By Mike Woitalla
After playing 14 years of pro ball and serving half-a-decade as an MLS assistant coach, Richie Williams now focuses full-time on the youth game.
Recently named coach of the U.S. U-18 men’s national team, Williams is also a U.S. Soccer Development Academy Technical Advisor, assessing and advising the Academy’s northeastern clubs.
A defensive midfielder in his playing days, Williams, who played 20 times for the USA, collected a remarkable number of titles: two McGuire Cup (U-19) championships, two NCAA championships, one USISL Premiership title, three MLS Cups, two U.S. Open Cups, one Concacaf Champions Cup, one Inter-American Cup, and one Gold Cup.
He launched his coaching career as an assistant at his alma mater, Virginia, then moved on to MLS, where at the Red Bulls (nés MetroStars) he served as assistant coach to Mo Johnston, Bruce Arena, Juan Carlos Osorio and Hans Backe, and served two stints as interim head coach.
After leaving the Red Bulls before the 2011 season, Williams worked with the U.S. U-14 and U-15 national teams.
“When I’m working with the U-14s and U-15s, you see a lot of talented players,” Williams says. “Very skillful with good technique on the ball – dribbling, passing.
“I don’t know exactly when this happens, but when they start to get a little bit more mature and develop physically, you see them depending more on their physical abilities than their technical abilities. And that’s where you see sometimes the quality of their play decreasing because they’re relying more on their physical abilities.
“You have to have a balance. You can’t forget about your technical abilities. As these kids grow, you have send the message, 'Now that you’re physically fast or strong, don’t just rely on taking the ball and running past people. You still want to play the same way you did when you were younger. You weren’t developed physically then and you had to rely on your controlling the ball and your passing.'
“Encourage that. When kids are moving up the style of play is important and they have to continue developing their technique.”
The U-18s, unlike the U-17s and U-20s, don’t compete in a world championship, but convene five times a year, including competition in a couple of international tournaments.
Williams says he’ll be working closely with new U-20 coach Tab Ramos. Both work under another former star from New Jersey, U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna, who along with senior national team Coach Jurgen Klinsmann has emphasized the importance an integrated approach to coaching at all levels of the national team program.
“If you look at Claudio, Tab and myself and the way we played soccer, we weren’t that different,” says Williams. “We would all try and play the same way. We weren’t big center back guys who just kicked the ball down the field. We were all midfielders who controlled the ball, liked to pass, liked to play a nice style of soccer. Play out of the back, keep the ball on the ground, and attack and create chances. That’s easier said than done, but that’s our mentality.”
COACHING THE YOUNGEST. While playing and coaching in the pros, Williams frequently helped out friends coach their youth teams, and he’s coached his 9-year-old daughter for the past couple of years.
“At the young ages -- when they start playing at 5 until at least 10, 11,” Williams says, “based on what I’ve seen, I think there needs more emphasis on letting the kids play.
“For me, when practice starts, I would make sure every kid has a ball and every kid takes the ball and you do different things with the ball, whether that’s them dribbling around, touching the ball differently with different parts of the foot -- right foot, left foot. I just don’t understand when coaches tell them to run around the field or run without the ball.
“First of all, the amount of time, an hour, hour and a half max, why not get them to be in contact with the ball as much as possible? That’s where you’re going to get technique and ball control from.
“The kids at this age want to touch the ball. That’s why they’re out there. After that, do exercises where the kids aren’t standing around a lot. Passing exercises. A lot of touches, and a lot of things going for the goal, scoring goals.
“Remember back when you were a kid. You wanted the ball and you wanted to score a goal.”
KEYS TO SUCCESS.Williams has been coached and coached with some of the biggest names in American soccer. His coach at the Union Lancers, who won two McGuire Cups, was Manny Schellscheidt, who has coached at all levels of the men’s national team program and served as U-14 national identification program head from 1998 until last month. Bob Bradley was Schellscheidt’s assistant with the Lancers.
Arena was Williams’ coach at Virginia, where Williams and Reyna played on the 1991 NCAA championship team, and for three years at D.C. United, where Williams played alongside Marco Etcheverry on what many still consider MLS's greatest team ever. (Williams won two MLS Cups with United under Arena and one under Coach Thomas Rongen.)
“The successful coaches, same as a player, you have to be a hard worker, you have to be organized,” says Williams. “Obviously, you have to know the game. And you also have to be fair and honest with people.
“There’s tough decisions to be made sometimes, but as long as you’re upfront and honest about them you'll stay on the right track. You’re dealing with a lot of different personalities. Being able to understand each individual -- and not just expecting them to be exactly like you are, because you need guys from different places and with different personalities. You have to know how to man-manage these guys and understand how they do things might not be the same way you do things – but that’s OK as long as you get them to play within the group.
“And especially with the young players, you need to be patient and help them to be better soccer players in whatever way they need it.”