"Guys who want to please you compared to guys who want to make a living" is how Mike Matkovich describes the general difference between youth and pro players.
Matkovich has spent most of his long coaching career at the youth level. He co-founded the Chicago Magic in 1987 and as its Director of Soccer turned it into one the nation's premier clubs. Now he's coaching both pros and teens, as assistant coach of the Chicago Fire and U.S. U-18 boys national team coach.
"Not that older guys are that much different," says Matkovich, who coached indoor pro soccer in 1990-94 after his playing career ended because of a knee injury. "All good players, whether they're young guys hoping to reach the next level or seasoned pros, want honest feedback. You just have to be smart about picking the right moments to talk, when to make suggestions or constructive criticism. If you're an honest coach, you'll connect with your players, regardless of the level."
Soccer America rated the Chicago Magic the nation's No. 1 boys club three times while Matkovich headed the club, and he guided it to U.S. Youth Soccer championships in 1999 (U-16) and 2003 (U-17). He also served as head coach of the Chicago Fire Reserves in the Premier Development League (2002-06). Chris Rolfe and Dasan Robinson were among the players who moved up to the pro team after playing under Matkovich on the Fire Reserves, who went 71-8-7.
That experience, he believes, was crucial in opening doors for him in MLS.
In 2007, Coach Mo Johnston hired him to be his second assistant at Toronto FC. In 2008, Matkovich became Coach Preki's first assistant at Chivas USA. He left the Chivas position to take over the U-18 national team, then U.S. Soccer agreed he could handle being Coach Denis Hamlett's second assistant with the Fire as well. (Mike Jeffries is Hamlett's first assistant.)
Matkovich believes the double-duty coaching helps him with both jobs.
"I think it's a good thing," says Matkovich, who was born and raised in the Chicago area, "because one of the aims with the national team program is to bridge the gap to the pro game. We want to expose these guys to what the next level is like, give them an idea of what's coming at the next stage. So having a coach who's involved with the pros can only help."
He'll also have a hand in the Fire's youth program as an advisor for the Chicago Fire Academy, which competes in the U.S. Soccer Player Development Academy.
Matkovich says the Academy, launched in 2007, is a big step in the evolution of American youth soccer.
"We have to remember that the game is relatively young in the USA," says the 46-year-old. "The level has gotten better. Technical play has improved. We had good athletes 15-20 years ago, but now we're getting a lot more of them because there are so many more kids playing.
"We've always had players who are very coachable and teams that are well organized and tactically pretty good. One concern, as we're looking for the next Landon Donovan or DaMarcus Bealsey, is whether things are too structured, too organized at the younger ages. But I think that over the next few years the Academy will prove to have made a big impact."
And in some ways it already has. Four players, including three starters, on Matkovich's U-18 U.S. squad that won Australian Youth Olympic Festival (outscoring three foes 20-1) in January were national team program newcomers identified through Academy play.
"We're in the middle of a very exciting time in the evolution of the game in this country," Matkovich says.
(This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue ofSoccer Americamagazine.)