Thirteen players on the USA's 18-woman squad at the Olympic Games in Rio played in a U-20 Women’s World Cup, as did 15 members of the USA’s 2015 Women’s World Cup-winning team.
We spoke with U.S. U-20 coach Michelle French, who is also serving as an assistant to Jill Ellis in Brazil, about the U-20s' preparation for the 2016 U-20 Women’s World Cup (in Papua New Guinea Nov. 13-Dec. 3), the college season conflict, and the future of teen phenom Mallory Pugh.
SOCCER AMERICA: What role do you play at Olympics?
MICHELLE FRENCH: It’s similar to the World Cup last summer when I was fortunate enough to be part if the coaching staff. It ends up being a number of things, whether it’s Jill asking for clips of specific players on our team or the opponent. Whether it’s stepping in because we need an extra number in training. Helping players coming back from injury who need extra touches or technical work. Anywhere where I can help the coaching staff is what it comes down to.
SA: How close are you to finalizing your roster for the U-20 World Cup?
MICHELLE FRENCH: We’ve probably got it down to a fairly close number in regards to the 21 but we won’t officially announce anything for the next couple of months.
SA: How different will the roster be from the squad at qualifying tournament that won the U-20 Concacaf Championship last December?
MICHELLE FRENCH: It’s going to be pretty different because more college players are going to be available. We took a fairly young group to qualifying and they did a fantastic job to get us to the World Cup.
At that point it became a matter of identifying the best players with the best shot of helping us be successful at the World Cup.
SA: About how many players missed qualifying because they stayed with their college teams?
MICHELLE FRENCH: Eight to 10.
SA: The World Cup also conflicts with the college season and players have been asked to red-shirt rather than play with their college teams during the buildup. What was the reasoning behind the red-shirt request?
MICHELLE FRENCH: It would have been difficult [not to red-shirt] because of the intense programming we’re going to have over the next several months. They would have been away from school for nine to 10 weeks, so that would have been an extreme challenge for them. When you add the travel pieces to that, and on top of that add the demands of playing college soccer, it didn’t seem feasible that it would be in the players' best interest [to play college ball this season].
SA: University of North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance, in a TopDrawerSoccer.com article by Travis Clark, objected to the red-shirt requirement, saying that U.S. Soccer wanting “full access to the players all fall” is not “to the benefit of their development.” What’s your response?
MICHELLE FRENCH: Ever since we knew what the dates were for the World Cup, I’ve had extensive, positive conversations with college coaches in regards to letting them know what scheduling was going to be like and expectations of the players who are going to be part of our roster.
I think college is a great place for players to develop and I think a World Cup provides another different level of development for the players.
College coaches have been very honest and very open about their feelings but at the end of the day they’ve been very supportive, which I’m very grateful for.
SA: Will you be missing players who decided they didn’t want to red-shirt?
MICHELLE FRENCH: There are definitely a handful of players who decided to stay with their colleges.
There are some players, after looking at the time-table and balancing the academic piece with also deciding if they wanted to miss their college season -- they made the decision they wanted to stay in school and not be in consideration for the roster.
SA: Is the pool deep enough that missing those players won’t have a major impact?
MICHELLE FRENCH: I think some of those players who made that decision could have made a difference for our team but the process over the last 18 months identified a really deep, talented pool of players.
While I wish they could have had the opportunity to represent their country, I understand and support their decision.
SA: This is the third time that the U-20 Women’s World Cup, which has been held seven times, biennially since 2002, has fallen at an inopportune time for college players. It’s my understanding that the decision of when to hold the U-20 Women’s World Cup is up to the FIFA and the host nation …
MICHELLE FRENCH: U.S. Soccer over the last couple of years has gone to FIFA and requested that it not be during this time.
2016 Olympians with U-20 World Cup Experience
2014: Mallory Pugh, Lindsey Horan.
2012: Morgan Brian, Crystal Dunn, Julie Johnston.
2008: Alyssa Naeher, Meghan Klingenberg, Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath.
2006: Allie Long, Kelley O’Hara.
2004: Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn.
Alternates: Samantha Mewis (2012), Heather O’Reilly (2002), Ashlyn Harris (2002, 2004).
SA: How important is participating in a U-20 World Cup to a player’s journey to the full national team?
MICHELLE FRENCH: Along with the U-17 World Cup, it’s one of the times that young players can represent their country and get international competition that on a World Cup stage.
You’ve seen players like J.J. [Julie Johnston] and Crystal Dunn get experience at U-20 World Cup with us. Feeling the pressure of playing in front of a crowd, feeling the pressure of having to get a result absolutely translates from the U-20s to the full national team level.
SA: One could argue that Mallory Pugh’s experience of playing at the 2014 U-20 World Cup at age 16 contributed to her quick rise into the full national team …
MICHELLE FRENCH: It didn’t do anything but help. The 2012 team that won the U-20 Women’s World Cup had Julie Johnston, Morgan Brian and Crystal Dunn. And Samantha Mewis, who’s an alternate on the Olympic team.
SA: Do you expect Pugh, who’s eligible to play in the next two U-20 World Cup, to be on your squad in Papua New Guinea?
MICHELLE FRENCH: That’s going to be a discussion for the U.S. Soccer powers that be and Jill when they see how their schedule shakes out.
We have a couple months to see what that decision will be, but without a doubt, we would love to have her. In the end, it’s going to be about what’s best for her individual development and we trust that Jill and U.S. Soccer will make the right decision for her.
U.S. U-20 World Cup History (U.S. coach)
2014 Quarterfinals (Michelle French)
2012 Champion (Steve Swanson)
2010 Quarterfinals (Jill Ellis)
2008 Champion (Tony DiCicco)
2006 Fourth Place (Tim Schulz)
2004 Third place (Mark Krikorian)
2002 Champion (Tracey Leone)
SA: What's your assessment of the preparations with three months to go before the U-20 World Cup?
MICHELLE FRENCH: We felt that the July camp was one of our better camps during the two-year cycle we’ve been on. Now that the player pool has gotten smaller, the players are starting to feel confident about being able to commit to things we’re trying to do as a team and the way we want to play. As the tournament gets closer, it becomes more real.