Interview by Mike Woitalla
In a year that saw the U.S. women win Olympic gold and lift the U-20 World Cup, the U.S. U-17 girls suffered a first-round exit at the U-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan last month, despite going undefeated and conceding only one goal. The two teams that edged the USA on goal difference, France and North Korea, reached the final. We spoke with U.S. U-17 coach Albertin Montoya, the director of Northern California youth club MVLA who took the U-17 helm after guiding FC Gold Pride to the 2010 WPS title.
SOCCER AMERICA: What's it like getting eliminated from a World Cup without losing a game?
ALBERTIN MONTOYA: We knew going into it we were in the Group of Death – three out of probably the best five teams in the world in the same group. I’d seen both those teams play several times over the past year and I felt North Korea, France and Japan were the three best teams I had seen. So when we got France and North Korea in our group, we knew we had our hands full.
Unfortunately, we didn't play all that well against France [a 0-0 tie in the group opener]. Then against Gambia we didn’t put enough goals in [a 6-0 win]. Against North Korea we had a 1-1 score against one of the best teams in the world.
But France was the game I thought we had to win. … Three teams tied with five points. Only conceded one goal and we don’t go through. But that’s how it goes.
[Editor’s Note: North Korea and France beat Gambia 11-0 and 10-2, respectively, for a superior goal difference over the USA.]
SA: How’d the girls take it?
ALBERTIN MONTOYA: They took it pretty hard. It’s a group that had come together over this last year and a half. They became a family. They cared so much about each other.
They put a lot of time and energy trying to be the best team in the world. But knowing it was the last time for them playing together as a group -- because we had been through a lot and had great memories -- that hurt probably just as much as not advancing.
SA: The U.S. U-17 girls don’t seem to have much luck. They failed (under coach Kazbek Tambi) to qualify for the 2010 World Cup after losing to Canada on penalty kicks …
ALBERTIN MONTOYA: They were very unlucky because that was also an exceptional team. You know how the game can be so cruel. They were the best team in Concacaf and Canada took them into PKs. The U.S. did not qualify because only two teams from the region advanced because Trinidad & Tobago was hosting the World Cup and had the third berth.
[EDITOR'S NOTE: At the inaugural U-17 World Cup in 2008, also under Tambi, the USA lost in the final, 2-1, to North Korea in overtime.]
SA: So you think one shouldn’t read too much into the results of these last two U-17 teams?
ALBERTIN MONTOYA: I really don’t. The U-17s that didn’t qualify for the 2010 World Cup scored 38 goals-for and zero-against, and they don’t go to the World Cup because of PKs.
And with us, we did well at Concacaf, finished first, and at the World Cup drew against the two teams that are in the final. It could have easily been us ...
I will say that Japan and North Korea have separated themselves at the youth level. The Asian teams pretty much have residency on the girls’ side. They go to school together. They train six, seven days a week. They know each other so well. France is starting to do that, where they get together two or three teams a month, often training several weeks together.
SA: Compared to your team …
ALBERTIN MONTOYA: For the U.S. we have a training camp for a week every other month or so and the players come are in from different environments and different club cultures and different soccer styles.
When we come together – that’s been the challenge for me as a national team coach – much different than with the club, when you can mold a team to play a certain way because you have them year-round.
With the national team, these players may not even play the same position they’re playing with national team that they do with their clubs.
The first few days of camp are always kinda getting them back into right mind frame and mentality and adjusting to our system and the way we want to play. And by the time they’re playing well, it’s time to go back home.
North Korea, Japan and France put a lot of effort into keeping their teams together for long periods of times and it’s paying dividends, even at the older age groups. Great teams win World Cups, not always great players.
SA: How do you think your bosses judge you – whether you win or how many players move on to the full national team?
ALBERTIN MONTOYA: I don’t know. Time will tell. When I took on the position they told me they wanted me to help develop these players and play a style of soccer that my [club] youth players play, but then you always have the pressure of getting results and winning.
SA: What did you think about the American players in general at this age group? Do you feel confident you saw all the players you needed to see to find the best group you could take?
ALBERTIN MONTOYA: I feel comfortable that we had a pretty good grasp on the best players in the country. But what I will go back to – and what we keep saying as a country for both our men and women – that we could be better technically. And tactically as well, but technically we’re still not comfortable enough with the ball.
We talk about playing a certain way. We want to possess the ball much more. But in order to do that we have to have players who just love being with the ball at their feet.
The challenging part about the national team is you have to get the right mixture of athletes and players who can play, and kind of put it together, and at the same time developing the players.
When you see some of these other countries and how good they are with the ball. For example, that North Korea team, every single one of them handled the ball like a No. 10.
SA: What was it like going from club coaching to national team coach?
ALBERTIN MONTOYA: As a club coach, looking from the outside in, I would watch our national teams and think, gosh, why aren’t we playing a certain way? Why can’t we player better than that?
Now that I’ve been there – I kind of put it back on us club coaches, which is we need to do a better job developing these players technically so when they do go to the national team stage we can play the way we talk about we want to play. But we need the players to be able to do that.
I even fell into the trap where, maybe we don’t have enough of those type of players. So we need the athletes who can compete a certain way to help you get the results.
Ideally, you have the athletes with the technical skill. We’ve got to get our players better all-around with the ball. It goes back to doing that from 8 to 12 years old and building that foundation.
We talk about it all the time, all around the country, we have just got to get it done. Get coaches on board. We’ve got to get top coaches at the younger age groups. Unfortunately that’s just not happening enough.