Albertin Montoya: 'At the younger age groups, train everyone to be a midfielder'

In 2010, Albertin Montoya coached one of women’s pro soccer’s most entertaining teams ever – the WPS championship-winning FC Gold Pride, which included Marta, Christine Sinclair, Tiffeny Milbrett, Shannon Boxx, Kelley O'Hara and Rachel Buehler. He was, at the same time, coaching youth soccer at Northern California’s Mountain View Los Altos SC. Montoya continues to serve as director of the MVLA, whose girls compete in the ECNL and whose alums include current USA defender Abby Dahlkemper and Stanford’s Hermann Trophy winner Teresa Noyola, who represented Mexico at the 2011 and 2015 World Cups.

We checked in with Montoya in the wake of the USA exiting the 2018 U-17 Women’s World Cup at the group stage following losses to Cameroon (3-0) and Germany (4-0).

Montoya coached the U.S. U-17 girls to the 2012 Concacaf Championship title. At the 2012 U-17 World Cup in Azerbaijan, Montoya’s team also exited at the group stage – but without losing a game. It tied eventual winner France and runner-up North Korea, but came up short on goal difference because its 6-0 win over Gambia was less of a rout than the wins by North Korea and France.

SOCCER AMERICA: Let’s start with the full national team. What do you think about how it is currently playing under Coach Jill Ellis?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: I am enjoying watching them play. We have players on the team right now who have very high soccer IQs. They enjoy keeping the ball. They're creative. They're individuals who bring the team together. I think we've got a really good mix of very sophisticated players. With skill and athleticism. So, I really enjoy this group of players and how they're playing.

SA: It’s a curious time for women’s soccer in the USA. The full national team has sparkled ahead of next year’s Women’s World Cup. But the U-17s again failed to reach the second round of the U-17 World Cup …

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: In the United States, it takes us longer. We're such a large country, it’s more difficult to identify the top 15, 20 players in their age group at a younger age.

The top players eventually rise to the top and you see them over time in the club system and the college game. They start separating themselves and by the time the senior national team comes around, those top players have made it very clear for the most part that they should be in the mix.

So, we're a little more successful at the U-20s, and obviously very successful at the senior level.

Also, when identifying talent at the younger ages, it's all over the map.

SA: How so?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: You count on scouts all over the country. They go out, rate players, send names.

Well, we could be looking for two different things. And that's one of the frustrations. It's not a good or a bad -- it's just we see the game differently.

Also, these players play at different club teams, so bringing them together and asking them to play a certain way when they're not used to it makes it very challenging. Other countries have a fairly set way of playing.

SA: You think that was part of the problem at this last U-17 World Cup?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: Well, you have two key players on the team, and their clubs play completely different styles. One is very direct and effective. The other is possession-oriented. You bring together players who have never really played in a system their teammate has, so getting them to play together takes a little bit longer.

That's why we don’t need to panic at the results we see with the U-17 teams. We've identified some very good players, but they just haven't played together long enough to be successful as a team.

SA: That scenario – of players not being on the same page, as coaches like to say – reminds me of watching the U.S. men’s national team friendly against Italy last month. Both teams are in transition, with a bunch of new players, new coach. But the Italians play with a cohesion like they’ve been soccer pals their whole lives -- and the Americans play like they met right before kickoff …

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: The Italians know what their DNA is. In most countries, the players know their style of play. They grew up with it.

The Italian youth teams, they all play the same way. Similar styles, so they have a better understanding when they come together.

SA: That applies to U-17 Women’s World Cup as well?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: Spain, who I think are just spectacular, or Japan or North Korea, I can guarantee you they're all going to play the same way. They have an understanding. They play as a team.

And in the U.S., you'll see a lot of talented individuals with a lot of strengths, but they don't come together as a team.

Spain won the 2018 U-17 World Cup, beating North Korea in the quarterfinals, New Zealand in the semifinals and Mexico, 2-1, in the final.

USA U-17 Women's World Cup Record
Year U.S. Finish (Coach)
2008 Runner-up (Kazbek Tambi)
2010 did not qualify (Kazbek Tambi)
2012 first-round exit (Albertin Montoya)
2014 did not qualify (B.J. Snow)
2016 first-round exit (B.J. Snow)
2018 first-round exit (Mark Carr)

SA: Can a U.S. youth national team coach overcome that challenge –- of creating cohesion with players from different backgrounds and from clubs with different styles?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: If you have the time. I’d bring in players for the first camp, and coach: This is how we're going to play. By the end of the camp, they're starting to get it. Great.

They come back two months later, we have to start from square one. And I realized it's because they've gone back to their environment where they played a different way, or maybe a different position.

And the next two or three days are spent on getting them to understand this is the way we're going to play. Then they'd go off again. Then they come back.

It was always starting over again. Which is one of the big reasons why I had asked to do two-week camps. Keep them a little longer. That year [2012] Steve Swanson's team won the U-20 World Cup. They were able to do a couple two-week camps.

SA: In the last couple months, mainly because of the transition on the men’s side, I’ve been asking a lot people what the U.S. style of should be – and usually getting vague answers. What do you think the American style of play should be?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: My personal opinion, I think we should strive to play a way like Spain plays. I absolutely love their possession-oriented play. But it's not just passing the ball around the back. It’s passing with a purpose. Always looking to penetrate. To get forward. And I personally enjoy that game.

But you can be just as effective playing more of a counterattacking game, whether it's France a little bit at the World Cup with the speed they have up top. But those players are still trained to keep the ball, to enjoy the ball. And I don't think we do that enough here.

The Germans are a combination of the Spanish game of keeping it and little more using their athleticism. France is similar.

What's our identity? It is a challenge in a country with so many backgrounds.

SA: Is there an upside to having different styles of play in the our country?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: It’s good to face different styles to learn the game.

But as a national team, as a federation, I think we do need to identify what type of players do we want. I think the DA is trying to do that to a certain extent.

But we've had some coaches in the national team program say, Play a little more direct and look for the athleticism. We have some coaches who say, Hey, I'd like to have more of a soccer-savvy player with a high soccer IQ.

SA: What do you think of the ad nauseam talk about the American virtues of athleticism and fighting spirit? Seems to me that most countries have high level athletes who really want to win …

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: A question I hear too much, when coaches and scouts ask about players, is, What's their pace? What's their pace like?

How about, what's their soccer IQ like? How about their understanding and their technical ability?

I do believe we have a long way to go in the women's and men's game in the USA when an athlete will catch a coach's eye more often than a player with a high soccer IQ and strong technical skills.

The problem is that athleticism on the girls side has worked for so long. But the limitations of that approach are becoming more and more obvious.

SA: To play an effective possession-style of game, I believe a key is to have skillful central defenders, because they’ll get the ball often while their midfielders cope with that crowded part of the field. An American example would be on the women’s side with 2015 World Cup champs, Julie Ertz (nee Johnston) and Becky Sauerbrunn – and with the current team.

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: Exactly, in the past it's been more, yes, they can tackle and send the ball up. Now you've got center backs who can penetrate on the dribble. Who can play through the midfield. Who can play a long ball, the accurate pass. And you've got players who can receive it cleanly. And then with the U.S. women's team now, you've got pace up top with an Alex Morgan. They just have a really nice combination.

SA: On the men’s side, the world’s best teams have highly skillful central defenders. What’s the key to producing those kind of defenders?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: I believe, at the young ages, train everyone like a midfielder. Obviously, in games they'll play their own positions.

We train all the young players as if to be midfielders. You've got to want the ball, movement, receiving it – not just going forward as fast as you can. It’s full involvement, defending, attacking.

Then you find someone who you could put at center back. If they’ve got speed, you put them as a winger -- but they've got that awareness and control.

You could argue, you're not training backs. No, we’re training intensely and I’m trying to make them comfortable with the ball. And the midfield sessions apply that, and eventually you have positional games and all of that, but at the younger age groups, train everyone to be a midfielder.

SA: That reminds me of what Werner Kern told me when he was in charge of Bayern Munich’s youth program. That when they identified a young player, like Mats Hummels, having great potential as a central defender, they would have him play as a central midfielder until his late teens before returning him to the backline. Maybe a problem in the USA is that at youth soccer you can win a lot of games if you have a strong player on the backline breaking up the opponents’ attacks all the time. But he or she doesn’t develop other skills?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: That’s a good example. It goes back to the soccer IQ. A central defender is breaking things up. But now, because they’ve been trained like a midfielder, knows how to carry the ball, to penetrate. I'm not just stopping their attack, I'm starting our attack.

SA: What’s the obstacle in the USA to play what you think is the ideal type of soccer?

ALBERTIN MONTOYA: What I’ve seen at the younger ages – and the same thing happens at the college game -- it's easier for these coaches to take the more athletic, fast player. If they lose the ball, they can chase back. But I don’t agree that we don't have the players to play a more sophisticated style of soccer.

If a player can keep the ball for you and get your team in the right position, they won't need to be chasing all the time.

20 comments about "Albertin Montoya: 'At the younger age groups, train everyone to be a midfielder'".
  1. James Madison, December 11, 2018 at 6:43 p.m.

    Assuming taht those selected as candidates for our youth (U17 and U20) are those with the best individual skills and soccer IQs, the issue becomes whether they will buy into being part of a TEAM. From what I have been told by a parent of a 2018 GU17 World Cup player, its problems reflected a failure to resolve this issue.  My own coaching experience has been at a lower level, but lengthy, and I have found that the performance of a female team improves up to its maximum potential only as the players come to like, trust and help each other.  A soccer team comprised of individuals who, like players in some other sports, are concerned primarily with their individual statistics, is doomed to underperforming.

  2. Mike Lynch, December 11, 2018 at 9:04 p.m.

    Another good interview Mike with a very good coach in Montoya. "Train everyone as a midfielder" is exactly right, especially in youth player development, but even at the highest levels. What do we think Rondo is but high midfielder reps - comfort on the ball under high pressure, technical skills, read defense-act in the opposite, body position to see more, head on a swivel, move the ball to move the defender, play between lines (splits), two over/up-one back-thru, etc, etc. I doubt there is an elite level team anywhere that doesn't have a form of Rondo in their daily training, warm-up.

    I recall a Montoya session at the convention a few years back that was brilliant. Lots of touches, movement, reads ... a la midfielders. The interchange of positions required in the modern game means young players must be comfortable and dynamic all around the field. I feel when we train our players as mids as part of their core, daily skill development, then we probably have properly prepared them for the demands in this week's match but also for the next level, too. 

    Comfort on the ball under pressure (can they receive and take care of the ball under pressure, can they dribble out of pressure) needs to be given the time and importance it represents in youth player development if it is expected and necessary more and more at each next level. 

  3. frank schoon replied, December 13, 2018 at 7:51 a.m.

    Mike, Rondo is a joke if you think that it is high midfielder reps. It is too one dimensional and it has so little to do with midfield play. Note how the players not only  all stand flat footed when they play this exercise, but also in their manner of positioning you can tell they can only think one step ahead, due to quickness and proximity of the situation. If you want to teach players ‘midfield’ setting then play the game for is 4v2.   Cruyff once stated that if you can play this game you can play soccer. Everything in this game contains so much of the secrets of the game. Even today, the old retired stars of Ajax meet once a week to play this game and they’ve been doing this for over 40years.
    10 year old Ajax youth play this as well.
    I’ve talked about this game and explained it how to set it up a along time ago, but if you want me to explain it in depth I would be more than happy to.

  4. R2 Dad, December 11, 2018 at 10:03 p.m.

    MVLA walks the talk. Lots of other coaches complain about how those MLVA teams all play the same way (uncharitably called Boring), but they play out of the back every time, get the ball on the ground to midfield, and their players still break your press you even though you know exactly what they're going to do. This is what happens when you work on fundamentals. Props to Montoya and his club for developing players first and foremost. Don't ever recall having problems with their coaches, either.

  5. Bob Ashpole, December 11, 2018 at 11:11 p.m.

    I am curious by what Montoya meant by "the young ages". 

    If he is talking about pre-teens, then the context implies "like a midfielder" means stressing fundamentals. That would be a classic development plan. If he is talking about early teens, then I am not sure what he meant.

    My view of best practices is that in the early teens, players don't specialize. 

    On style of play, my view is that we need to develop players that can play any style of play. Teams should be flexible about style of play so that they can adapt to changed circumstances during the run of play as well as from one match to the next.

    There is no doubt US teams can play counterattacking soccer. But from here we need to add the ability to dominate games by possession too.

    The style I admire is the melding of Dutch Style principles with the Spanish style at Barca. I think it combined the best part of Northern European soccer with the best part of Spanish soccer. Most young people today, however, only have a cursory understanding of both. 

    Particularly for the WNT, they need to be able to dominate play through superior positioning and technical ability, to add to their ability to dominate through superior physical and mental aspects. To stay on top they need to be able to dominate opponents in more ways. Their physical and mental advantages are shrinking.   

  6. humble 1, December 12, 2018 at 10:11 a.m.

    Great article and interesting perspective.  I do not agree that the US style should be Barca possesion style.  This does not fit our region, our backyard.  CONCACAF is a very harsh environment with referees that mainly speak Spanish arbitrating most of our games.  Our road games are all played, with the exception of Canada in technically third world countries, not europe; travel, field, lodging and fan treatment can be very harsh on the road.  Try playing tiki taka on long grass, dirt and or muddy conditions.  We need to be hard as nails and mentally and physically tough first. Then I would say I also do not agree to play everyone as a mid-fielder into the teens, to the contrary, I think we take too long to identify players positions in youth soccer, do not a good job of assessing where players should be playing and do not train players enough specifically for the positions they play.  Kids languish far too much in positions that do not make the most of their talents and abilities and coaches do not coach to positions enough, by age 9, parents and coaches should have a good idea of a players position and the child should be learning that role.  Of course, cross training is good, but you must start with a foundation in a position.  Good article, thank you.

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, December 12, 2018 at 1:38 p.m.

    You have some good points but a bad surface is not an excuse to avoid the short passes in what is often called tiki-taki. Passing the ball on the ground gives it top spin even on a perfect surface. To pass a flat ball, you have to pass it off the ground. While it may look like a pass on the ground, you can tell the difference by whether the ball has no spin or has top spin. A flat ball is easier to control and easier to accurately pass with 1 touch.

    As an amateur player I often played on lousy surfaces and sometimes in bad weather conditions too. You quickly learn to make short accurate passes to the foot by keeping the ball just above the ground. This skill is not beyond the ordinary amateur. Good positioning and good skills are what is important, not whether the ball travels on the ground or not. You will find a lot of coaches that disagree with me, but I know what I know from personal experience playing.

    I suspect youth coaches tell kids to play the ball on the ground as a crutch to slow down passes so that youth teams can look like they are playing tiki taki. It doesn't promote development to instruct players to only make short inside-of-the-foot passes on the ground.

  8. frank schoon, December 12, 2018 at 10:20 a.m.

    Well, I don't know where to begin because this interview is all over the map. I agree with some things Montoya states and other things, I ask myself, "what is this all about?"
    " Train everyone to be a midfielder'??? The problem we have in soccer, which began 40-50  years ago is the institution of licensed coaches, an extraneous input or rather an INTERFERENCE into a system that's so natural in developing players through the process of PICKUP soccer ; and as result our players have much less technical skills today than the players of yesteryear. After 50 years, the growth of licensing coaches, the huge increase in the amount of time to get a license, all the seminars on coaching and whatnot, camps, clinics, DA, blah, blah ,blah, the technical skills of our players have not improved but instead lessened. But at least  I can say one positive thing , if you one want to call it that, is that players rely more on the physical, able to run all day, all which has come about or  due to the licensed coached being able to teach this kind of stuff for it's easy but TEACHING TECHNIQUE ,SKILL DEVELOPMENT....that is something that is much harder and more difficult teach if at all because it is a PROCESS which is best left done in a natural manner along with some guidance at times.
    First of all young kids see a ball, in other words, they subtly think of OFFENSE doing something with a ball, not defense, not playing midfield, whatever that means... Kids are attracted to the creative part of soccer, offense, FIRST. That's why I teach the offensive moves with a ball, how to beat players, how to score, and they get a dose of history about the greats like Garrincha, Pele, Cruyff, Rivelino, Beckenbauer, Matthews,etc. I demonstrate what they can do with a ball and what they did in games. You have to follow the mindset of these kids and that is they want to see moves, creativity, nothing about midfield or defensive concepts. 
    In PICKUP soccer, everybody wants the ball, but sooner or later kids realize some are better than others with the ball and as a result a natural comes about which is the lesser creative kids with the  ball drop back a little and allow the more creative players to function. It like water, it seeks it own level or see it as a xmas tree effect. But coaches interfere in this natural process through input of their own on how you should learn. NEXT POST

  9. frank schoon, December 12, 2018 at 11:03 a.m.

    To me ALL kids should be trained in offense ,attacking for this allows them to be better one on one as players. I would rather have defenders who are good one on one players because they were taught in the beginning to have one on one individual skills,  but they just weren't good enough to play up front for there were better players. Let me give you an example, the greatest Libero on defense was Beckenbauer. He started out as a winger, dropped back to midfield later on, but didn't like to play midfield for it required too much running, and as result moved back to the defensive line and became the greatest libero/sweeper ever to play the game. In other words he was an offensive player turning into a defender. Puyol , Krol, Alba, Alves,Suurbier, and so many others, wingers, became great defenders, BECAUSE of their creative , one on one , offensive, skills in their backround. Once you acquire INDIVIDUAL skills it becomes easier to play other positions for you're able to handle the ball and that is what soccer basically comes down too.
     Cruyff thought of midfielders as players who sit on the fence and have no drive to be one way or the other.  When Cruyff was coach one of the things he also looks at is what kind of player was the coach of the opponent's team. This way Cruyff can place himself in the mindset of that coach, especially if this coach was a former defender of offensive player. But if this coach was a former midfielder than Cruyff sees him as a coach who will waiver and not be so sure, exactly. This is one of the characteristic of a coach who was a former midfielder.
    The whole aspect of midfield comes as a third step in the developing process. Step one, is to  learn the offensive qualities that is needed in handling the ball. Step two, is learning defense, these two are the easiest to learn for it is very direct, but midfield requires another another level which is the thinking part  which is the most difficult part that youth have problem with and are not ready for at this stage. 

  10. Goal Goal replied, December 12, 2018 at 3:40 p.m.

    Frank you will note that all of our national teams can't get close enough to the goal to score.  I had the opportunity to see the U17's at the Nike Friendlies a couple of weeks ago and wow do we have a bunch of great athletes who can run forever but not one playmaker on that team in the middle of the field.  The Reyna kid is an exception but he has to have someone in the middle of the field making decisions.  We don't have it.   The mens NT cant get near the goal.

    Thats our problem nationally.

  11. frank schoon replied, December 12, 2018 at 3:58 p.m.

    RW, I got an answer for that ,create more licensed coaches and extend their classroom courses another month longer.....That will definitely do it...

  12. Goal Goal replied, December 12, 2018 at 4:38 p.m.

    Frank you forgot one thing.  Soccer Ball pin!

  13. frank schoon replied, December 12, 2018 at 4:57 p.m.


  14. frank schoon, December 12, 2018 at 12:26 p.m.

    Montoya stated the size the country and number of players makes it difficult in creating a good U17NT. In Holland they complain due to the small size of it's country and the small population which results in a much smaller player pool to find talent...WOW, you get hit either way...obvious this excuse of finding good players is total Baloney. It has to do with player development which sucks here....
     US soccer is well organized in finding talent , good talent will always be found, due to all the soccer connections between organizations...I just don't buy this excuse...
    The excuse that players play for different clubs and therefore making it difficult for players to play together..Really ?  I've seen enough games at all levels to safely state that they look and play alike..there isn't much difference; America does have a certain style which you can quickly identify with of which  I'm not too happy about.
    The assertion of playing possession style is difficult "due to the variety of backrounds". I'm sorry, I don't get that either. NO, to play possession style is to have good quality players, which has nothing to do with the variety of backrounds.  Astute soccer commentators often abuse the word "possession style' as if we have teams that really play that way. I watched Akron play Michigan St. in the semi-finals....Akron according to the pundits described Akron as playing possession style soccer. Well, anyone can play possession style when the opponents, like Michigan St allows them  5-6 yards of space for every pass given. Maryland played it smart and gave the Akron players no time, nor space to handle the ball or look up. So much for playing possession style. 
    What I'm trying to say here is that our players lack the technical and tactical qualifications to play possession style when placed under pressure.

  15. frank schoon, December 12, 2018 at 12:53 p.m.

    Montaya mentions that Werner Kern stated that he allowed a prospective centerhalf, Mats Hummels, to first play midfield therefore it would give Mats experience, later on, to be able to take the ball up.
    WOW, what an amazing idea. I'm so glad we have licensed coaches who are trained in the esoteric of soccer knowledge to come up with this beauty.DUH!
    Cruyff once stated everything in soccer has been done and there is nothing new. Just think a central defender moving up with the ball on attack, creating numerical superiority or extra man around midfield forcing the opponents to choose. That's called playing with a sweeper , a la Beckenbauer, except he's now a centerback, this was done 40-50 years ago. And Montaya sees this as unique...good grief , do I feel old. I hope Montoya calls up the USSF coaching Academy to let them to know what Werner Kern in order teach this to do coaches....
    What I don't understand is why these coaches play with centerbacks,square, in the first place. I don't play the front line square, or two strikers square, and neither should centerbacks play square for that is inefficent positionally.  We need balance positionally and that is not by playing square. 
    But coaches are not creative and they don't think and just follow what other coaches do and follow what is told to them at the coaching school. Here is another example , some coach comes up with zonal defense on corners and what do you see, the rest of idiots copy....Why, I ask , do you defend zonally on corners when the attacking opponents are able to make a run and therefore have momentum to be able to jump higher against stationary opponents. But then again, I don't have a coaching license and I apparent miss the insight detail......

  16. Ben Myers replied, December 12, 2018 at 11:39 p.m.

    The solution to improve soccer coaching may not necessarily be more and more courses and more USSF directives.  How about if coaches watch the best soccer, the EPL, Bundesliga, Serie A, Champions League, and the World Cup?  (Don't watch a lot of MLS, though.)  But don't just watch as a fan.  Watch and see what players do, how they do it, and then ask why players do what they do.  Apply some critical thinking to the process of becoming a better coach.  It's takes a lot of time, but might as well learn from the best.

  17. Bob Ashpole replied, December 13, 2018 at 7:56 a.m.

    Ben, I disagree.

    First problem, your suggestion only addresses knowledge of the game. Coaching is a profession. Understanding the game is only a small part of the job. There is only so much one can learn about playing a game from watching someone else play the game. 

    Second problem, managing teams in competitions and player development are two different coaching jobs. Some coaches do both, but you don't make any distinctions. Why would you tell an MLS coach to not watch a lot of MLS?

    You have made an important point, but it is already widely accepted that coaches need to be students of the game and that match analysis is an important skill. 

  18. frank schoon replied, December 13, 2018 at 8:16 a.m.

    Ben, I was just being sarcastic about my suggestion of extending the coaching education.  Your suggestion  of watching different leagues play is fine but even better is to be able to explain the difference of play between the leagues or take two teams ,let us say, Chelsea and Liverpool and analyze their difference in style of play.  For example, what is their difference in flank play, where does their striker position in relation to a certain flank attack,  etc, break it all down, the mechanics. Or why does one player function better, with a certain , particular teammate as compared to another or what effect ,if any, does a team engender in a particular area of the field due to a substitute change.  

  19. Ben Myers, December 12, 2018 at 11:34 p.m.

    Montoya is spot on.  Training players as though they were all central midfielders gets to the heart of what it takes to play the game.  Center mids have to be able to do it all, side to side, 18 to 18, attack, defend, and, most importantly see the field from side to side. 

    I'll add one other area of player development that seems to be much neglected in US player development.  Finish, finish, finish, every which way possible with balls delivered on the ground, in the air and from all angles.

  20. Goal Goal replied, December 13, 2018 at 10:35 a.m.

    Ben agree with you on both points.

    Couple comments on finish.  Our productivity at the NT level is a testament to the fact that we do not know how to finish.  In fact we can't get near enough to the target to finish.  That leads into my second comment concerning midfielders.  I will use the U17 men as an example.  In the groups prior to U17's in other words when they were younger we had two excellent midfielders both at center, both attacking, both play makers.  We ran one off to Mexico and the other off to Spain.  Go figure.

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