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Q & A with U.S. U-18 MNT head coach Mike Matkovich

U.S. U-18 MNT head coach Mike Matkovich just returned from a trip to Portugal, where he led his team to draws against the Netherlands and Finland and a narrow loss to Portugal at the Lisbon International Tournament. Matkovich will next bring his team together in Northern Ireland ahead of the annual Milk Cup in July. talked with the U-18 boss about bringing his team together, playing in international tournaments and transitioning his squad to the next cycle of the U-20 MNT. What was the preparation like for this tournament in Lisbon?
Mike Matkovich: “Whenever you get into these trips you don’t have much preparation so it’s kind of a matter of doing the best you can with the few sessions you have. We put a friendly into our schedule last week against Sporting Lisbon to get us ready, kind of a training game for the tournament to work out some kinks. We ended up playing a combination of their U-19s and reserves and it worked out well because we had a 20-man roster and we were able to get ourselves organized and prepared to go into the tournament. Games like that become valuable because you can learn some lessons and get yourself prepared before you start the tournament.

“Within the training sessions, the little bit that you can, you just try and organize the players, try to give them an idea of what we want, how we want to play. From there you just get into the games.” What did you see in the three games?
MM: “We had a couple guys like Will Packwood who were in for the first time with us and he had a pretty good showing. Alex Shinsky is another new one we had in there. So, we had some guys who we’ve been trying to get in that greatly helped the group out. Our personnel overall was a little bit better than we’ve had before and there are still some other guys that we need to get in. It’s difficult sometimes with the pro clubs to get them released, but when they’re here the level jumps a bit. We felt that there is a pretty good core for the next U-20 cycle, but we’ll have to add in some players and score more goals. I think that’s maybe where some of the professional players can enhance the group and move it up another level. We’re pretty good in the midfield and the back, we just need to get a little more punch. There are definitely some good starting points to work with for this group as they move into the U-20s, but we feel like there’s been a big improvement over the two-year cycle that we’ve had the guys. We feel pretty good about that.” What are some of the improvements that you’ve seen?
MM: “I think you can see a difference between this tournament and the last one, where we played France and Germany in Israel. Now we jump to Holland and Portugal and you could see a difference in the group of guys we had back from the trip to Israel. Their spirit of playing at this level, some of the jitters and anxiety were gone. Guys knew what to expect in the game, knew how to handle it better. We went in there and had a lot more composure. We had a way we wanted to play and the guys stuck to it. They got themselves the valuable experience of playing a top-level team. Whoever goes into the U-20s, it will just help to have guys who have been in high level games. They’ve become more and more ready for those kinds of games. How will this experience, along with the Milk Cup, help these guys get ready to make the jump to the U-20s?
MM: “First of all I think it’s about playing games that they don’t see on a regular basis. Now, everything has to count. Technically, with the ball, or positioning from a tactical standpoint, your mental approach being switched on – all those things are enhanced. When you make a mistake you get hurt. When you lose the ball, now it takes time to get it back. Let’s be honest, you can’t replicate a World Cup tournament, but this gives you a level of experience where you’ll know what you’re in for and the next time you come around you know what to expect. Sometimes these guys are in games where they’re able to get away with certain things, and the accountability isn’t there. In these games, it’s a higher level and everything starts to add up. You have to put all these pieces together and stay focused for a full game, and that is something that guys don’t get enough of in this country.” What will you be doing between now and the opening of the Milk Cup on July 25?
MM: “We don’t have any more camps, so obviously it’s all about selection and availability. We’ve got a group of guys who we’re trying to get in, and obviously a lot of the pro clubs in Europe will be in preseason so we’re hoping they’ll release the guys to come in. The Academy guys are kind of winding down so we want to make sure that the guys who aren’t going to be at Finals Week are finding a way to train and stay sharp. From there, it’s all about selection and seeing who we can get in. Training will be the same process as this camp where you get in and have about four or five training sessions before the tournament. We’ll play Mexico and Israel, and it’s a tournament for ‘92s so we’ll be playing up a year. I think it will be a great experience for the guys.” Players seem to love the Milk Cup. What makes it such a special event?
MM: “I took the group that went to the Milk Cup two years ago and I think that had something to do with some of those guys moving on to play with the U-20s last year and win it. Playing in that tournament is a neat experience. There is great fan support and some top teams. It’s very similar to the Dallas Cup with the top clubs and the international bracket. It’s unique in that way. It’s great. The opening ceremony is pretty neat and you get to play in these little stadiums. There is great fan support and the quality of teams is good, it’s really a great tournament.”