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Q & A with U-17 MNT Head Coach Richie Williams

U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team head coach Richie Williams named his 20-player roster Tuesday for the 2013 CONCACAF U-17 Championship, which takes place in Panama. Williams discusses the team in place and the preparation involved as the U-17s prepare for Sunday’s group opener against Haiti:

On the process of putting together the 20-player roster:
Richie Williams: “The big picture of the process started in January of 2012. It’s been about 15, 16 months since we’ve started and a lot of training sessions, a lot of games, lot of trips and giving guys opportunities to go out and train and get better and to develop, and we feel they’ve developed nicely. We’ve brought a lot of guys in through Residency and a lot of guys have done really well. It’s been a long process, but we feel like we’ve narrowed it down to the 20 players for the roster. It’s never easy. There are a lot of good players here.”

On defender Shaquell Moore maintaining his captain role:
RW: “Our captain since we’ve taken over has been Shaquell. We feel we’ve got a good group of guys that we can also rely on other guys to be the captain if we need to. We always talk about how he’s the guy with the armband, but we need 11 guys on the field to be leaders and that we can rely being a captain at one time or another.”

On the extensive YNT experience on his roster:
RW: “Since they came into Residency, even before I was here, they’ve had a lot of opportunities to play international games. We’ve had a lot of tournaments, the Nike Friendlies over here, tournaments overseas, in Europe and South and Central America. We think they’re prepared. We think they’ve got a ton of experience playing in these international games, players like Shaq, Rubio Rubin, Chris Lema, Conor Donovan and you can go down the list. We feel like we’ve got a great group of guys that have been able to gain great experience at an international level. Now it comes down to the most important international tournament, and that’s the qualifying. Obviously this is where it all counts. Either you move on to the World Cup or you come back home. We feel like they’re ready and we’ll go out there and do our best.”

On the goalkeeping tandem of Jeff Caldwell and Evan Louro:
RW: “We think Jeff has been really consistent for us since he came in last semester. He’s very solid and has done a really good job for us. We think he’s the guy for us as the No. 1 keeper. Evan has come along recently and has done a good job. He came into the Nike Friendlies back when Jeff got injured and did a good job and we think they’re both strong shot stoppers and good at organizing our defense.”

On the defensive group:
RW: “Our back four with Shaq Moore, Tommy Redding, Conor Donovan and John Requejo Jr. have come a long way. We’ve been a little up and down on the defensive side of the ball. The defensive side has been a little bit difficult at times because we’ve had some injuries over the last year and some guys coming in and out of the lineup. We’ve had games where we had shutout mentality but other times like in the Nike Friendlies we struggled a little bit. As of late, they’ve been doing really well, the four of them, of defending well. We’ve spoken to them about defending No. 1. We want to play out of the back, but their job is to defend and they’ve done a really good job over the last month or so.”

On the midfield and the players’ connection with the mix of forwards:
RW: “We think we have a good midfield group with Elijah Martin, Chris Lema and Corey Baird in the 4-3-3 system. They’ve done well in terms of being able to pass and keep the ball for us. They also can defend and break up plays and get the ball forward to Corey who’s done a good job to get Ahinga Selemani, Alan Winn and Rubio Rubin involved in the game.

“The top four have done a really good job for us in terms of creating chances and scoring chances. They’re busy. They interchange positions. They run at people. They score goals, as we saw in the Nike Friendlies and the trip to Argentina. They’ve had a lot of success in the attack. You’ve got to have that balance where we can move the ball and possess the ball really well and try to play, and can get at the goal and create chances and score chances. But as we all know, we believe the best teams are the teams that can defend and keep the other team off the scoreboard and have that shutout mentality.”

On the team’s recent trip to Panama to gain familiarity for the host site of the CONCACAF U-17 Championship:
RW: “We thought it was very important. We’ve been planning it since last year, basically saying that about a month out we wanted to get down to Panama for about seven to 10 days to get three matches, to get acclimated, to see what Panama’s all about and make sure it wasn’t the first time our guys had seen everything – what the hotel was like, what the fields were like, the training fields, the stadiums that we possibly could play in, to see what the weather was like, what the food was like, and we thought that was a great experience for our guys. It’s only going to help us this week when we travel down to qualifying.”

On facing Mexico and host Panama and what the team took away from the trip:
RW: “We’ve played Mexico now five times or so, so we kind of knew what they were about. The most important thing for me was to get into the stadium (Estadio Rommel Fernández). We actually played pretty well in the first half of that game and we had a ton of chances. But we didn’t take our chances while Mexico had one or two chances and went up 1-0. Then we gave up a bad goal in the second half, and then we made some wholesale changes at that point. The result was not what we wanted, and that’s something for our team to learn. … It was very important to get into the stadium, where we played at three in the afternoon in the heat to show them it’s going to be hot. Our qualifying games will be at 5:30 in the evening, so it’ll be a little bit cooler. We got on the field, in the locker room and went through the whole process of familiarizing ourselves with everything. Same thing with Panama. We played at the other venue on field turf. The third game was against a club team. It was a great experience for our players. I thought they did well. The results maybe weren’t what we were looking for, but we were experimenting with some lineups and some different things. It was a good learning experience.”

On collaborating with U-20 MNT head coach Tab Ramos for World Cup Qualifying feedback:
RW: “I spoke to Tab recently just about Haiti. Their first game was against Haiti. Our first game is against Haiti. Just to speak to him because it’s been a little bit difficult in terms of trying to get information on Haiti. We feel it’s kind of the same group of coaches that coached Haiti’s Under-20s will be with the Under-17s, so they’ll probably end up playing the same way. I spoke to him about the qualifying process. We watched all their games and we were extremely happy that they were able to qualify and did such a good job. We’ve talked a little bit about qualifying, about Haiti and a couple of our opponents, so we definitely have had a couple conversations and I’ll probably speak to him again before we go.”

On the biggest keys for preparing for the CONCACAF U-17 Championship:
RW: “You just need to be ready right from the first game, from the first minute. We’re going to rely on all 20 guys. We’ve got to be ready. You can’t take any plays off. Everyone’s goal is to get to that World Cup, whether you’re a smaller country like Haiti or a Trinidad or a Guatemala, they’re going to be out there fighting and scrapping and playing their hardest. You can’t relax at any moment. You can’t say, ‘if we give up a goal, well it’s OK, we’ll get one back.’ We want to go out there with a good defensive mentality and a good offensive mentality. We need everyone to show up and try to do the right thing and go out there and compete and play the way we want to play. At the end of the day, we’re not going to get every play right and we’re not going to be successful in everything we do, but we’ve got to have a team mentality that everyone is going to go out there from the first minute to the 90th minute. Whoever we put out there on the field has got to be ready to go. There are not going to be any easy games. We have to be physically ready and mentally ready to compete with those teams so we have success.”