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  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.