[INTERVIEW] The 2008 Olympics will mark U.S. Soccer goalkeeper coach Tim Mulqueen's fourth world championship, following last year's U-20 World Cup and two U-17 World Cups. Mulqueen, perhaps best known for training Tim Howard from age 12 through the pros, also coached keepers such as Tony Meola during MLS stints with the MetroStars and Kansas City. Soccer America's Mike Woitalla spoke with Mulqueen about coaching America's young keepers, how to spot great keepers at an early age, and when youngsters should specialize at the position.
SOCCER AMERICA: It seems to me that youth coaches might be inclined to make young players specialize as goalkeepers too early, because if you put your best athlete in goal, you'll win games. What's your opinion on when players should become full-time keepers?
TIM MULQUEEN: It's important to learn what it's like to be a soccer player, because a goalkeeper is just a soccer player who can use his hands. It's very important to understand what it's like to be a field player. So they shouldn't be restricted to just playing goalkeeper. They'll let you know when they're ready to be a full-time goalkeeper and they'll gravitate to it naturally.
Tony [Meola] and Tim [Howard] were both center forwards in high school. I think it helped both those guys, in their reading of the game, their ability to use their feet. Tony Meola's feet in goal were that of a field player. He was so proficient with his right or left foot. Tony was a part of our teams in how we played out of the back
SOCCER AMERICA: So it's important that young keepers spend time in field positions?
TIM MULQUEEN: I think anytime you force a kid to play only in goal you're stunting his development, you're doing him a disservice and he may not be as courageous and determined to be that good goalkeeper because it's not something he truly has a passion for. And I also think in his development as a goalkeeper it's very important for him to understand what it's like to be a field player.
You have some goalkeepers screaming at a guy to get back and play defense after he just made an 80-yard run. If you've ever made an 80-yard run, you know it's not that easy to get back right away. So it gives a good appreciation for what a field player has to do.
And I think field players who have played goal growing up, it gives them appreciation for what the goalkeeper goes through. I think it's a win-win to at the early ages have players play all positions.
By the ages of 14 or 15, kids kinda sort out where they wanna play.
SOCCER AMERICA: What effect do you think it has when youth coaches steer their best athletes to the goalkeeping position at an early age?
TIM MULQUEEN: People ask why Americans have had great success developing goalkeepers. Maybe it's because from a young age the best athlete has been put in goal, and that's why they've developed quicker than the field player. If we took these great athletes and worked on their technique as field players as well, then maybe we would have some more of the great field players that we're finally starting to get, but we'd have more abundance of them.
SOCCER AMERICA: How can you tell if a young player has the potential to be a great goalkeeper?
TIM MULQUEEN: The first thing you look at in a young goalkeeper is athleticism. It's an athletic position and they have to have that exceptional athletic ability, especially when I'm looking at goalkeepers for international play for the U-17s or the U-20s.
And they have to be courageous. You can't have goalkeepers in there who are a little bit gun-shy to lay themselves out, to put themselves in harm's way.
They need to be smart because the international game is fast. They need to organize things quickly, they need to get themselves into position much quicker than they would playing club soccer.
And psychologically, they need to be a very strong-minded individual person. What people forget is goalkeepers spend a lot of the game by themselves.
You need to have a goalkeeper who can handle the ups and downs, a flat-line personality almost. He's gotta to be consistently there when needed.
SOCCER AMERICA: How different are young goalkeepers compared to the older, more experienced keepers?
MULQUEEN: I had Tim Howard from age 12 and we still talk quite regularly about goalkeeping and the evolution of it.
One of the things Tim points out is that the difference psychologically between the age groups is unbelievable. At the young age, what they find important in goalkeeping is looking the part, to have a style, to emulate other goalkeepers.
As they get older, they find more what works for them, whether it looks good or not - as long as it doesn't go into the goal, they're pretty satisfied.
As a coach, I agree with that.
You see maturation. A goalkeeper as he gets older, he becomes much more practical, less adventurous, more of a student of the game. They're becoming a successful goalkeeper, as opposed to just an athlete in goal who's stopping shots.
At the younger age the kids rely strictly on athleticism to make the saves. As they get older it's more about positioning and organization to help them make the play.
SOCCER AMERICA: What are the differences between coaching veteran professional goalkeepers and young keepers, like the ones you trained at U.S. Soccer's U-17 Bradenton residency program?
TIM MULQUEEN: There's a big difference. When you're dealing with the U-17 kids, it's more development and you're really trying to cover all aspects of goalkeeping in great detail.
As you move on you focus more on what the goalkeeper's weaknesses are to try and improve them and accentuate the strengths. You actually funnel it down a little bit.
It's not as much of the overall development. It's actually kind of maintenance, tweaking the type of coaching as you move up the line with the younger levels and dealing with the psychological aspects of the goalkeeper, and keeping them sharp and confident as you move up from the ages, from u-20s to U-23s, to the full team.
At the world championships, the U-17s haven't been in those high-pressure situations before, whereas even the U-20s have at least been in professional-game situations.
So you get to the world championships and if there's any adversity, you really have to have a relationship with that goalkeeper that you can calm him down and talk to him. So there's a lot of massaging of the goalkeeper at that level so they know they're ready to come back for next game.
At the U-17s we had a saying: Goalkeepers need to have a short memory. Whether they make the best save or give up the worst goal they need to get it out of their system and move on to the next play.