Commentary

John Hackworth on U.S. Soccer changes, the Under-17 World Cup, and winning with USL's Louisville City

With the 2019 U-17 World Cup kicking off in Brazil, we spoke to John Hackworth, a U.S. coach at four U-17 World Cups who was at the helm at the start of the current U-17s' cycle. Hackworth served as assistant coach, to John Ellinger, at the 2003 U-17 World Cup. He was head coach in 2005 and 2007, and in 2017 after returning to U.S. Soccer from MLS. Hackworth left U.S. Soccer in July 2018 and coached Louisville City FC to the 2018 USL title.

Hackworth is one of seven full-time U.S. youth national team coaches to depart within the last two years. Only one vacancy has been filled: Swiss Raphael Wicky took the U-17 helm in March. Wicky became the fourth U-17 coach during this two-year cycle, after U-16 coach Shaun Tsakiris and U-15 coach Dave Van den Bergh filled in between Hackworth’s departure and Wicky’s arrival.

SOCCER AMERICA: You’ll be watching the U-17 World Cup?

JOHN HACKWORTH: Absolutely. I’m excited. I have a vested interest. I’ve built some really good relationships with some of those young men. They’re extremely talented. Even though I’m super happy with where I am in life, I’m sure I’ll be a bit remorseful and have tinges of regret that I’m not down there with them.

SA: Why did you leave the U-17 head coaching position?

JOHN HACKWORTH: There were a lot of changes at U.S. Soccer and it was a very interesting time to make some tough decisions from a personal standpoint. From a Federation level, so many positives I thought were not being addressed, or at least changing dramatically.

SA: In 2017, the USA was one of only two nations -- besides England, which won both -- to reach the quarterfinals of the U-17 World Cup and the U-20 World Cup, at which Tab Ramos coached the USA. This was also a period during which an unprecedented number of U.S. youth national team players were landing professional contracts …

JOHN HACKWORTH: Our job as youth national coaches, while it’s to get to a World Cup and go through qualifying, is to allow these young talented players to have experiences that help them grow. It’s also to develop them. To give them the best opportunities to improve themselves.

And I thought I was a small part of what I would say was one of the best times -- across the board from our youngest team to the U-20s -- of the youth national team program, because there was so much player development and there were so many good players coming through.

You look at the key events and we had some really good runs. Not only good runs, but we outplayed some of the better countries in the world of soccer head to head. That was something I was really proud to be a part of. Obviously, that was led by Tab. I thought he had a great staff.

We had wonderful resources from U.S. Soccer. There was a lot of planning that went into that. There were a lot of people who supported that plan. Looking back on it, it was a really good and valuable and productive time for player development program from a national team perspective.

SA: Now Tab Ramos is leaving to coach in MLS, and it’s hardly a secret that although he was the Youth Technical Director, U.S. Soccer took away his control of the program more than a year ago. Not one of the seven YNT head coaches from two years ago is still with the Federation. Why would that be?

JOHN HACKWORTH: My personal opinion is that I don’t understand it. I don’t understand why anybody would have looked at the youth national team program and not felt really positive about what was going on.

Not only is that staff no longer in place, but many of those programs are ultimately not really in existence in the same manner. That’s a just different way to approach it and I’m not in a place to make a judgment on whether that’s right, wrong or indifferent.

What I can tell you is that from my personal experience, so many things were working and working really well. From scouting, to player identification, to the number of events, to the number of full-time staff. There was just a really good synergy, but with some changes in leadership, they decided to make changes.

Change doesn’t mean it’s bad, but in hindsight, there has certainly been a lot change and not a lot of replacement. I hope Rafa [Wicky] does a great job. I wish him nothing but the best, but even that is different. Their buildup to the World Cup was much different than what I was doing with my under-17 teams.

SA: During Ramos’ tenure as Youth Technical Director, he brought in full-time head coaches for each age group. How important that was?

JOHN HACKWORTH: I can’t make a statement strong enough about how critical that was.

For me, after being assistant and head coach of the U-17s, and Bob Bradley’s assistant coach with the full national team during my first stint with U.S. Soccer, I returned after the Philadelphia Union as the U-15 head coach. That’s when I was like, Holy Cow, we are making some serious progress. We’re now investing in people, they’re working together, the collaboration and the trust is good, and it’s so beneficial for the player pool.

With a full-time national team coach and programming at each age group, we were no longer skipping age groups. There were no more gaps. I felt great about that.

SA: After coaching the U-15s you returned to the helm of the U-17s, and again ran the residency in Bradenton …

JOHN HACKWORTH: I didn’t really have any idea that I would go back to the U-17s. Then lo and behold that happened. I think part of the reason that happened was that in working with Tab, we had a really good relationship and a trust in how he envisioned the team playing. From what was important to player development for the U-20s and what he expected for every team all the way down. We had a lot of continuity about ideas and methodology that I think are impossible to really get right unless you have a full-time staff.

SA: There was also setup in which head coaches would join the older teams above them as assistant coaches, such as Shaun Tsakiris assisting you at the 2017 U-17 World Cup in India. Did you find that beneficial?

JOHN HACKWORTH: Absolutely. That just builds that synergy. It builds the continuity that I’m talking about. Brad Friedel (former U-19 coach) and Omid Namazi (former U-18 coach) are perfect examples of that in the way they joined Tab with the U-20s.

When you have three guys with excellent experience who are working with individual age groups, then they collaborate to put their heads together to work in a very streamlined way -- it’s simplistic but it’s also how it should be done in my humble opinion.

SA: Your 2017 U-17 squad included future full national team players Timothy Weah, Sergino Dest and Josh Sargent, who is remarkable in that he played for Ramos' team at the U-20 World Cup before returning to your team for the U-17 World Cup. Sargent, now 19, has already played 11 full national team games and 17 Bundesliga games (four goals) with Werder Bremen.

JOHN HACKWORTH: It’s a perfect example of two different programs working very closely together. Tab and I – and also our player identification program – looked at Josh as a player in two national team pools at the same time to be the best. And in order to make that work, both programs had to give a little bit. But it’s worth investing in a player who has that potential and needs those opportunities at that particular time.

It’s just a good example of the synergy. I would speak very highly of how that process went down from an internal standpoint. And from an external standpoint, the proof is there. I think Josh was successful in both and it gave him an opportunity with a European club and to be successful with the men’s national team. He is still a really young player but he’s still a great example.

SA: The players on your 2017 U-17 team are overall farther ahead in their careers two years later than any group of previous U-17s. How would you compare that pool to the 2019 squad?

JOHN HACKWORTH: The current roster that they’re taking … Rafa has made some changes and found some new players. This is a cycle without a residency program, they don’t have quite the number of camps or events or games, so it’s difficult to compare.

My two cents is I think it’s really talented group. As talented as the last one. Maybe not as deep as my team, but certainly in terms of top level quality, I think there some players there like a Josh Sargent. It’s easy to look at Gio Reyna or Gianluca Busio, guys who are doing so well at a young age and have potential to be even better.

SA: You left U.S. Soccer in July 2018 and in November celebrated the USL title …

JOHN HACKWORTH: They were having a rough year, losing their head coach, James O’Connor, who became head coach of Orlando City. They went through a search that went so long they appointed three players like a triumvirate of head coaches, which is a bizarre situation. To the players' credit, they handled a lot of different leadership and in the end we played really good soccer and won the second championship for this club, and that was super nice.

SA: Your team is fourth in USL attendance with a 9,000-plus average. You’re enjoying Louisville?

JOHN HACKWORTH: This is a really cool town in a lot of ways. I’m happy to say it’s a true soccer town and it’s really neat to be a part of.

We had 12,000 for our last regular-season game. The crowds are amazing. We’ve got this new stadium that’s opening next year that’s going to be even better. The ownership group is fantastic. They’re willing to invest. These guys have been mindful about doing the right thing and then growing it. That’s been really nice to be around.

I miss coaching the U-17s, but I will forever be thankful for my time with the Federation.

Photos: EM Dash Photography courtesy of Louisville City FC

11 comments about "John Hackworth on U.S. Soccer changes, the Under-17 World Cup, and winning with USL's Louisville City".
  1. Bob Ashpole, October 25, 2019 at 12:47 p.m.

    Petty minds refuse to acknowlege the success of others. The successes of our MNT youth program and our WNT program are entirely due to the players and the coaching staff. Ramos and Hackworth are gone. Ellis and Heinrichs are gone. These coaches were successful because they put the program first. 

    There is an important difference between the MNT and WNT programs. The WNT program had an extensive network of former players and former coaches supporting the current team and staff. Ramos was isolated and marginalized at the end. 

    Before she even reported to work, Kate Markgraf, the new WNT GM has been demoted to a subordinate of Earnie Stewart, but it remains to be seen if the extensive support network of former WNT coaches and players can be isolated from the WNT program and marginalized. I suspect Kate is just the tip of the iceberg of the WNT support. 

    What has happened to the USSF board members? I am really beginning to detest the USSF management in Chicago. And they haven't even publicly announced yet Jay Berhalter's permanent appointment to the CEO position.

  2. Bob Ashpole, October 25, 2019 at 12:53 p.m.

    I might as well come right out and say what I am thinking.

    I don't want Earnie Stewart, who supervised the ruination of the successful MNT Youth Program, to be managing the entire World Champion WNT Program. Or anyone else that will take control of the program away from the players and coaching staff and give it to Chicago.

  3. R2 Dad replied, October 26, 2019 at 2:13 a.m.

    Bob, I don’t even understand the Why this would occur, or be a goal for USSF. If they are/have deconstructed the men’s U  teams, what is the benefit of more control unless there is something to replace it with? This isn’t North Korea—what does it buy them?

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, October 26, 2019 at 8:46 a.m.

    The behavior is typical of a bureacracy where conformity is the prime objective. 

    There is an organizational belief in US corporations that corporate managers are brilliant and know the most about their organizations and therefore should micromanage operations. The individuals know this isn't true and spend their time faking it, claiming credit for success, deflecting blame for failure, and looking to jump to a new position before the truth catches up to them. The key strategy is to protect their career by controlling the information that flows to their boss. The "winner" at the top of the organization is the one who is lucky enough to bluff his way to the top. Rarely does an actual honest competent manager rise to the top. 

    You can spot good managers because they don't pretend that they know more than everyone else and they focus on the organization's mission rather than controlling what information is reported.

  5. frank schoon replied, October 28, 2019 at 11:29 a.m.

    Bob, I think I better hold you back....I have never seen  you being that forward in your opinion. I think you have been reading too much of someone else comments who is likewise not shy in expressing his opinion :)

  6. Alfred Randall, October 25, 2019 at 11:08 p.m.

    Good luke USSF in getting anyone besides a Berhalter to work for you. I have supported the boys for the last 40 years. NO MORE!

  7. Arnold Ramirez, October 28, 2019 at 2:24 a.m.

    I watched the US game yesterday and before the game I was very impressed with the experience of the U17 team. I felt that this is the team that could go very far. I can't believe what I saw on the field. When they hired a foreign coach I questioned the appointment. I know we have excellent coaches here in the US. To me hiring a foreign coach was an insult to all of us who have coached here for so many years. Instead of improving at all levels we are going backwards. We need to get rid of all the incompetent people who are running soccer in this country. I was always very optimistic about soccer in this country, not any more. It is a shame what has happened with the new regime. 

  8. frank schoon, October 28, 2019 at 11:37 a.m.

    Breaking news......Dest has chosen to play for the US...

  9. Michael Saunders, October 28, 2019 at 2:03 p.m.

    Bob could not agree with you more on your analysis ..... Excellent but sadly so .... 


     

  10. Michael Saunders, October 28, 2019 at 2:03 p.m.

    Bob could not agree with you more on your analysis ..... Excellent but sadly so .... 


     

  11. Hat Trick, October 29, 2019 at 1:54 p.m.

    You know someone is really full of it here.  I am not going to mention coaches here but all you have to do is back track the coaches that handled these under 17 players back to when they started the U14's.  Pretty easy to do.  There were quality kids brought into these camps and so many let go which is normal but what isn't normal is the kids that were passed by were the kids who were technically skilled, could control the ball and were creative who didn't believe in kick the ball and chase it.  Many of these individuals are now playing in England, Spain, Mexico and other places and they are playing daily and being succesful at it.  These are the kids who had the ability to make things happen but were either small at the time or didn't play for an MLS club.  Many of these kids are now going strong across the pond and look to have great futures in front of them.  I am not saying that this present group doesn't have talent they certainly do but when they hit the tough competition they are stymied.  Then we have coaches taking undue credit for puting forward the best we have ever had.  The one coach I am going to mention here is Tab Ramos and only because it was mentioned insinuating that Tab was on board so to speak.  Nonesense Tab Ramos shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence with these guys.  Ramos is a professional that doesn't let the political part of US Soccer get in the way of his beliefs.  Tab Ramos should be the compass but for some reason this organization is numb when it comes to him.

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