Former U-17 coach Roy Rees: USA should be further along

By Mike Woitalla

How many players on the U.S. team currently competing at the U-17 World Cup will make a significant impact on the full national team?

Judging from the average of the previous 13 U.S. teams that have competed at each of the biennial world championships since 1985, the answer would be one.

Roy Rees coached the USA at four U-17 World Cups, from 1987 through 1993. He guided the young Americans to historic victories over Brazil in 1989 and Italy in 1991. After the USA, led by Claudio Reyna, beat Brazil, 1-0, in 1989, Brazil’s coach Homero Cavalheiro said, “The United States deserved to win today. They were better as a team; they were better individually.”

Asked how he imagined the future of American soccer two decades ago, Rees says, “I would have expected it to be further along than it is now. They've done well but could have done much better.

"They have developed a whole bunch of very average players but not the great players you need to get that little bit extra. There's a lack of creative players."

Mike Burns and John O'Brien, who played for Rees in the 1987 and 1993 tournaments, were also among the U-17 alums who had the most success with the full national team.

Rees was succeeded by Glenn Myernick (1995), Jay Miller (1997), John Ellinger (1999, 2001, 2003), John Hackworth (2005, 2007) and Wilmer Cabrera (2009, 2011).

Ellinger's 1999 team, which was the first that went into full-time residency in Bradenton, Fla., finished fourth and remains the only squad to win a knockout stage game. It included Landon Donovan, DaMarcus Beasley, Oguchi Onyewu and Bobby Convey. That class proved to be an aberration.

Miller’s 1997 squad included Taylor Twellman and Danny Califf, who went on to long pro careers but had limited success with the full national team. Ellinger’s 2001 and 2003 squads included Eddie Johnson and Jonathan Spector, respectively.

Hackworth’s 2005 team included Jozy Altidore and Neven Subotic, now one of the top defenders in the German Bundesliga, but he plays his national team ball for Serbia.

Rees, a Welshman who served as an English FA staff coach and worked for FIFA as an international coaching instructor before taking over the U.S. U-17s, cites many reasons why the USA hasn't made more profound progress in producing exceptional players. Topping the list is an emphasis on athleticism rather than on skill and understanding the game.

"America had the reputation of being better athletically than everyone else, because at the Olympics they ran faster, were stronger, and threw things farther,” he says. “Those are things that have nothing to do with soccer. At the youth level, big, strong and physical may win games. But the smaller players develop skills to combat the big and the physical, and when they get the growth they’re the ones who get the results."

He also warns of the perils of advocating an orthodox approach to player development:

"It was, 'Coach this way, or get out.' There are different ways of developing players, which is obvious when you see how great players have emerged from different countries."

He says that the insight into the game that great players acquire is something that they develop naturally when they're young, not from being told how to play, but by being given the freedom figure the game out.

“What matters is being able to perceive the game, to predict what happens next," says Rees. "They need to be placed in a situation where they can see it for themselves rather than having it laid out for them. That needs to happen at the youngest levels. They need to be allowed to express themselves and not be tied to the coach’s instructions, or they’ll play like robots.”

Now retired and living in Southern California, Rees is watching this U.S. U-17 team on TV. Not judging it by the scorelines, but whether there are within the group some players with that little bit extra that hints of greatness.

* * * *

The USA opened its U-17 World Cup campaign with a 3-0 win over the Czech Republic on Sunday with goals by Alejandro Guido and Esteban Rodriguez and late sub Alfred Koroma.  In their second Group D game, the Americans face Uzbekistan on Wednesday (4 pm ET, Galavision,

Uzbekistan lost its opener, 4-1, to New Zealand, which got a hat trick by Stephen Carmichael. Carmichael, making his first start for the Kiwis, hadn’t been part of the squad during qualifying nor for a pre-tournament tour to Qatar.

Go HERE for U-17 World Cup results and schedule.

(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at

17 comments about "Former U-17 coach Roy Rees: USA should be further along".
  1. James Froehlich, June 21, 2011 at 11:48 p.m.

    Excellent update on the background of U-17 at player development. The remarks of Coach Rees were especially enlightening. However they raise the question: if one of our more successful U-17 coaches saw back in the late 80's that we were over-emphasizing physicality in our player selection, what exactly did he do about it? Not meaning to pick on Coach Rees because the question could be directed at every one of the coaches mentioned. Did any one of them talk to the heads of ODP and tell them, "Hey guys you're sending me crap players!!" Did he (they)walk over to the head of the coaches training schools and ask them, "What are you teaching these coaches? They're developing and selecting great physical specimens with no ball skills!! Did any of the U-17 coaches get up at a major soccer conference 20 years ago and tell everyone that our selection and development process was crap?? For that matter have you ever heard Bruce Arena, the anointed one of US Soccer, stand up and announce that our development of skilled players was not working? Everyone wants to blame Gulati or BB but the problem is much bigger and much deeper than Gulati. It starts with what our players are taught and extends out to the media and indeed to the fans who are mute when it comes to speaking up and declaring that nearly all of our MNT players are, at best, "average". What US Soccer needs is a "whistle blower", someone from the upper reaches of the coaching hierarchy, who will stand up and say that "the emperor has no clothes".

  2. Paolo Jacobs, June 22, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.

    Really interesting article, and very enlightening... I was wondering too, when is the next great class of players goin to come since that 1999 squad that did so well in the fifa tourney.. I think of one important thing: Most, if not all the top US players learn from structured organized Classic premier level games in the past decade or so... These players don't normally go out and play in the streets, and dirty fields with their peers and naturally develop great ball skills....The one player I can think of on the US team is Clint Dempsey, who has solid skills and a natural ablility... I just don't think were gonna produce players like in Brasil, Argentina, or Ghana for that matter. The US has a long wayyyy to go for player development...My 2 cents

  3. Gak Foodsource, June 22, 2011 at 9:13 a.m.

    interesting and timely comments from Rees. i don't understand how accountability can be so absent from the youth development model, from Youth national teams that havent produced a product since Donovan, to club coach directors, who have Porsche's, not players, to show for their time. and interesting thoughts from James, although it is hard for us to know whether he ran into a brick wall if he went to express concern over insufficient tallent. having said that, you astutely identified the exact way in which we can make this change in a previous post. it isnt a whistle blower, but instead the USSF board. people serious about changng the strategy for US development need to get the right people into that board room. Creating the environment begins at the top - and it involves drastic structural changes. If club coaches are to be responsible for talent development, they have to be compensated that way, not by the number of sign ups they get. That means they need to be able to recoup part of the players' signing fees, which means no more MLS draft, no more college soccer ( in its current design), and most importantly, no more single entity MLS structure. let teams compete, let them sign youth players at their will, and watch how fast they invest in development. Jobs would depend upon it, as opposed to the current bail-out from MLS of reallocating DPs and franchise players. Or we could keep doing all of the same things we have been doing and then extending the contracts of all of those involved... the other reason Gulati has been so quiet about FIFA is because he doesn't want the spotlight shining on his shop, where the same old boys club runs the federation and no one wants to run against the incumbent chief due to fear of retaliation. sound familiar?

  4. Brian Something, June 22, 2011 at 10:03 a.m.

    I’ve always said that the main problem with youth development in the US is (besides the obvious overemphasis on short-term winning) that it’s so insanely parochial. It prevents the development of anything resembling a national “style” of play... other than the crude English-style overreliance on athleticism and raw speed because that sort of thing can be implemented short term and is often successful short-term at youth levels. Honestly, by the time players get to the U17 NT, I wouldn’t say that it’s too late for any meaningful changes but it’s pretty close.

  5. Luis Arreola, June 22, 2011 at 10:49 a.m.

    Gak, everything you just said is pure logic and is close to what the top soccer player producing countries are doing. If clubs knew there was money in producing top players they would invest in exactly that. The money is in winning now so why would they want to lose their best players or develop them? Wins give clubs prestige rankings.That markets their name. Their name attract paying customers. $2000-$2500 a year. It seems like Academies and ODP are being blindly trusted to develop top talent without any consequences if they don't.

  6. Tyler Dennis, June 22, 2011 at 11:51 a.m.

    Great article Mike. Gak summed it up pretty well from an institutional structure standpoint. So, how do you change that? What you need to do is sell the players when they are 16, and reserve some of the sales price to give scholarships to the players that wash out, but can't play college soccer because they were a "professional." When my brother was drafted as a junior for baseball, the school honored his scholarship for 10 years. Clubs could do the same thing, if you get sold and decide to sign a professional contract, the club will set aside some % of the sales price for the players future education should they want to use it in the next 10 years. The player won't get to play in college, but who cares. If you tell someone they can go play for Arsenal or Lazio or Villa Real and still get "scholarship" money, or wait and potentially get a college scholarship... hmmm?

  7. Leland Price, June 22, 2011 at 12:42 p.m.

    Coach Rees comments were right on. In particular I am in agreement with his comments on player creativity and size. One college program with which I am familiar - nationally ranked William and Mary - is able to recruit talented players, but the conservative system they employ (hit the big guy up front for a header, don't have the defenders make runs) encourages slow, robot-like play as opposed to speed and creativity. It's incredibly frustrating to watch potential national team players have their skills wasted in a program that is a conservative "try not to lose" approach as opposed to an innovative "try to win" approach. To build a stronger national team, the US needs to find a way to work around the deadwood in college soccer.

  8. James Froehlich, June 22, 2011 at 1:21 p.m.

    Anyone who is currently playing, coaching, or has a child playing in a USSF sanctioned league nominally has a representative on the board. We need to start writing to THESE people and voicing our displeasure. Up to now those positions have been pretty sweet. Maybe it's time to put them to work!!!

  9. David Huff, June 22, 2011 at 2:33 p.m.

    Good article and comments all around, the future needs to be built by emphasizing creativity on the ball, with less structure/pressure on the younger ages and using futsal as a tool.

  10. Luis Arreola, June 22, 2011 at 3:02 p.m.

    Hey Ric, lets call them the soccer Dukes Of Hazard. The talent that is here but have strong ties in other countries don't even consider playing for USA. Why? Maybe because of the arrogance of these people or that they really aren't strongly pursued. It all goes together. Hispanics should organize and start their own National Soccer association and have our own state, regional and national selections . What you think Ric?

  11. Luis Arreola, June 22, 2011 at 3:13 p.m.

    Sorry, that would be U.S. National Hisppanic Youth Soccer Association.

  12. beautiful game, June 22, 2011 at 10 p.m.

    Coach Rees tells it like it is. Coaches need to guide, not to dictate.

  13. lorenzo murillo, June 23, 2011 at 11:35 a.m.

    US needs to revamp its coaching courses and mimic the Spaniard (three levels) or Argentinian model. Also, ODP, which is nothing more than a travel agency for Directors and coaches, who get freebies to travel all over... where in the world do selected players have to pay to tryout and even worst, to play in selected teams? And what is the process to become an ODP coach, what credentials, besides knowing someone?

  14. James Madison, June 23, 2011 at 11:49 p.m.

    The fascinating thing is that, when young players are allowed to (a) develop their skills and (b) learn the game, including learning to make their own decisions and to deal with the consequences of their decisions, they not only grow as players, but soccer becomes the best life teacher of any team sport. The key to successful adulthood is being able to make choices and to accept responsibility for them.

  15. Jack R, July 6, 2011 at 12:06 p.m.

    Any chance for a follow-up now that the U17s have crashed out of the WC?

  16. cony konstin, July 10, 2011 at 8:53 p.m.

    I am here in Santa Cruz Bolivia working with the Tahuichi Soccer Academy. I have been working with the Academy for 21 years. Before that I took players to Russia, Eastern Block, and the rest of Europe to train and compete in Europe. I would like to make this proposal to USSF. I would like the opportunity to help prepare the next US u17 boys national team to win the next u17 world cup. By having the players stay home most of the year and bring them to Santa Cruz Bolivia for the entire summer. We would use Tahuichi as home base for games and training and then set up games in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay but we would not fly to these places. We would take trains and buses to get there. If we want these players to be battle ready they need to suffer like the rest of the kids. My proposal would be pennies on the $$$ but leap years of preparation that our players are not getting. If there are parents who do not want their kids to go through this process. Not a problem. I will go to inner cities of America and I will find 18 bad$$$ players that are willing to die for each other.

  17. Shelley Juliuson Fannin, August 22, 2011 at 10:26 a.m.

    Wow,I've been so out of the soccer world until recently, and just saw this about Coach Rees. I was actually trained by him, I guess it had to have been '85 and/or '86, just before he took on the '87 U17 Boys national team. Its been so long, and I don't remember a lot of the drills, but as 14 and 15 year old girls, he had almost everyone of us in tears, even the ones that were pretty mentally tough...hahaha, but we were hormonal girls, and more important than that, we made Nationals in 1986. Don't know if he'll read this or remember me, but hello from Texas, Coach Rees!

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