SOCCER AMERICA: What do you think about U.S. Soccer’s men’s national team coach hiring process?
TONY MEOLA: I said right after we didn’t qualify: I couldn’t understand the narrative of waiting until after the World Cup to hire a coach.
When you look at the numbers -- 32 coaches at the World Cup and half of them were not realistic for the team. Half of the other ones wouldn’t be available. I thought to myself, are we really waiting for six to eight coaches from around the world to choose from?
I think we’ve lost a lot of time. People said, this year’s not important. Of course, it’s important. We just failed to qualify for a World Cup. Everything is important.
[Editor’s note: Former assistant coach Dave Sarachan has been serving as interim coach since the USA’s loss in Trinidad in October of 2017.]
Now, I hear people complaining about how it’s taken so long. Well, we just hired a general manager [Earnie Stewart], and he’s only been on the job since Aug. 1.
With that said, I think we probably are close seeing who the new coach is going to be. Earnie has a profile of what he’s looking for.
SA: What do you think is the right profile?
TONY MEOLA: I’m for an American coach for this particular hiring. Someone who understands and knows this group of players. Maybe at other times or cycles I would have a different answer. But personally I would like to see this group get a coach who understands the young American player mentality. Not a guy who -- It’s OK if he gets fired because he’s going to be on to another job.
SA: Upon hiring Stewart, U.S. Soccer said he is supposed implement a U.S. style of play. What do think about the style of play the USA should pursue?
TONY MEOLA: All of us who aspire to coach and analyze, we all have a style that we like, a style that we would want the team to look like. But I still think your style is a product of your players. We could have a Manchester City style in mind but if we don’t have the players, it’s impossible to play that way.
The style of play goes hand in hand with the players you have.
SA: What has the style of play been for the USA?
TONY MEOLA: I’m not sure we’ve had a style of play, even when we’ve had more successful teams. What was really the style of play? Intangibles. We had guys who were willing to fight for the national team all the time and on the day we had to be better than the opponent.
We’ve always talked about styles of play. For years, we talked about Tahuichi. And then Portugal won a couple youth World Cups, and all of a sudden we were going to use that system. And then Brazil was winning World Cups and we figured we’ll try that, and it didn’t last long. Then it was the German system.
I always thought, why don’t we strive to be a better version of ourselves?
Why couldn’t we take what we did in 1994 and get better at it. Why couldn’t we take 2002 and be a better version of that group, which was solid in every area of the field, very disciplined, can get at you on the counterattack. Technically competent. And I think we’ve spent so much time in this country trying to be somebody that we’re not. I think that has kind of hindered us.
SA: How different were the successful USA teams in how they played, such as your Bora Milutinovic-coached 1994 team that reached the second round of the World Cup, the 2002 team that reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup, and the Bob Bradley-coached team that finished second at the 2009 Confederations Cup after beating Spain?
TONY MEOLA: I don’t think they were terribly different at all. You look at both of those teams most people remember -- 2002 with Bruce Arena and 2009 with Bob Bradley.
They were solid all over the field. Very, very organized. Took pride in defending. Had very good defenders in those two groups. And Eddie Pope, probably the most underrated guy in U.S. Soccer … Carlos Bocanegra.
Get you on the counterattack. Compete physically.
SA: When talking about style of play and attributes of the American player, people, including Stewart, often cite athleticism and aggressiveness, and as Stewart put it, “we are kind of like in your face.” Isn’t athleticism just a starting point? Don’t all soccer-playing nations have good athletes?
TONY MEOLA: They all do. You tell me Croatia is not athletic? Geez, I covered Croatia. I saw them up close. I’m like, Holy Christ!
Everyone always talks about the athletic part. Look at the last four games. Look at France [which the USA tied, 1-1, in a pre-2018 World Cup friendly], were we more athletic than France? We’re not even close.
That doesn’t mean you can’t win. But we keep talking about athletically, athletically. The way to combat athleticism is to keep the ball.
Go back to those U.S. teams. You’re talking about Tab Ramos, Hugo Perez, Claudio Reyna, John O’Brien – guys who could keep the ball as well as anyone we played against.
Where have they all gone? We keep boasting about athleticism, but I don’t even know if we’re winning all the time on the field in that area.
SA: Do you think that it helps if all the youth national teams play with a similar approach, leading into the full national team?
TONY MEOLA: They are now, since Tab Ramos [U.S. Youth Technical Director] has gotten in there [in 2013], they all play the same system.
At the youth national team summit this year in January they brought all the national teams [U-16, U-17, U-18, U-19 and U-20]. Some 150 players. And they showed them a video of what our national teams look like.
And we were just coming off our most successful year in youth national team history.
SA: The USA failing qualify for the 2018 World Cup set off an avalanche of criticism of U.S. Soccer and American soccer. You think there have been things U.S. Soccer is getting right?
TONY MEOLA: I don’t think we need to change much in the youth national team program. I don’t know if anything happening in the youth national team program right now translates to us not qualifying for a World Cup.
Like I said, we just came off our best youth national team year ever. We were one of two nations in the world that got to the quarterfinals of both the U-17 and U-20 World Cups in 2017. The other was England, which won them. It’s not Brazil, it’s not Nigeria, it’s not Ghana – it’s not any of the names you hear all the time.
We’re the only nation that made it to three Concacaf finals [2017 U-20 champs, U-17 runner-up, U-15 runner-up] and now we have the highest ranking in Concacaf among youth national team programs.
I don’t think that part of it is broken. I think we’re doing a pretty good job. Are there things we need to do better? No doubt about it. Scouting and finding players – there’s just not enough guys out there right now in the system.
And I’m very bullish on this young group of players. They’re getting better and better. This will be our strongest group of national team players when this group develops into full pros. When I say full pros – guys who have been doing it for years.
SA: Do you think that U.S. Soccer is tapping all the talent that the diverse American soccer landscape has to offer? Such as in the Latino community?
TONY MEOLA: During the summit at beginning of the year, we sat in a room with all the Technical Advisors, all the scouts, every single night -- everyone brought up the names they saw in specific age groups.
Not one of them ever said, “Oh this guy is a really crafty No. 10. We don’t want him.” As a matter of fact, everyone is looking for those players.
I would say if you sent the soccer world to scout those games, they would come back with the same names. I think we do a really good job of scouting the players who, for lack of a better term, “are in the system.” The ones who we can go see. The ones we know about. The ones in academies. The ones in the other clubs who play against academies.
The ones we get our eyes on, the group of people in that room, there’s probably 50, 60 in that room every night, they do a really good job of recognizing talent. The problem is, we need more people. And we need to get more kids in the system.
That leads to a bigger discussion, about pay-to-play. I just don’t know how you get rid of it. My kids pay to play everything. If they want to learn an instrument, they have to pay to do it. If they want to swim, they gotta pay to do it.
[Editor’s note: The last 20-player U.S. U-17 roster is more than 50% Latino.]
SA: You think some of the criticism of U.S. Soccer is unwarranted?
TONY MEOLA: Everyone pins this on U.S. Soccer. I still don’t think on a daily basis, this is a U.S. Soccer thing. This is local clubs, MLS clubs, non-MLS clubs, the ones that are in the community every single day.
To pin this all on the Federation is ridiculous, to think it’s completely their responsibility. But the Federation does not have enough people, enough technical people, enough scouts.
Bruce Arena talks about it in his book: we need more technical people in the Federation. Hopefully that’s where we’re going.
SA: How do you rate MLS’s role in player development?
TONY MEOLA: I can only speak about Red Bull because they’re in my area, and what they’re doing in Philly [Philadelphia Union]. I think they’re doing a really good job. I think MLS clubs in general do a pretty good job.
SA: Do you think MLS clubs give enough opportunities to young players?
TONY MEOLA: That’s a different conversation. It’s probably, no. And the more mechanisms that come into play, the more they’re geared to foreign players coming into the league. I think the league needs foreign players, and I think we have some really good ones, but I don’t want to see that at the expense of every young American. People wonder why the Weston McKennies go overseas.
With these kids who want to go abroad -- I don’t know how much MLS clubs can do about it. There’s something about these kids watching TV and wanting to be in the Champions League and wanting to be in the EPL and the Bundesliga.
Some kids just have a dream. There’s no dollar value on that, right? You can’t say, here’s money to stay in MLS when the guy's dream is to play somewhere else.
And part of the allure for foreign clubs is they can get these American kids for free.
SA: MLS clubs have invested a lot in youth programs and many are taking their reserve teams, such as playing in the USL, seriously, to create a pathway similar to what it’s like with foreign clubs …
TONY MEOLA: No doubt. But it’s still hard to compare. The kids look at the Bundesliga to get to Bayern, Dortmund or the EPL.
Working with youth national teams for four and a half years, it’s all the kids talk about. You listen to their conversations, their goal is, “When I’m 18, I want to go to Europe.”
I ask all the time, “Is MLS a path?” It could be, but once you sign a contract in MLS it’s pretty hard to get out. And they get it. They’re not dumb kids anymore. We were naïve back in the day. We had to figure it out all on our own.
But these kids have it figured out and they see their friends [go abroad].
When I was with the U-18s, 10 days in camp and that’s all they talk about – what’s it like over there? How can I get over there? Do you have an agent? That’s all they’re talking about.
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