They need to take pride in doing that. That’s what it takes to play at the pro level and in a World Cup. I’ve seen first-hand what these players go through, and now I want to try to pass this on to these youngsters that have so much potential. It’s all about the choices they make in life and on the field.” Why do you think it is so important to get your players to watch high-level matches?
AM: “With my player pool, since day one I have been showing them Barcelona clips. In my opinion, there is no better way to play than the way Barcelona plays. During our last camp, right before we went on the field to play the Ajax (of Los Angeles) women’s team, I showed them about a 20-minute clip of Barcelona and it was the best game we’ve had so far. Rarely do you see a youth team combine 15, 20, 25 passes without the other team touching a ball and then still get an effective shot off. It was really good to see and I’m just trying to paint the picture for them. I also make sure I make DVDs of games to give them, so they have no excuse not to watch good games. In this next camp we’ll be watching the WPS Final. It just needs to be reinforced over and over again how important it is watch and learn from the game. I was very surprised and a little sad that in my first camp in January I asked the players how many had seen a WPS game, and there were players that had never seen a WPS game. But they are starting to understanding that it’s such a great way to learn and it helps you understand the players’ roles and the positioning just by watching the game. We are trying to get it across that you have to be a student of the game, it’s not only what you do on the field. You have to watch the games, it’s not just good enough to show up and play. We’re way beyond those times.” What are some of the qualities you are looking for in players?
AM: “I think the group that we’ve got it in, I’d like to think most of them are soccer fanatics and that’s what I’m looking for. We want them to love the game and be technically superior along with being good athletes. We’ve got a good group of girls out there.” How have you seen the competition level in CONCACAF increase on the women’s side in the past few years?
AM: “The first thing is that we can’t take anyone for granted. I think that 10 or 15 years ago, it was a given that the U.S. was going to qualify for everything, and obviously that’s no longer the case. Looking all the way up to our full women’s team, we took quite a scare at the end to get to Germany. Our 17s in the last cycle, I thought they were the best team in qualifying and they didn’t get through. We have to learn from that. Every single team now in CONCACAF can pull off a win. Costa Rica has come a long way, as have Guatemala and Trinidad, to mention just a few of them. If anything, it’s exciting. We know we need to get better because perhaps ten years or so ago we were kind of complacent. We’d just kind of go through it and we’d reach the World Cup. Now we’ve got to start preparing a little earlier and making sure we’re firing on all cylinders for CONCACAF and not just wait for the World Cup. If anything, it’s going to be great preparation for the World Cup. If we’re fortunate enough to qualify, we know we’ll be battle-tested because of how strong CONCACAF is nowadays. It’s an exciting time, and it’s only going to make us better.” How will you balance the competitions with developing players for the higher levels of the WNT programs?
“Obviously we’d love to win a World Cup, but my first goal, and it’s been made very clear to me, is to develop these players to become better technically and keep them productive as they advance up through the age groups. We’ve fallen behind on the technical and tactical parts of the game. I think those are a few things that I take a lot of pride in. I think that during the past 10 years or so we have developed some very special soccer players, but I’ve been asked to come in to help us develop our younger players, help us have better technical players when they go up all the way to the (full) national team. Obviously, we’ve said it would be great to win a World Cup, but it’s not good enough now to just rely on our athleticism that we’ve always had. We have to take a step back and make sure we spend more time on the technical part of the game. Every training session with our U-17s we’ll spend at least 30-45 minutes on cleaning up their game technically. Our passing needs to be better, the pace of the pass, right foot, left foot, the way they receive the ball, the way they take the touch away from pressure, and we can’t just count on a bad touch and then use our speed to get to it. We’ve spent so much time on that, and we’ve seen a great improvement from January to now. The players feel it. They see that it’s not going to be so much of a direct game and counting on our size and strength. It’s going to be more of playing with a purpose, and there’s going to be thought behind everything we do. Those were always intentions, but we’re making sure that we stick to that and that we don’t veer from it. It’s extremely important that if this is how we’re going to play, we’re going to stick to it. It’s only going to make these players better in the long run. If we’re not successful in winning a World Cup but we get some good results and play some good soccer, I think that at the end of the day I’ll be very pleased. If people are starting to talk about how great a team the U.S. is and about the type of players we are producing at a young age, then I’ll be pleased. That’s my goal, to produce great soccer players.” What kind of players are you and Development Director Jill Ellis looking for, and how will you work with the U.S. Soccer community to continue to develop more technical players?
AM: “One of the ways that we’re trying to get that message out is in the players we are selecting to some of these national team camps. For example, the U-14 identification camp (that just finished in Portland, Oregon), we have a lot of players that we consider to be soccer fanatics. They’re soccer players. They’re passionate. They love spending time with the ball. We keep stressing that and it just makes for a more enjoyable game. These types of players relate to each other. They enjoy keeping the ball on the ground. We want the club coaches to realize that those are the type of players that are making national team camps. It’s no longer the athlete that can run a 40-yard sprint faster than anyone while not putting much thought behind what they do. We’re now looking for players that see the game, understand the game, study the game, and that’s the message that we’re trying to send to the clubs and coaches.”

“I’ve been traveling quite a bit to club events, ECNL events, regional championships, and talking with the coaching directors and other coaches and letting them know the type of players we’re looking for, the type of soccer we want to play and how they can help us. We’ve got a challenge here. There’s a lot of pressure for these club coaches and clubs to get results and not necessarily produce top quality players. However, there are more coaches getting on board and I think there are a lot of coaches now on the college side that are on board as well. They’d like to see the game go a little more towards the way that the U.S. played in the World Cup final when we put everything together and I thought we were spectacular.” How do you hope to see the game evolve in this country?
AM: “Look at the Japan and French women’s teams. There are a lot of countries that are playing an attractive game on the women’s side and then on the men’s side we’ve seen that superior skill combined with power can more often than not beat pure power. We are very fortunate in this country that we have a combination of both. We have some of the best athletes in the world, but I feel we can produce players like Messi, like Marta. We can, but we just have to believe in it, and there are numerous coaches around the country that are starting to try to do that, and they’re on board. It is going to take some time, because you’re not necessarily going to get results early on when that happens, but if you believe in it I think success will be a by-product of developing players.”