Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn on why he's optimistic about the unique American soccer system

Jeremy Gunn  has guided the Stanford men to the last three NCAA Division I titles. A three-peat was accomplished only once before -- by Coach Bruce Arena  at Virginia, when the Cavaliers won four straight (1991-1994) -- since the NCAA tournament was launched in 1959.

SOCCER AMERICA: I’m assuming you spent much of the summer watching the World Cup?

JEREMY GUNN: Well, it's mandatory research, isn't it? That's the beauty of having a job like this. So much of the work is just actually part of enjoying what you enjoy in life. World Cup summers are always special times.

SA: Any revealing trends you spotted during the tournament?

JEREMY GUNN: Not too much, the tournament shows where goals are scored, so it shows coaches where they should work on. That's probably a constant criticism I have with how we coach overall. We have too many people do so much work without goals.

The game's about scoring and stopping goals; everything else is a means to an end. So, you see where goals are scored in the World Cup, a lot of them in and around that second six-yard box. So, we should do more training in those areas.

One thing I did enjoy was that there were a lot of goals scored in set pieces, and while we all prefer to see open play goals, it was fun for me because people have criticized [Stanford] in the past for relying on set-pieces in those tight matches. Well, it's part of the game, isn't it? Seeing the World Cup having many of those goals be decisive was an affirmation that we're already on the right track.

SA: Anything you told your players to look out for throughout the tournament?

JEREMY GUNN: It's always great to have this kind of year because you can draw on the World Cup for a bunch of inspiration and coaching opportunities. This time of the year, the players aren't allowed to report into me. When they went away in the summer, it was very much:

"Enjoy the World Cup but can you look at players in your position, see moments that you can emulate, can you get new ideas of positive reinforcement in how you're doing in your position already."

I'm looking forward to see that feedback because this is an opportunity to see some of the best players in the world playing their positions.

Jeremy Gunn was born in Harrogate, England, and played in the Grimsby Town and Scunthorpe United youth programs before coming to the USA to play at Cal State Bakersfield.

SA: What did you think of the England squad?

JEREMY GUNN: Well, it was wonderful that they did so well! They overachieved based on the personnel they had; that's all you can ever ask for. When you look at things as a coach, are you helping the teams get a little bit better or a little bit worse?

At a year like this, they certainly had limitations, but they were capable of navigating through the tournament really, really well. That was exciting for me. I'm very much of a dual-nation kind of person when it comes to soccer; my personal pride and culture comes from England but my professional pride comes from how the USA does.

Generally, the England team gets criticized, especially after the 2016 Euros, so it was nice for the country to get excited about something again.

Jeremy Gunn became Stanford head coach in 2012 after coaching stints at CSU Bakersfield, Fort Lewis College and UNC Charlotte. (Photos courtesy of Stanford athletics)

SA: What needs to change for the USA to become a soccer world power?

JEREMY GUNN: It's already happening and nobody knows it. It's quite simple: the parents of all of these youth soccer players all played soccer.

So, the level of coaching for players age 2 to 10 is a million miles ahead of what it was 10, 20, 30 years ago. It's a totally new generation. A 2-year-old now learns to kick the soccer ball rather than toss the baseball.

The most important factor that develops motor skill development and love for the sport will all be happening organically already. That's the most important factor.

Whatever happens between ages 0-10 will dictate the talent pool we're dealing with -- whether people are signing to pro teams or are going to college, playing academy, or playing high school -- the most important factor is naturally happening.

SA: You’ve noticed major changes since you arrived in the USA nearly three decades ago?

JEREMY GUNN: If you look at the rest of the world, everyone gets a bit better every time. But the U.S., on the men's side, we're going on a far steeper learning curve. When I came to the U.S., if you had a foreign accent, you were an expert, whether you actually were or weren't.

The poor dad who was an athlete in football, baseball, or basketball, got thrown the clipboard for the 6-year-old team could not even explain how to pass a ball properly.

Now, every youth player in the country is immersed in the correct soccer environment from 2 to 10.

All the pontification about the national program, college, signing pro, none of that is any more important than the fact that the 2-year-old can kick a soccer ball well. I'm not going to say he has the genetics to play soccer well, but he's in an environment where he loves to kick the ball around.

SA: MLS and USL have made immense strides in the last decade. What about college soccer?

JEREMY GUNN: Here's the thing. People make assumptions that college soccer isn't doing well, which is ridiculous.

College soccer is an amazing environment, producing amazing players. Can college soccer improve? Of course, it can.

Does it need to change some of its archaic rules? Of course, it needs to. But this whole assumption that the whole U.S. system has to change is, in my opinion, ridiculous.

We don't have to copy the rest of the world's systems. And if we do copy these systems, you're just going to leave thousands of people on the scrap heap. That's what happens in the rest of the world. People go to pro clubs at 16, which means they stop being academically driven. And then none of them make it.

Go copy the best coaches in the world. But we have a unique environment in the United States. It's ridiculous for us to think we should be copying a system of a country that so culturally different, geographically different, and academically different. We shouldn't do that. What we should continue to do is enhance every facet of soccer. We're working hard to enhance the college game. The goalposts have shifted, more people have skipped college, and that's OK.

Just look at what's happening in baseball. Some of the talent skips college; it's funny though, for some of the talent that skips college, studies have shown that they're actually outperformed by the people who stay in the three years of college. It's compelling because the players who are signed at 17 are considered the best players, aren't they? They're not the second best.

And this comes back to my point where I get frustrated when I hear people saying that you have to be in a professional environment. I would say no, you have to be in a high-performing environment. There are great professional environments, and poor professional environments. There are great college environments, and poor college environments.

Put yourself in an incredible, competitive, growth environment regardless of the label attached to it. Which MLS academy has put two players on the national team in the last five years? We did, before the players even played a professional game. [Jordan Morris and Brandon Vincent].

SA: Can you address the balance between long-term player development and short-term results?

JEREMY GUNN: They're very much hand-in-hand. But obviously the performance of the team might be in a different direction than a person's own goals. We have these arguments between development and competing. I fully support that until under-10 or under-14, development and competing are definitely exclusive and different.

When you're 16, 17, 18, 19, years old, you should be developing and competing.

We talk about development. Development isn't giving away the ball at the back at every single opportunity possible and losing every single game. You should be developing decision-making. You can definitely be developing and competing. There's no question in my mind because when it comes down to it on the biggest stages possible, the competing level of an entire group is going to make a big difference in the results. Let's face it. If we're saying we're developing people to play professionally, don't all the people who lose get fired? All the people that win get bigger contracts? The mandate at U-10 or U-14 should have nothing to do with winning.

SA: At the college level?

JEREMY GUNN: When you're at the college age, not everyone is going to win. But everyone has to learn how to compete. This would be where some of the players who we've had who have stayed on in our program, they have experienced a much higher level of competing than if they were just playing in meaningless reserve games or training.

You take a guy who leaves college early and trains with the first team everyday, he might be getting some better technical aspects in terms of speed of play, but he's not learning to be the man in the middle.

Now, if you're playing a game in front of 5,000 or 60,000 that makes a difference. But practicing being the man in the middle is very important. Take Jordan Morris, for example. He chose to stay in college for his third year, after being on the national team. Had he gone to Seattle after that second year, wouldn't he have been subbing on for Clint Dempsey or Obafemi Martins? Instead, he was the man here, and was expected to perform. It was a different standard of soccer altogether, different team, but he was learning something in that environment that he wouldn't have in Seattle. We can all argue which would be more important. It's different for every player.

SA: Stanford is known as one of the world’s top academic institutions. How does that affect your soccer program?

JEREMY GUNN: Obviously, we do have tremendous recruiting advantages, because it is such a desirable place. But because of the level of academics is so high, it is also a recruiting disadvantage. For most schools, you could go to the soccer field and probably evaluate at least 20 players on the field. When you're at Stanford, you might be able to evaluate two or three because of the high academic standard.

How high the bar is set academically is both a challenge and an advantage. It's a challenge in that there's a smaller pool of players from which we can consider. But I feel that the academic standard truly helps create a filter to find players who would best help the program in terms of character.

People who get into Stanford are inherently competitive already, inherently hard working, inherently disciplined. So, you're already kind of sifting through the potential candidates, and a lot of that work is sort of forced upon you. There are absolutely zero cutting corners when it comes to a recruit here. There is no lowering the bar like there are at even the most fantastic schools around the country.

Every other school except for Stanford can pretty much look at a player's grades and give them the thumbs up. All we can do is promote them through our admissions process and wait for the outcome from admissions. We cannot guarantee acceptance, and from what I understand, we're the only program in men's soccer that does that.

SA: You’re going into the 2018 season aiming to win a four NCAA Division I title in a row, something that's only been done once before. How do you feel about your chances ... your captains, goalkeeper, and four other players having graduated last year?

JEREMY GUNN: We should be ready for it, let's hope so. All the things we talk about ahead of time don't really mean anything until we get going, you know, I know everybody gets to speculate and that's part of the fun, but obviously we've had a spectacular run for a few years.

We did graduate out a big group this year who were very much the heartbeat of the program. And so we have a good group, but not the same strength and depth as we've had before. We'll definitely have to stay healthy.

SA: After your 2017 season, three players signed professional contracts to MLS teams and three to USL clubs. What does that say about where college soccer is at today?

JEREMY GUNN: It speaks volumes about how great college soccer still is. The MLS game is growing immensely, and so whether you sign as a homegrown or you go to college, those soccer players better get ready to earn their stripes. Only a very select few are going to jump straight into the MLS. Only a select few are going to go overseas to greater things. The large majority of players, whether they go to college or whether they sign homegrown, they're going to have to earn their stripes.

And that's an awesome thing. When you think about the numbers of college players going straight into MLS, we understand a lot of people are going homegrown, so those numbers are going to naturally diminish.

But the numbers of young players going to MLS are going to diminish too because the level of the USL and MLS are absolutely light years of where it was 10 years ago. So, it would be unfair to critique the college environment on a level playing field with that.

23 comments about "Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn on why he's optimistic about the unique American soccer system".
  1. Mike Lynch, August 1, 2018 at 9:12 a.m.


  2. Wooden Ships, August 1, 2018 at 9:29 a.m.

    Should have asked about going to the two semester model and continuing with the different way the college game is administered and officiated. 

  3. frank schoon, August 1, 2018 at 1:27 p.m.

    I found Coach Gunn's statement, "We have too many people do so much work without goals", interesting. He has a point perhaps when it comes to coaches who look at dead ball plays as a large objective to winning and spend much time on that aspect. Unfortunately, it is part of the game and should be looked at but it is not about soccer, just like penalties or long throw-ins into the box. I tend to question the abilities and soccer insights of those types of coaches who spend an inordinate amount time on those aspects.
    He noticed a lot of goals at the WC were due to set pieces, which says more about the game, coaching and upon the quality of play and the players.

    He states that soccer is about scoring and preventing goals and everything else is a means to an end. Unless he just wants to boom the ball from the back into the opponent's goal area, the "means" ,as I see it , represent the area that ball has to  traverse in order to get it near the opponents goal. That is the real meat of the game, and that is why we have the axiom, 'whoever controls midfield controls the game". This is why English soccer has suffered in their game for their direct style reflects long balls kicked from back into the opponent's third, in other words, they skip the meat of the game,such as the tactical movements, positioning off the ball, the control and possession which leads the ball into the opponent's third; as a result of this style of play there are few good English players who are real 'footballers". Yes, you can get away with this type of soccer at college level...
    I detect at the WC and in past decade, a diminution of soccer playing abilility,technically, more precisely, SHOOTING AND CROSSING ABILITY. Players  30 -40 years ago could unleash rockets of shots outside of the penalty area which to me are so important to counter the many teams that play a park the bus strategy. Shooting from distance obviates not only the need to break through a park the bus defense, but also give you an extra option that opponents have to adjust to , which opening opening up ,givimg away space. 
    The same can be said for crossing the ball which has become a lost art. By crossing the ball I don't mean giving it whack across the goal mouth which is what today's player do. Forty years ago you could see beautiful, bending away , hard , and accurate crosses. Again this is a tactical aspect that further causes problems against teams that park the bus.

  4. frank schoon, August 1, 2018 at 1:51 p.m.

    Coach gunn, further states " Now, every youth player in the country is immersed in the correct soccer environment from 2 to 10." Correct environment? I don't know about that, but let us say it is better than what he pictures as a father with little experience coaching 6yr. olds. The very fact that we have coaches from the age of 2-10 is scary in itself for that is not a really what these kids need; instead it free play, watching and learning from their peers or older and most importantly just playing. In other words, this is the stage where street soccer players learned and honed their skills. I don't remember we needed guys with clipboard, playing experience or otherwise, to direct us in my street soccer days...

    I think he made a good point, about how many MLS academy players in the past 5 were on the USMNT as compared to the two college players who never played pro.
    Here is what is most important in a player's development, it is the first stage, the years leading up to your 18th, learning the much needed SKILLS.  Beyond that ,the second stage, it is not about technique but more about game insight and learning the game which is much, much EASIER to pick up. This is why there is not that much difference between college players and youth that go on to pro for the second stage is not that difficult to pick up..... And as far as I'm concerned, I'm not all that impressed with MLS DA program...

  5. s fatschel, August 1, 2018 at 2:10 p.m.

    He should be able to quantify the impact of college playing parents as all who played in the 80s would have kids now of age for MLS or USMNT. Also I'm not sure about leaving players in a scrap heap. In Europe they are going to trade school. In the USA there is no reason not purse degree while going pro. I'm a big fan of college soccer as it's serves so many players towards real jobs but not sure it can prepare pros on the world stage of soccer.

  6. R2 Dad, August 1, 2018 at 3:06 p.m.

    This coach has a warped perspective, similar to USMNT coaches. They get to skim off the top, so don't really have to concern themselves with how the vast pool of youth players gets to that "top". When you only need to recruit a dozen players every year, how hard is it to find acceptable candidates?

    I'm thinking this coach had a much different perspective back when he was at Chowderhead State.

  7. frank schoon replied, August 1, 2018 at 7:50 p.m.

    Chowderhead State, LOLOLOL. 

  8. Kevin Leahy, August 1, 2018 at 3:21 p.m.

    The amount of goals scored off of corners @ the World Cup was the coaches choices of defense. I noticed most teams were playing @ least a partial zone defense. I believe this takes away personal responsibility by marking space instead of a man. It tends to leave the defenders flat footed.

  9. Ric Fonseca, August 1, 2018 at 5:05 p.m.

    Hello fellas!  Having been involved at the collegiate/university level - first community college, then NCAA DII, followed by NCAA Div I, and returning to community colleges, I know only too well what it takes to get into the likes of a Stanford, UCLA, UCB, USanFrancisco, etc., and of course Stanford, U Santa Clara, etc.  what the coach does not point out is that virtually every four-year university does have a specific set of entry standards for "regular" students, and they also have a convoluted-yet complex criteria for the admission of "student-athletes."  
    A coach must look at a potential recruit's not just-on-the-field attributes, but his/her grades or high school gpa, and or SAT or ACT scores.  There are criteria combined into an aceptable scores and a formula each university admission must follow; and if a program has a "high caliber" football program, basketball, swymming, track & field, etc., then the admission process IS separated for student-athletes from regular admission.  And then thee is the issue of academic financial aid vs the athletic financial aid that is controlled by the antiquated and bass-ackward NCAA rules, regulations, and silly laws, etc.
    So Coach  does get to select his very best student-athletes, and even if one barely meets the very basic entry/admission requirements as a STUDENT-ATHLETE, then she or he must adhere to yet another very strict set of rules and regs expected of a student athlete.
    This brings to mind when I first set eyes on the NCAA Manual in my first quarter as a grad student at UCLA, when I volunteered to be the men's soccer team manager.  That manual was about two inches thick.  Today I understand - thanks to computers - it is made up of several thomes, and intercollegiate athletics departments employ a myriad of assistants, tutors, PR people, all making sure the student athletes stay academically eligible, whether at Stanford, UCLA, UC Berkely, or even at some community colleges, where, sadly student athletes, if at all complete two full academic/athletic years before applying to transfer.... But then again, yet another story for another day.
    To Stanford and the author of the article, say, didn't St. Louis University's Billikens mens soccer teams win several games in a row in the late 60's and into the early '70's?  Good Luck to the Stanford Tree!

  10. frank schoon replied, August 2, 2018 at 9:42 a.m.

    Ric, good stuff, keep up your stories about the behind scenes goings about college ball.

  11. uffe gustafsson, August 1, 2018 at 5:17 p.m.

    Frank don’t take his words out of contexts.
    what he was saying is the youth the really young ones don’t have a parents that never played soccer being the coach, but a parent that played the game and can teach proper technique as in how to pass a ball and strike a ball. I remember my daughters team 12 years ago it was a ball of players running and kicking the ball with little purpose. That’s not the case anymore they actually pass to each other and learn to keep away.
    teach fundamentals as well let them play free style to incorporate what they practice in the first part of the practice. Think that is his message.
    i said this many times, there are not enough fields available to do pickup games with no adults around.
    some parks might let you do pickup games but very few, most of the times you get kicked out, since they want you to have a permit.
    early days of me doing outside of the team practice we got kicked out more often then not.

  12. frank schoon replied, August 1, 2018 at 7:39 p.m.

    Uffe, you are way too structured in your approach when dealing with very young players. You DON’T need field space. Do you think Brazilian kids in poor communities need field space to learn their great skills.  They will have much better skills than any of our well to do kids long before any youth coach will get their hands on them.

  13. s fatschel replied, August 2, 2018 at 10 a.m.

    UG in our community we have permission of the middle school for 2x week pick up on grass.  I think some kids could come and play ad hoc any time but the weekly thing needs permission. BTW I tried to have winter pick up on our HS turf but was told $200 per despite everyone paying taxes. Pay to play is the way it is here.

  14. Bob Ashpole replied, August 2, 2018 at 6:07 p.m.

    There is more politics going on. I bet the school charges because the Athletic Director doesn't want people using "his" field, even when the schools are not using them. Can't say I blame him. The turf fields wear out quit fast when heavily used, and natural grass of course is very sensitive to use.

  15. humble 1 replied, August 2, 2018 at 10:58 p.m.

    I'm with uffe.  Going off topic for this fine interview, but it's a sore spot for me, this field topic.  Soccer goals are frequently on locked fields here.  I was all over Russia for the WC, and they had playing areas in every single park, many with fences.  The parks on rivers I visited all had summer goals sitting around.  My son played a pick up game with Ruskies at a beach on the Volgrath river.  So easy there, in their brief summer.  Here, I never forget the day in Del Ray Florida, they kick my 9 y.o. son and his two friends off an empty beach b.c. the rule is no balls on the beach.  And in my own town, park maintenance is so trimmed back, the grass is too long in many public parks to even kick the ball around.  We will figure it out eventually, but there are a lot - a lot - of barries here for the beautiful game - and many are there when you just drop a ball.   

  16. uffe gustafsson, August 2, 2018 at 6:15 p.m.

    Frank I’m sorry to tell you in Brazil I bet u theyvdont need permits even at the park to play.
    but as I said and I’m not the structure guy you telling me I’m an. I had kids at the local parks to play pickup soccer and yes some technical skills. We got booted out every other week by parks and rec people.
    and had to move from park to park.
    and don’t tell me the street is a good place to play.
    most of our parks are used for rec teams to play on.
    so this notion on you can just go out and play is not real. Mills college next door have a big grass field park and got told you have to pay a fee to use it.
    so I think you not living in todays time.
    im not paying hundreds of $ to play pickup soccer with the kids. That’s what they wanted.
    that inner city to you.

  17. frank schoon replied, August 2, 2018 at 6:48 p.m.

    Uffe, there are so many places to courts, behind shopping centers, school parking lots, a little creative here. There sooo many places for kids to play. I even used public tennis courts at times. 

  18. Richard Broad, August 2, 2018 at 8:42 p.m.

    Jeremy Gunn is far more than "anybody with a foreign accent" . He is an outstanding coach who has embraced the culture of this country. We need more people like him, rather than the "carpetbaggers" who act as if they're doing American soccer a favor by gracing us with their presence.

  19. Ric Fonseca replied, August 2, 2018 at 10:51 p.m.

    Richard Broad:  I first became "baptized" by the 

    a'nybody with a foreign accent," syndrome in the very early '70s and was fully soacked with in in the Los Angeles area, ironically not too far from the birth of ayso.  By the time my son was of playing age, my my neck of the woods, there abounded quite a few Brit/Scotch/Irish ex pats who saw an opportunity to make a fast buck by passing themselves off as knowing all there is to know about our jogo bonito.  Indeed there were the one guy that claimed that he was raised playing and joining the youth ranks of AC Milan, and the Juventus; or the English fellow that played school boy football but went on to get a university degree.  So this being the case, what the heck were they doing in Southern California?  The Italian was a musician of sorts, but learned awfly quick that he'd could make more money coaching or becoming a personal coach/trainer in calccio, but he's no longer "coaching"; while the English lad, did produce a bona fide set of diplomas and other FA material and though no longer coaching he is working in a pretty wealthy private school and is now the PE/AD head person.  So what you say, the guys, the "carpetbaggers" you mention are still around and there is money to be had, especially from parents in the more affluent city areas.  Finally, the Italian "calccio coach" continues to do some training, but did more harm than good for local Westside futbol soccer; the English lad, yes he's adapted very well to the area, and I am sure he's well regarded.  So what you say?  The pay for play syndrome has been around for some time, and carpetbaggers will always be around, I know of these two fellows because I interviewed them some 25 years ago and as long as there are balls of any kind and size, there will be players, and carpetbaggers.

  20. uffe gustafsson, August 3, 2018 at 5:45 p.m.

    Frank I live in Oakland heavy populated city.
    shopping malls are in suburbs and don’t think cars and kids playing soccer is the best mix.
    yes basket ball courts are fine if you can get a spot on them but that’s a crap shot to find one not occupied.
    and tennis courts? If we get thrown out of the parks hah we be thrown out before we get a ball out the bag. Sorry but your options are worse then us sneaking in to the park at least in the park we might get un noticed for a cpl of games.
    if you live in the suburbs this is much less of a problem  they have lots of parks to use that is not used by local rec clud teams to practice on.
    here every green space is chalked up for rec teams to practice and play on.

  21. frank schoon replied, August 4, 2018 at 8:09 a.m.

    Uffe, I don’t know your situation in Oakland, perhaps it is as bad as you say. I would love to take a look at your city to get an idea. I learned my game in Amsterdam on the streets long  before all of the car traffic, but even today I still see opportunities where kids can play. 
    you mentioned shopping malls ,but I meant a strip mall where there is always plenty of space behind a Safeway or whatever big food store, furthermore you can employ the walls to kick against which you can’t find on soccer fields....

  22. R2 Dad replied, August 4, 2018 at 7:24 p.m.

    Back when my wife and I were herding cats/coaching U6, getting a field was half the battle. All the fields in SF were reserved by Rec & Park, so we had to find somewhere that wasn't taken, and relatively clear of poop This was 10 years ago so the homeless problem in SF wasn't quite what it is today, though dogs make a minfield of any patch of grass in San Francisco. Well, I think it's from dogs, though could be from dog owners--you just never know in our town. I had to bring a shovel to clear the grass/fill gopher holes on a patch of grass across from Stern Grove, and another in Golden Gate Park at 25th. Not fields per se, but places that had grass and parking and that was enough. Bathrooms, not so much, but the kids could run around and kick a ball. Good times! 

  23. frank schoon replied, August 5, 2018 at 8:23 a.m.

    R2, good grief. I remember playing street  soccer in Amsterdam as a kid and would come home often with some dog Pooh under my shoe. There were no leash laws in those days but at least I knew it came from a dog. SF has become to represent the pinnacle of modern society...At least you got the Pacific Coast sea winds to take care of the odor....

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