Anthony Hudson on national team coaching during a pandemic and promising signs from his U-20s

Anthony Hudson  was named U.S. men's U-20 national team coach in early January as the successor to Tab Ramos. Shortly after Hudson's appointment, the U-20s convened at a training camp in Florida, where they beat (2-0) and tied (2-2) Mexico, as preparations began for the 2020 Concacaf U-20 Championship. That tournament, to determine qualifiers for the 2021 U-20 World Cup, was scheduled to kick off in June but canceled because of COVID-19 and has yet to be rescheduled. We checked in with Hudson, who's been tracking a U-20 pool of 50-60 players, to find out what coaching the youth national team is like amid the pandemic.

SOCCER AMERICA: How has coaching been different for you in the last seven months?

ANTHONY HUDSON: It's been strangely busy. Very busy, but a different type of busy. Basically there have been two phases.

SA: The first being the lockdown?

ANTHONY HUDSON: Right. We did a lot to connect with players, to keep them connected with each other, and build relationships. We started a WhatsApp group, came up with different technical games and skills challenges, trying to make things competitive. We gave them video clips of their positions to study. It went well.

SA: Can you give some examples?

ANTHONY HUDSON: We asked them to make a video, a skills challenge where they juggle and virtually pass the ball to each other, add music to it. I remember calling a player and he told me that he was about to enter a Zoom meeting with a group to plan out their video, how to the deliver the ball ... It was encouraging that they were connecting with each other like that.

SA: How did you orchestrate the communication with so many players?

ANTHONY HUDSON: Every week, me and my staff, Tony Lepore and the Talent ID guys, we divided up the players in groups of 10 to 15 and each of us would call them personally. Sometimes the call would be about soccer, and sometimes we decided to talk about anything but soccer, just to see how they were doing, what concerns they had. One of the big positives was we got to know the players even better.

SA: What were your impressions about how the players handled the stress caused by the pandemic?

ANTHONY HUDSON: My impression was the younger players handled it perhaps easier than the older ones, who probably felt they had more to lose, have mortgages, are concerned about their jobs and their families. The younger players, they followed the rules for sure, but they may not pay as close attention to the news and the turmoil in the world. The younger players focused on the skill work we gave them and their biggest anxiety seemed to be when they could play again.

SA: And then came the second phase ...

ANTHONY HUDSON: When the games started, in Europe, MLS, USL. Analyzing the performances, speaking to their club coaches, responding to players who want feedback. We work closely with Gregg [Berhalter] and the first-team staff. We're very close with the MNT and scouting the first-team players. And because we've got some young players in the first-team pool, that part also covers [U-20] players. We get assigned games, analyze performances, and present clips. I get to share in that with the first team, and then we have our own U-20 sessions. My staff and the Talent ID guys are assigned games, have our weekly sessions, pick players to focus on, look for red flags.

SA: What kind of red flags?

ANTHONY HUDSON: Players being dropped from the lineup, are going through a difficult time, or are in between clubs. They get flagged and we create an action plan, arrange to reach out to them.

I think a good way to describe our role is to go back to how Gregg described it to the media a while back: We're a supplement to the players' development. The clubs are in control of the player, and we provide support and fill in the gaps when needed.

SA: You help scout the first team MNT players and track the 50-60 players in the U-20 pool?

ANTHONY HUDSON: Yes. Gregg works in a detailed, professional way. Everyone's working together. Everyone's playing a part. The way he works, he leaves no stone unturned and gets every bit of information, every detail to analyze every player. It's very thorough. With the first-team guys, playing in MLS and in Europe, we have access to all the games. It can be a little trickier sometimes [to get video] of U-20s' games, so sometimes we have to reach out to the club.

SA: What are you looking for when you're watching national team pool players perform for their clubs?

ANTHONY HUDSON: The best thing is that we're very much aligned with first team. My job is to move players on to the first team and Gregg has a very clear line of communication. I'm familiar the the principles of play, so we're analyzing within our playing model, looking for clear characteristics for each position. We present our analysis to the group, we grade all the players, and consideration comes in to what level they're playing at.

SA: For your U-20s, you've got players in MLS, USL and abroad ...

ANTHONY HUDSON: Some of these young players in USL, competing in an adult league, are getting consistent playing time, showing good characteristics, and we also highlight them for Gregg. Overseas, we have players who might not be getting as many minutes as we would like. But in MLS and USL, one thing that's happened because of this situation [COVID effect on scheduling], there are so many games, limited [roster] numbers, and injuries -- young players are getting opportunities and they've handled themselves very well.

There's now a real sense that when young players are good enough, and you give them a chance, they add value to the first team. That's one of the real positives that's come out of this.

In fact, there have been a lot of positives. The only thing missing is getting on the field to prepare for games and play games. I'm hoping that will start happening in December, January.

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