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Thomas Dooley Helping Complete U-20 MNT’s Defensive Picture

U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team head coach Tab Ramos brought in 2010 National Soccer Hall of Famer Thomas Dooley from time to time to help the U-20s with scouting and match analysis, and to work extensively with the defensive group.

So with the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship and a FIFA U-20 World Cup berth on the line, Dooley’s expertise on the defensive side of the ball have been a vital element for a group that booked its spot in Turkey and continues to improve in the back.

“When you’re a defender and you’ve played for so many years like [assistant coach] Brian Bliss did or I did, we can tell the players how to react in certain situations, and they take it better than from somebody else,” Dooley said. “We give them confidence about playing simple and doing their job, and they will stand out in the team.”

One aspect of the defense that has solidified itself through the CONCACAF U-20 Championship is the center back combination of Caleb Stanko and Shane O’Neill. Even though neither player had been paired together in international competition, nor has had a long-running stint at center back, the back line showed improvement through the two group stage matches and quarterfinal victory against Canada.

Dooley credits both players’ midfield experience as being a primary reason for them adapting to the center back role.

“A good defensive midfield player will be a great center back,” Dooley said. “The reason is if you play in a team at center midfield, the No. 6, you have to face your own goal, you have to get the ball, you have to turn and you have to be a playmaker. You have to make good passes. You need to have those types of strengths and distribute the ball and read the game well. We talked about it months ago about Caleb Stanko, who plays hard, is a leader because he’s talking and he’s the kind of guy who can pass the ball. Then we found Shane O’Neill, who’s incredibly strong in the air and very strong on the ground, so he can play out of the back. Those two guys both play a No. 6, so I think that’s why at center back we are set.”

The U.S. U-20s rose up on the defensive side when they shut out Costa Rica 1-0 to win Group A of the tournament, and much of that success can be directed toward the defense’s ability to shut down John Jairo Ruiz, whose goal ousted Haiti from the group stage and led the team into the quarterfinal stage.

“Ruiz is one of the best players in the tournament, but you didn’t see him against us,” Dooley said. “He’s running his butt off in the midfield, but he can run 90 minutes over there. He didn’t have a chance to score and didn’t assist a chance to score. We did an excellent job of shutting him down. A soccer player who is knowledgeable about the game knows that even if you don’t touch the ball defensively, the more important thing is that your opponent doesn’t touch the ball.”

Anticipation and Visualization
Defensive players are regularly asked to defend some of the fastest players in the world. As a player, Dooley initially thought that you needed to match speed for speed to have success. But during his professional career in Germany, he understood that quickness actually is not the most important intangible.

“After we won a German championship in Kaiserslautern, I wanted to get a little bit faster,” Dooley said. “I had an opportunity to play in the U.S. because they found me over there, so I told myself that I needed to get faster for the first four or five yards. My coach explained to me that some of the fastest players in the league don’t anticipate – they react when something happens. He taught me to react to something that will happen in the next two or three seconds. So that’s what I’m trying to get this team to do. I’ve played against some of the fastest players, but if you slow down the motion and anticipate where the ball will be in a space or look at a player’s body language, you know what he wants to do, you can take off and you’ll be several yards in front of him.”

Dooley is also preaching to this U-20 MNT team that the ability to visualize situations and your opponent will put you steps ahead in a game.

“Eighty percent of a player’s focus is generally looking at the ball and 20 percent is looking at the space,” Dooley said. “It actually should be the opposite: 80 percent should be scanning the field and 20 percent you’re looking at the ball. You need to ask yourself what you are doing next. That is something you need to develop and visualize – how you’ll tackle a player, how you react if he’s running toward the near post. We have everything on video, every single touch of every single player. If you analyze a player and know he makes two or three moves like he does on the video, he will probably do the same thing. And I guarantee you that if that happens in the game, your reaction is 10 times quicker than if you’re playing somebody you’ve never seen before.”

Strong Soccer IQ
In working with the U-20 MNT, Dooley has been impressed with the players’ soccer intelligence and in picking up the aspects of his teaching.

“Some players can figure it out on their own and some you have to tell them, but it’s coming naturally with this team,” Dooley said. “Shane, for example, is one of those guys who says he wants to get better and is willing to do everything he needs to do. You can see that in the way he plays, such as when he goes up in the air and he’s already taking a look at his options, where other kids might just go up and want to get the ball.”

The defensive midfield also has impressed in its ability in limiting the opponents in the final third.

“We have a defensive midfield that thinks well defensively, whether it’s Benji Joya, Wil Trapp or Mikey Lopez,” Dooley said. “Those guys know how to defend, get behind the ball and put pressure on the opponent. I think everybody on defense understands the game, and we were lacking a little bit in the defensive part months ago. I think we’ve found the right players who understand what they need to do to win games.”

Team Unity
The two-time FIFA World Cup veteran with 81 caps under his belt with the U.S. MNT has been on his fair share of teams over the years – some that have meshed well and others that haven’t.

Dooley is confident in this current U-20 group and defense that there is a profound team chemistry forming during this CONCACAF U-20 Championship and beyond heading into the U-20 World Cup in Turkey.

“I’ve been on teams like the ’94 World Cup that were a true team and others where we had 22 individuals, and I think we have a true team forming with this U-20 group,” Dooley said. “They have a team spirit where they want to work for each other. I think Tab has formed a good group where no individuals want to stand out – they want to stand out as a team.”