Richie Williams on teens turning pro, Bradenton, plus lessons from U-17 qualifying

By Mike Woitalla

The USA earned a spot at the 2015 World Cup with a penalty-kick shootout at win over Jamaica on March 15, leaving Coach Richie Williams with seven months to fine-tune his team for the World Cup that kick off Oct. 17 in Chile. We spoke with Williams about preparing a team whose squad is split between players in residency in Bradenton, Fla., and those already signed with professional clubs; the future of U-17 residency; and lessons from qualifying.

“Times are changing,” said Williams, who held a May 2-11 camp in New Jersey. “We've had some players who weren't with us at all in residency because they signed with foreign clubs before the cycle started. And we're seeing more of that since the cycle started. Some players came for one year and signed with clubs. We have about 10 players, some MLS players, who aren't in Bradenton.”

Before the USA’s third-place finish at the U-17 Concacaf Championship in Honduras, playmaker Christian Pulisic had joined Borussia Dortmund, Joe Gallardo moved to Monterrey, Brandon Vazquez to Tijuana, Daniel Barbir to West Bromwich Albion and Luca de la Torre to Fulham.

Haji Wright, who had been guest-playing at Schalke 04, has since the qualifying tournament signed with the NASL’s New York Cosmos and Alejandro Zendejas has made his MLS debut with FC Dallas.

Williams believes the recruitment of American players at such young ages is proof that U.S. player development is improving.

Richie Williams (Photo courtesy of U.S. Soccer)

“It’s not perfect but it’s improving,” he said. “I don't think anytime in the past we've had players leaving residency to turn professional before the cycle was over. We’re developing more players. Foreign clubs, whether in Europe or Mexico, are identifying our players at younger ages.

“It's obviously great that they're able to sign with professional clubs at such early ages. They're in professional environments where they're training with men everyday.

“The flip side is, it was great having them in residency full-time and training daily and being part of the group. But it's understandable now that with more players going pro the U-17s are more like a normal national team.”

Besides players playing abroad, the U.S. Development Academy, which includes MLS clubs, has been in place since 2007. Is it still necessary to have a U-17 residency program?

“That continues to be the debate,” says Williams. “I think we provide a great environment in residency, but I don't think anyone wants to take a 15-year-old away from home if they don't have to.

“The people making decisions at U.S. Soccer will determine when it's the right time when we won’t need residency. They’re constantly evaluating the academies, which are, with MLS leading the way, becoming stronger and stronger.”

For now, Williams believes Bradenton plays an important role:

“We're in a very good, professional environment with very good facilities. We train five days a week, a match on the weekend, Sundays off, three days in the gym. There’s mental conditioning, nutrition meetings. We’re educating them on being well-rounded soccer players on and off the field.”

Williams’ team started strong in qualifying -- with wins over Cuba (5-0), Trinidad & Tobago (2-0) and Guatemala (4-1) -- and came within three minutes of clinching a spot in its fourth game when host Honduras snatched a 2-2 tie. A 1-0 loss to Jamaica forced the playoff that the USA won in the shootout, preventing a second straight failure to qualify since Williams took over.

“I don’t think people understand how difficult qualifying is,” said Williams. “You’ve got 16- and 17-year-olds in the hotel for 21 days. You can’t go outside because of security reasons. The training fields aren’t great. …

“We had to build our players back up after having been so close to clinching against Honduras and losing [1-0] to Jamaica in a game we dominated but didn’t finish our chances. A team that tried to disrupt and counterattack. But it was a great learning experience to make them stronger for the World Cup.”

The area in which Williams believes his team needs to improve on is coping with big, strong, athletic teams, such as the Jamaicans.

“We like to play good soccer but we also know there's a physical part to it,” he said. “We need to be able to withstand pressure and aggressive play from other teams, so that part we'd like to address and we have been. …

“We started with these players when they were 15 and a lot of things can change by the time they're 17. Some guys grow, some guys don't. Some players are aggressive, some aren't. We have a lot of good technical players and we like to attack.

“But when you play certain teams, more athletic, bigger and stronger teams -- we're trying to make sure that we solve that issue. It may mean playing some different players at different times.”

4 comments about "Richie Williams on teens turning pro, Bradenton, plus lessons from U-17 qualifying".
  1. Soccer Madness, May 20, 2015 at 5:39 p.m.

    “I don’t think people understand how difficult qualifying is,” said Williams. “You’ve got 16- and 17-year-olds in hotel for 21 days. You can’t go outside because of security reasons. The training fields aren’t great" What?? Arent these the same difficult conditions for every country in these qualifying competitions?? Shouldnt the better teams be expected to win no matter what the conditions?? Or are we expected to believe that these conditions brings every team to same level?? Somebody better tell Mexico that!! They win these almost every time no matter where or what conditions.

  2. Soccer Madness, May 20, 2015 at 5:42 p.m.

    If the Academies are getting stronger then this only means better players are being selected for our National Teams since USSDA is where 90% of our National Teams come from. This should mean we should have no issues beating Concacaf teams and better results every 2 years right?

  3. Rick Estupinan, May 21, 2015 at 1:38 p.m.

    Reply to M L

    The Seattle Sounders is MLS best team and my favorite . But when it comes to the color of their uniform , I hate it . This pale green looks so lifeless , And so is the color of the pitch in Center Link Stadium . It looks so dried up an dead , as if the cows ate all the grass and now they just come to shit on it. But seriously, if they like green so much , why don't they use it in a different way , like white and green stripes shirt with black or white pants . With a more attractive uniform their luck may change for the better and would become more recognized not only nationally but internationally .

  4. Rick Estupinan, May 22, 2015 at 12:27 p.m.

    commented on: May 22, 2015 at 12:26 p.m.
    I give Clive Toye more credit than I would ever give to yo P.Gardner. I do remember Clive,once he said to the press that 'ONE DAY THE NY YANKEES would ask the COSMOS to let them play in their Stadium.This because the COSMOS played at Yankee Stadium in those days.These comment to the media made a lot of people laugh.You are benefiting now from all the work Clive Toye did.But you can't even for once,call our sport by it's right name FOOTBALL,but of course,you are afraid to upset your bosses here in America.For me,as much as I love this country,were my two Marines sons were born,the name of my favorite sport will always be FOOTBALL.You go back to England and call the game Soccer all the time, and they would probably kick your ass.In New York,I always supported the 'COSMOS',I had season tickets and would carry my wife and two boys to all their games.Wednesdays and week days.We had a fun club and would go by bus to N,England,Philadelphia and Washington to see them play and support them.What did you do then?,you probably got in the Stadiums for free and then would write CRAP about it.

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