Coach John Hackworth, who rejoined the U.S. national team program after four years with MLS's Philadelphia Union, has gotten off to a strong start since becoming U.S. Soccer's first full-time U-15 boys national team coach late last year.
His team won the Torneo Delle Nazioni -- hosted by Italy, Austria and Slovenia -- scoring 15 goals in five games and winning, 3-2, in the final over Austria, which had beaten Brazil and tied Mexico in group play. It beat host Italy in the semifinal decided from the penalty spot after a scoreless tie.
How to put the performance into perspective?
“I’m always looking at things from how can we long-term get these players better,” said Hackworth, who will also serve as a U-23 assistant to head coach Andi Herzog. “But I really think that learning how to win -- while not sacrificing your principles and objectives for a team -- is a component of player development. I thought we did that really well in this tournament.
“I really thought being able to play the kind of soccer we played, with our style, sticking to our principles while learning how to win in that environment was important.”
Hackworth is charged with preparing a core group of players to pass on to U-17 coach Richie Williams for the 2017 World Cup cycle – the 2000 birth-year players. He included in his squad three 1999s who have been in U-17 Bradenton Residency: forward Lucas Del Rosario, goalkeeper Eric Lopez and midfielder Nicholas Taitague, who went out injured in the first half of the opener – 4-1 win over Costa Rica.
Austria and Slovenia, which beat the USA, 3-2, after it had already clinched a semi spot, fielded all U-16s (1999s). Costa Rica was a mixed team while Italy and Croatia brought U-15s.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Soccer.
“We went in with a clear plan of how many minutes we were going to get players and how many guys were going to start,” said Hackworth. “We kind of scripted our first three lineups. We knew Croatia brought their 2000s, so we played with only our 2000s [a 6-2 U.S. victory].”
Having three residency players with the group, Hackworth says, gives the younger players a chance to learn about the Bradenton residency program they may end up at.
For Lopez, it was an opportunity to shine. He earned Goalkeeper of the Tournament honors.
“It can be tough to be the No. 3 keeper in residency,” said Hackworth, “because you don’t get a lot of games and he got four games over there and really raised his game and his leadership role.”
Andrew Carleton led the Americans with six goals. Besides his goals in the final, the Georgia product also scored a pair against both Croatia and Costa Rica.
“I am reluctant to point out individuals,” Hackworth said. “It was a real team effort. Everybody started a game. Everybody played multiple games, with the exception of one player.”
But Hackworth did laud Carleton:
“He has the right mentality. He likes to be creative. He figures things out. He really got beat up against Slovenia because he was identified as a player teams had to neutralize playing against us. And he was smart enough against Italy and Austria to change his game a little bit. And that was really good sign. … There were a number of guys who played really well.”
Photo courtesy of U.S. Soccer.
“In the short amount of time, it was fun to watch some of these guys really blossom,” Hackworth said.
Before his stint with the Union, where he served as assistant coach and head coach, Hackworth coached the USA at the 2005 and 2007 U-17 World Cups after serving as John Ellinger’s assistant at Bradenton. He says he’s enjoying this age group.
“There’s some slight differences,” he says, “but it has to do getting these 2000s a year before I ever had players come into residency. There’s the age, the physical maturity. … They’re really anxious to learn. They’re eyes are wide. They haven’t had some of the experiences they’re going to be faced with down the road if they do get called into the residency program. So it’s been fun to introduce some of those ideas to them and see them put them into competition is fantastic.”
One thing that has surprised Hackworth was how aggressively these 14- and 15-year-olds are being scouted.
“There were scouts from clubs and agents from all over the world looking at all the players,” he said. “That’s part of the business now. It’s definitely going younger than it’s ever gone. That is part of this process now for these young players. They’re going to get a lot of people telling them certain things.
“I’m not going to say there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that but you do think it’s little precarious when you have agents and big clubs saying to 14- and 15-year-olds, you’re our next big player and we want to sign you … We want to keep them grounded and keep them on a path where they can still develop.”