Most teenagers love roller coasters. The thrill of barreling down into deep dips and racing up steep slopes, the sharp turns and sheer speeds, all combine to make the heart race and the stomach drop.
U.S. U-17 Women’s National Team head coach Mark Carr, age 39, might prefer a ride more akin to a steady trip down a calm river, where you can see where you’ve been and where you are going.
That said, he’s exceedingly aware that a soccer journey is rarely without obstacles, and to achieve big goals, there will always be big adversities to overcome. That’s part of the fun.
He just wasn’t expecting the combination of challenges that confronted his team on its way to earning a berth at the 2018 FIFA U-17 Women’s World Cup in Uruguay; among them, a qualifying tournament that kicked off, then stopped, and then started again, serious injuries to key players, falling behind in games, and a Concacaf championship match that almost wasn’t played.
Through it all, his young team persevered while showing tremendous maturity, character and camaraderie, to qualify for the World Cup and win the regional title.
ussoccer.com sat down with Carr to talk about the wild ride so far and what’s ahead.
ussoccer.com: The Concacaf Women’s U-17 Championship got six games in last April – just one for the USA – before it was cancelled due to civil unrest in Nicaragua. At the time, you didn’t know when it would be completed. What was your mindset around that time and how did the team react to the highly unusual situation?
Mark Carr: “It was definitely an unusual circumstance, something you cannot plan for. Our players really were disappointed that they couldn’t play the second group game vs. Bermuda, but they were able to process that their safety and the safety of their families and our whole support team was the number one priority. It was a real-life moment. When we realized that tournament was cancelled, our whole staff kicked into high gear and pulled together to get everyone back to the USA safe and sound. Although it was unplanned, I sensed that the experiences in Nicaragua brought our team closer together and added to the anticipation of when we would be back together again.”
ussoccer.com: You had to really adapt with 46 days between group games and zero time together as a team before you regrouped in Bradenton, Fla. How did your player management philosophy quickly evolve while collaborating with the players’ youth clubs?
MC: “It was definitely a long window for us, and it just became a waiting game. After we got back to the USA, we re-connected with each player, their parents and their club coaches. We took a holistic approach and looked at everything that the player may have to deal with. That meant taking into account their school commitments, their club soccer and other social commitments. The collaboration with the clubs, players and families was invaluable and the open communication was huge. We were able to learn exactly what each player had on their plate and what support they needed on our end, if any. Some had Showcases, some had games, some were on school trips, some were just training and some had end-of-the-year finals. It was very important for us to know exactly where each player was and how we could best support and re-prepare them for WCQ. Once we had that, we were able to develop customized individual plans according to their needs.”
Payton Linnehan scores the USA's second goal vs. Costa Rica in its opening Concacaf Championship game.
ussoccer.com: You lost four key players, including 2016 U-17 Women’s World cup veterans Lia Godfrey and Jordan Canniff, as well as Ainsley Ahmadian and Isabella D’Aquila – all potential starters – due to injuries (three ACLs) prior to the qualifying tournament. You then lost forward Payton Linnehan to an injury between Nicaragua and Bradenton and lost midfielder Croix Bethune in the final match of group play. Both were also consistent starters. How did you handle those losses and what does that say about the depth and resilience of your squad?
MC: “We have been hit by a lot of injuries, but as a coach, you have to always plan for the worst-case scenario. It’s really tough to lose any player, whether before, during or after a tournament of this magnitude. All these players have unique talents and losing them hurt our team. It’s not only sad for them on a personal level, that they lose that connection with their teammates and the support staff, but more that they miss out on such an incredible development experience. Losing four forwards in the lead-up to WCQ and two more players during the tournament was tough, but it offered opportunities for other players to step up.
In hindsight, I think we have always focused on developing the whole U-17 WNT pool of players in the last three years. This coupled with our YNT integration model, the common philosophy and the work of our youngers’ coaches (April Kater and Tracey Kevins) just makes the transition a lot easier for any player moving up. The expectation at U.S. Soccer is to develop and compete to win at the same time. We all understand that expectation and embrace that philosophy together. It’s my job to develop everybody so that when situations like this arise, players are ready to step in, take their opportunities and help our team be successful. Ultimately, the team is always the superstar and nobody gets success on their own. To see players grab that opportunity, contribute to the team, win the Concacaf Championship and secure our qualification for the 2018 U-17 FIFA World Cup speaks volumes about the character of the players within our USWNT program.
ussoccer.com: You rolled over Bermuda once the tournament resumed but then had three difficult games against Haiti, Canada and Mexico, all one-goal victories. You dominated Canada but only scored the one goal, which came off a set play, and had to come from behind against Haiti and Mexico. What were your impressions of your team over those three games, and how did they grow throughout the tournament?
MC: “It was always our goal from the outset to qualify for the U-17 World Cup and win the championship, all while playing in a real positive way in terms of our style. I think we showed that. All games challenged us in different ways.
“The game against Canada was always going to be a tight game. It’s just the nature of that rivalry. I thought we performed very well, creating 27 chances, being on the front foot, defending aggressively and taking the initiative from start to finish. Sometimes those performances don’t always warrant the results you deserve, but on a different day we score more goals. It was nice to see a corner kick come to fruition after a ton of work in training.”
Reilyn Turner scores the winning goal vs. Canada.
“We had some familiarity with Haiti and knew that it would be a game where they would sit deep, play on the counter-attack and take the energy out of the game. I always felt if we stuck to what we had trained and what we knew, the chances and key moments would come and it would be a matter of putting our chances away. We pinpointed certain areas where we believed we could take advantage and to see us score three goals from there was a huge positive. Obviously, the players were excited and emotional at the same time as we’d secured our spot in the World Cup. Next, it was all about the Concacaf championship.”
“In the championship game, it was a little more back-and-forth. Losing Samantha Meza so early was tough, but once again, our team responded in the right way. We made a few adjustments at half and reset, reminding the players to stick to what they knew. Being down twice against Mexico and coming back, showing that resilience, togetherness and spirit, was an incredible experience for the team. That, coupled with our technical quality, got us over the line in the end. I think we all could see what it meant to the group after Maya Dom’s winning goal and at the final whistle. It was a pretty incredible moment for us all.”
ussoccer.com: You have greater goals, of course, but qualifying for the World Cup in Uruguay and winning a Concacaf Championship were major accomplishments. The game was delayed for a few hours due to weather and was almost cancelled, but you kicked off just in time to get it in before sunset. Can you talk about the satisfaction of winning the regional title with this group of players going through these adversities?
MC: “I felt like the adversities never stopped coming. Right from Nicaragua, the injuries, the weather delays and the moments where we were down a goal. Ultimately, it was in these moments we learned the most, and I think we can all see how the team responded. When the final whistle came in the final, everything was worth it. It was a moment of total elation. What else can I say? I was so proud to see them standing there on the podium together, with the trophy, celebrating together with pure happiness. Our players certainly rose to the challenge and never gave up despite all the adversity. Lots of people deserve credit, from the players, to the support staff and technical team.”
ussoccer.com: Now that your World Cup tickets are booked, can you share your immediate, short-term goals?
MC: “My immediate goals are to reflect on our Concacaf experience and highlight some areas where we can improve individually and as a team. Our staff too will reflect on what went well, what was hard and what we can improve moving forward. Secondly, on the playing side, we will open the player pool once again. Performance is always a defining factor for any player in our program, so myself, Talent ID and all our scouts will look to turn over every rock to evaluate potential targets at the upcoming DA Showcase. The World Cup is five months away, so there is time for development between now and then. I have started to see some late developers bubble up within the DA as well as some top performers with our U-15 and U-16 Girls’ National Team groups in their most recent international trips. Both Tracey and April have their hand on the pulse and can share valuable insight after their recent successes in Italy, Portugal and Holland.
In the short term, it will be about putting together the most competitive schedule possible to prepare us for our World Cup opponents. That will include collecting info on our opponents to get a sense of how they play but also to cross-reference areas where we must improve. Ultimately, it will always be about us and how we can improve as individuals and as a team. We will relentlessly chase improvement in the months ahead. We know that the level we’re at today will not be enough to get us to what we want to accomplish at the World Cup come November.”
ussoccer.com: Once the Concacaf qualifying tournament was complete, you finally found out your World Cup group, and you’ll be facing Cameroon, North Korea and Germany. How do you view Group C and those opponents?
MC: “Well, it’s a very tough group, but that’s what you would expect at World Cup. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best, and that’s going to be our approach. I am sure our opponents feel very similar. We know that we will be battle-tested right out of the gate, and we embrace that challenge head-on. It just gives us a more of an intensive sense of urgency in our work. From now to November, we will make sure we work to improve and prepare our team to arrive in Uruguay full of excitement, humility and laser focus. Our first goal will be to take one game at a time, and we will do whatever it takes to be ready for our opening game vs. Cameroon.”