Interview by Mike Woitalla
In an extraordinary week for the U.S. U-17 boys national team, Coach Richie Williams' team beat England, 5-1, and Brazil, 4-1, to lift the Nike International Friendlies title. We spoke with Williams, who has headed the U-17s and the Bradenton Residency Program since January 2012, of the triumph, which comes in the wake of the U-17s' failure to qualify for the 2013 U-17 World Cup.
SOCCER AMERICA: Were you surprised about the big wins?
RICHIE WILLIAMS: I wasn’t surprised. Last year I thought we did well when we tied Brazil, 4-4, beat Turkey, 4-1, and lost, 4-3, to Portugal. We scored a lot of goals. But defensively we weren’t great last year.
This year, again we faced three great teams. We started off against Portugal, were tied 1-1, and made a mistake in stoppage time, giving up a silly free kick, didn’t set up are restart correctly and ended up losing 2-1. We were disappointed but it was great how the kids rebounded against England and Brazil.
The other reason I wasn’t surprised is we have a pretty good group. No disrespect to our last cycle but we started off this cycle very well at a tournament in Mexico where there were six Concacaf and six Conmebol [South American] teams and we placed third and played very well.
We went to Spain after that and played Real Madrid and Rayo Vallecano and got some good results. So we felt confident coming in to the Nike Friendlies.
SA: A number of key performances came from players who aren’t in the Bradenton Residency Program …
RICHIE WILLIAMS: We had four players who aren’t with us on a full-time basis. One’s at Fiorentina (Joshua Perez), one’s at Fulham (Luca De La Torre), one’s at Man City (Daniel Barbir) and one’s at Monterrey (Joe Gallardo). We bring them in whenever we can and mix them with the group we have in Bradenton.
SA: Haji Wright scored five goals and Gallardo four at the Nike Friendlies. Could you speak to some of the other individual performances, including Christian Pulisic, who was named tourney MVP?
RICHIE WILLIAMS: Those two scored goals and did a very good job. Christian Pulisic did very well for us in the No. 10 position, attacking midfielder and is also a player getting interest overseas. We already talked about four players overseas and two, three, four more could be joining them in the next six to 12 months, which you see as a positive.
Luca De La Torre as a No. 8 did very well for us. In the central defense we had Daniel Barbir and Alexis Velela. A player like right back Matthew Olosunde did very well. Left back, Edwin Lara, who’s actually a ‘99, one of the young players, he did very well. Both our goalkeepers did very well -- Kevin Silva and William Pulisic. … Alejandro Zendejas, also a midfielder. … We have a good group. … I thought everyone performed well last week. There’s no one you’d look back at and say they did poorly.
SA: This group follows your first squad, which was the first to fail to qualify for the U-17 World Cup after a record 14 straight appearances. What were the lessons from that failure?
RICHIE WILLIAMS: We were disappointed not to qualify, of course. We had a good enough group to qualify. For me, the qualifying format is not the best setup, where it basically comes down to one game.
Honduras [which beat the USA, 3-1] is not a bad team and on the day we didn’t take our chances. And that can happen in soccer when it all comes down to one game. It sounds like they’re going to change the setup in the next go-around.
[Editor’s note: The Concacaf qualifying tournament consisted of four three-team groups. Group winners and runners-up reached the quarterfinals, whose winners qualified for the World Cup in the UAE.]
But this group, no disrespect to the last one, I think is a little more talented. I think we’re deeper in each position. We don’t have any holes whereas positionally in the last group we struggled a little bit at center back and holding midfielders in the main age group.
You always learn from defeat and disappointment. We’re going keep approaching things the right way and keep these guys playing the right kind of soccer. We’re going to learn from our setbacks, which we have from the last cycle, and keep getting better.
SA: Does not having optimal talent at certain positions mean something is not being done right at the earlier levels or is it a case of talent being cyclical?
RICHIE WILLIAMS: It was strange because the last cycle of ‘96s and ‘97s -- and we didn’t have too many center backs with the older ‘96 group, but among the ‘97s we had quite a few and they’re talented. But a one-year difference in age can make a big difference when you’re competing internationally.
In this cycle, we have strong center backs. So I guess it is cyclical. I think we just need to produce players better overall, and I think we are. I do think the players are getting better. I think we’re getting more of them.
SA: You came into the job with most of your coaching experience at the pro level. What was the adjustment like?
RICHIE WILLIAMS: We basically treat them as young pros. We train everyday, just like when I coached professionally. The setup is very professional in the ability use the weight room and do strength and conditioning during the week. You’re able to have mental conditioning and nutrition meetings. I really enjoy it. Any time you’re in an environment to coach everyday you’re going to get better, the same with the players.
It’s like being a pro coach except you’re dealing with 15-year-olds instead of 25-year-olds. One thing you experience here is you realize that things can change in a very small amount of time, from three months, to six months, to a year -- your group can be different within 12 months because they’re still growing on and off the field.
SA: I’d assume that being the head of residency for teenagers might involve a lot more than on-field coaching?
RICHIE WILLIAMS: That’s true and it’s been a great experience. They need guidance on the field and off the field. It’s important to communicate with them. It’s important to understand sometimes when their level of play drops it can be for other reasons than what’s happening on the soccer field. They’re away from home, they’re changing physically, they’re developing differently at different times. … You’re coaching everyday and you’re able to work through these things.
But even at the pro level, you’ve got players from all kinds of different backgrounds and you need to appreciate that when you relate with the players.
SA: Is the Bradenton Residency Program still a necessity in the age of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy?
RICHIE WILLIAMS: I think it still is. Our academies are getting better, they improve every year. But we still need improvement. We still need more academies with better facilities. Some have really good coaching, some don’t. We still have players around the country without access to the environment we provide at Bradenton.
I assume we’ll have Bradenton for the next two years and I assume there will be some discussion whether our academies are ready to take over. It would be nice to see 20 or 40 of the best academies have residency opportunities and have really good setups.
Until the day comes where every academy is strong and we can bring our national team together with everybody playing at a high level and in good form, Bradenton has a role to play.
SA: Your name has been linked to MLS coaching positions. Will you be continuing with the U-17s?
RICHIE WILLIAMS: I’ll be here through the next cycle. My staff and I are enjoying it. It’s a good place to be. We’re in an environment where we have a nice setup. We’re able to play in countries around the world. We think we have a very good group and we’re looking forward to working with them over the next two years.