Interview by Mike Woitalla
For the second time in three years, the Columbus Crew Juniors won the McGuire Cup – U.S. Youth Soccer's U-19 national championship – coached by former U.S. World Cup player Brian Bliss, the MLS club’s Technical Director. Bliss, 46, also serves as assistant coach of the U.S. U-20 national team to Tab Ramos, with whom Bliss played alongside on at the 1998 Olympics and 1990 World Cup. We spoke with Bliss about key issues in American youth soccer, including the U.S. Soccer Development Academy's ban on high school ball.
SOCCER AMERICA: Besides coaching the Crew Juniors to two McGuire Cup titles, you also guided them to USL Super-20 titles in 2010 and 2011. What’s the key to the success?
BRIAN BLISS: You got to have good players. You can’t win without having some quality in your squad. It starts from underneath us. We’re developing some decent players and bringing them up through the system. By the time they get to the U-19 level, you’ve got a base of players who understand the game, who can play, who are technically decent.
Then we add a few extra guys to round out the roster in the summer who aren’t necessarily from our own system, but usually two-thirds of the guys are from our system.
SA: Did the players on the McGuire Cup team also play for the Crew’s U.S. Soccer Development Academy squads?
BRIAN BLISS: They’re players who graduated from the Development Academy who are too old now to play U-18s. Most of these kids are freshman in college, going to be sophomores.
SA: Is the Crew’s investment in its youth program starting to pay off for the pro team?
BRIAN BLISS: We’re only in the first cycle of it. We’re just starting to get a couple of homegrown guys signed – the goalkeeper Matt Lampson from Ohio State; Aaron Horton, who went to Louisville; and then Ben Speas, who was Soccer America’s College Player of the Year . Those players have all come through our system, so we’re starting to see some benefits.
SA: How different is youth soccer from when you were growing up?
BRIAN BLISS: The players are much better. The coaching is much better. The environment and the experiences are far greater.
When I grew up, my gosh, it was a big deal to drive from Rochester to Syracuse to play a game -- 65 miles. God forbid you ever said, “You know what, let’s drive down to Pittsburgh to play in a tournament." Now kids are playing in the Disney Classic. They’re playing in the Dallas Cup. The regional teams are going to Costa Rica and Argentina. All that stuff.
The experiences are far greater than what we had.
SA: One major change has been the U.S. Soccer Federation’s creation in 2007 of the Development Academy …
BRIAN BLISS: The change is for the good and for the right reasons. We have to get out of the mentality that it’s OK to play 85 games a year and there’s no training going on. You can play all these games but when you don’t have an opportunity to work on your game through training, it’s awful tough to become a better player. It’s play games, recover, play games. In that regard it’s the right direction.
Now we just have to maintain the right level of competition week-in and week-out. And I think that’s happening in the Academy. Rarely do you ever see anything lop-sided like a 5-0, 6-0 score. Most every weekend is a meaningful game and nobody’s sleep-walking through games and getting results. The competition level is better, no doubt.
But you still have to have something above that U-18 level. I’m not saying that’s the Federation’s responsibility, but there’s got to be somewhere for these guys to go because that gap between 18 and 21 is vital and I think we’re missing the boat on that.
SA: What can be done at the youth level to get American soccer to a higher level?
BRIAN BLISS: You hate to compliment them, but look at what Mexico’s got going on over there. They probably have half the resources that we do on the youth side but they’ve got it going. Whether it’s identifying players who are more technically gifted and then running with that -- as opposed to running with the more physical guys who are more mature in terms of their body at an early age for the sake of winning. We need to get away from that a little bit. I know it’s painful because youth clubs are in existence to win things in order to drive more revenue by kids signing up.
That’s unfortunate. But maybe we’ve got to get to a system where there are no more trophies, there are no more awards at the younger ages. Because that may be pointing us in the wrong direction at times.
SA: Does having a youth program as part of an MLS club alleviate the problem of emphasis on winning over player development, because the club judges the youth coaches on how many players they produce for the pro team rather then on youth trophies?
BRIAN BLISS: Pretty much. With Billy Thompson, who played for the Crew the same time I did, and played for Sigi Schmid at UCLA, he’s our director of coaching -- we talk about it and that’s stressed quite a bit.
It’s about getting the little things right, pushing players through the system, getting them better, moving them up.
Nobody’s ever going to call a coach in and say, “How come you didn’t win the tournament you were in last week? Why’d you end up in fourth place, not first?”
We want them to be mindful of things we stress in our curriculum, in our mission statement and hopefully it translates to first team. No one's being flogged for not winning.
But we also say once we get to U-16s, at our club, winning has to be part of something. We just can’t be developing players for the sake of developing players. We’ve got to be able to learn how to win and develop players at the same time. That’s the juggle.
We’d rather learn something from winning a game than from losing a game. You can learn something from both – winning or losing. But who wants to learn something going 2-15 when you can learn something going 13-2, or whatever?
SA: What’s your view on U.S. Soccer Development Academy’s ban on high school play?
BRIAN BLISS: I think it’s the right thing. I grew up in a hockey environment in Upstate New York. I played high school hockey and the best players in my area didn’t play high school hockey. They played Junior Monarchs – they were called – and they traveled up and down Upstate New York, into Pennsylvania, Michigan, across the border … The top hockey players never played high school hockey.
It’s a similar thing and we have to adjust ourselves to it. But we have this social fabric about high school sports and the status of a high school kid within the school and how he’s seen by his peers based on his athletic talent. That’s a tough social thing to break down.
But I think if it’s about advancing players and the advancing the game we’ve got to get kids in the most advanced programs.
SA: The U.S. U-20s failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup, missing the biennial tournament for the first time since 1995. How's the team looking that you're coaching with head coach Tab Ramos?
BRIAN BLISS: It’s early. We’re still identifying, selecting players and trying to see what the pool will shape out to look for. Tab’s got to expand the pool we’re looking at because of what happened to Thomas [Rongen] last time, not having some kids available because they weren’t released [from their pro clubs].
Some of the results have suffered because we have changed players in and out, so we can get a look at some guys. We paid for that a little in terms of results. It’s not an excuse. It’s just little bit of a different approach for the first seven, eight months of the program.
SA: Are the U-20 players aware that you and Tab were star players for the USA in the 1980s and 1990s?
BRIAN BLISS: I don’t think they overly know. I think they heard of Tab, he’s a bigger name than I am. I think they’re remotely aware the guy played in Olympics, three World Cups.
The guys joke a about it. When they’re warming up and Tab and I are whacking the ball around they might say, “Man, the coaches we play for can’t kick the ball like that.”
At practices the day after a game, when you’ve only got the seven or eight guys who didn’t play going through a full training, Tab and I jump in there to keep up the numbers.
We can’t sustain ourselves for more than 10 or 12 minutes. But certainly for three or four minutes at a time, Tab’s still got the juice. He’ll skip around guys and explode. Put the meg on a kid and skate by him. The guys are like, “This guy can play.” By the end of the fifth minute, the hands are on the knees and you’re asking the trainer for water.
(Brian Bliss has been Technical Director of the Columbus Crew since 2008. He served as assistant coach of the Kansas City Wizards in 2000-2006 and in 2007 served as the Director of Coaching for the Kansas State Youth Soccer Association. His playing career included 33 appearances for the USA in 1984-1995. He played in the 1988 Olympics and 1990 World Cup. After college ball at Southern Connecticut State, his pro career included stints in Germany [Carl Zeiss Jena, Chemnitzer FC and Energie Cottbus] and MLS [Columbus, MetroStars and Kansas City]).
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper, and More Than Goals with Claudio Reyna. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)