The U-15 Boys’ National Team is heading to Italy to participate in the Tournament Delle Nazioni. ussoccer.com caught up with U.S. U-15 Boys National Team head coach Tony Lepore to discuss the tournament and the expectations from this group:
ussoccer.com: With a highly competitive tournament in Italy coming up how do you feel about where the U-15 Boys’ National Team is right now?
Tony Lepore: “We’re very excited about this player pool, the ‘98s. We think there’s a lot of talent and their potential is very high. We always try to stay focused on long term at this age and we feel like they’re on a really positive pathway. Part of that we feel our technical advisors and scouts have done a great job helping us scout, evaluate, identify and track many prospects across the country. With this group like others in the past we think their clubs deserve compliments, as well, because we have more players that have moved up to compete with their older-age teams than we’ve had in previous cycles and we feel like this group is more technical than we’ve seen in previous cycles. This team’s also developed really good chemistry with each other, they’re really supportive on and off the field and in our past three domestic camps they’ve really enjoyed playing and training together so we’re very excited.”
ussoccer.com: What is the primary goal of this tournament?
TL: “Competition is important, but we’re focused on imprinting our style of play and measuring ourselves against international competition. Last year we had two international trips for this age group. We’ll do the same again this year, and that experience is really valuable to challenge the players. It always helps to raise their tactical awareness. Our goal is to apply individual and team concepts from our past three domestic camps. When we travel and represent the U.S., we want to do that with great pride, so we’re all very excited and ready for the challenge. The other goal when we take these international trips is to accelerate the development of a core group of players and it’s another good setting for us to continue to evaluate our potential, and as individual players it’s a really good opportunity for them. At the international level and against other national teams, they get a really good picture of their strengths and opportunities to improve, so we’ll help them define that throughout the trip.”
ussoccer.com: What are you expecting out of the opponents you’ll be facing in this tournament?
TL: “We play the host, Italy, in our first match. Then we play Slovenia in the second match. Where we’re located in Gradisca is just over the border from Slovenia so playing nearby they’ll have very much like a home game. Those are two great challenges no matter where you play them but I think that adds to this special opportunity. We finish group play with Chile, so we’re expecting a challenge. We also have the challenge of some age-up competitions since this is a U-16 event so there will some ‘97s and we’ll be one of the younger teams I would expect. With two European nations and a South American nation with such strong history of success I think it will be a great challenge and a tremendous opportunity for the players to show how we play. With these events, too, we can’t forget how valuable the cultural experience is and all there is to learn about our opposition on the field but off the field, as well.”
ussoccer.com: What is the makeup of the roster that will be going to Italy? Is it mostly familiar faces or are there some new faces who will figure into the team?
TL: “We have 19 players coming that make up what we call our core group. Ten of those players have attended all three camps of the U-15 Boys’ National Team cycles this year. Each camp there are a few new players that break into the core group. It’s also important to mention that 13 of the 19 players were part of the U-14 Boys’ National Team cycle. A large number were part of that core group with Hugo Perez so we think there’s carryover from there as part of this process. There are some players that were selected who were unavailable due to injury, so that always gives opportunity to the next players. It’s unfortunate for those that are injured but it’s nothing long term so we expect they’ll be back and we’ll track their progress. From this ’98 group we also have six players who played up as part of the U-15 ’97 cycle last year to accelerate their development, so we consider those six players on this trip as part of the leadership of this core group. We also have three ‘97s currently in Residency that we brought along with the group. We did that because we know this is a U-16 tournament and these are three ‘97s who haven’t had too many international opportunities as part of their Residency cycle, because they were three of the younger ones there. We thought this was a great opportunity for them to be the older players and we expect them to provide some leadership.”
ussoccer.com: Is this year any different in comparison to other years in terms of continuing to integrate the style that you want to play?
TL: “Every group and every cycle is a little different. This is my 10th year being involved with the U-15 Boys’ National Team so I think one of the patterns that gets me really excited for the future that we’ve seen over the past few cycles is that we think the groups have been more and more technical. I think this is a core group that appears to be even more ahead than the past couple years, especially with their comfort level with the ball and that’s really important in our style of play. This group maybe more than others has shown the benefits of playing up. We have a larger number of players in this cycle that are regularly competing against ‘96s and ‘97s and I think that’s really helped to accelerate their development. The other interesting thing about this group from other cycles is there have been more players that have now gained some experience in Europe. Whether that is with a club team or also because they pursued opportunities and trials in Europe and right now about half the group is pursuing options to make a move to Europe. Because they’ve had that experience we think that will carryover not only into this trip, but we’re also excited about some of the opportunities ahead of them.”
ussoccer.com: What is the difference in playing U-15 as opposed to U-14? What do the players need to accomplish at the U-15 level in order to be successful in the National Team program for the rest of their careers?
TL: “The goal is that there are more similarities than there are differences because this is a step-by-step process as players move through Youth National Teams. There’s always a core group that graduates on to the next and there’s always new players that break in so it’s always extremely competitive at every camp and every trip. It becomes a little bit more competitive at 15 and that has a lot to do with the nature of that age group at that stage in their development, but also because we increase the scouting even more through that process. Obviously, when they go into the 17s there’s even more international experience and I think what they need to accomplish is realize that even though they’re on an accelerated pathway now they still have a long way to go. They’re still young players and with them we try to focus on the future. We’re trying to continue to improve their talent but I know as they get in with the 15s, it’s really important that we also help them recognize other key areas for development, like attitude, discipline and being coachable. That’s really what starts to separate players as they move up each age group.”