Gonzalo Segares on leading the USA into U-17 World Cup qualifying

Costa Rican Gonzalo Segares  moved to the USA to play for Virginia Commonwealth University in 2001 and went on to play a decade of MLS ball for the Chicago Fire. Upon retiring from a playing career that included World Cup qualifying and Gold Cup appearances for Costa Rica, he went straight into youth coaching with the Fire.

U.S. Soccer hired Segares to take charge of the U.S. U-15 boys national team in 2020. As the youth national team program returned from the Covid interruption, which forced the cancellation of the 2021 U-17 World Cup, Segares’ emersion in scouting the 2006 age group put him in good position to become U-17 national team head coach.

On Friday, Segares announced his 20-player roster for the Concacaf U-17 Championship (Feb. 11-22 in Guatemala) that will determine the region’s four teams for the 2023 U-17 World Cup in Peru.

SOCCER AMERICA: Who are your assistant coaches for the Concacaf U-17 Championship?

GONZALO SEGARES: Alex Aldaz, who’s FC Dallas' U-15 coach. Kelvin Jones, the Columbus Crew’s Academy Director, and NYCFC academy goalkeeper coach Danny Cepero [recently named NYCFC II assistant coach].

SA: What was the process of picking 20 players to take into U-17 World Cup qualifying?

GONZALO SEGARES: I attended about 13 ID centers throughout the country.

There are so many players to keep track of in this country, in addition to players overseas. The Talent ID department plays a key part: Tony Lepore (U.S. Soccer Director of Talent Identification), Garrett Biller (Central), Gabriel Farfan (West), Rob Irvine (East) and Chris Kranjc (South).

We had our first YNT camp with the top 36. We have done seven total camps — three international ones and four domestic. Some players we kept bringing back  while bringing in different guys in areas where we felt that we needed to look at different options.

Talent ID has been great at keeping us updated on how players are doing with their clubs and performing during the games. We get reports on a weekly basis.

It was my first time through the process and I learned a lot.

Roster bios: The USA 20 headed to Concacaf Men's U-17 Championship

Schedule: Concacaf U-17 Championship
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SA: How beneficial is the MLS Next setup?

GONZALO SEGARES: There's been great communication and cooperation with academy directors. We have two-way conversations about the players, the planning and the process.

I think that we all see what's best for the players and their development. The clubs see that when their players come into the national team they get beneficial experiences.

SA: I imagine at this age group things can change significantly during the two-year period while trying to determine the top 20 players in the country?

GONZALO SEGARES: Yes. They’re still developing. They have growth spurts. You always have to be watching them.

SA: Some players on your current roster had been coming since the very first camps. Do you also have late additions?

GONZALO SEGARES: Yes, and that’s great. The doors are never closed. We're always looking.

We had a few new guys come into this last camp because we had received good reports on how they performed within their clubs. Christopher Aquino [Seattle Sounders] we felt is a guy who definitely can help us in the qualifiers, and he's a player that we haven't had in before. Also, Taha Habroune from the Columbus Crew.

We're always are looking at new faces because players are always coming up. There's a lot of things that we have to consider.

SA: Did you have players in camp who we might see later in the future national teams, but at this point you felt it wasn’t the right time to bring them into a tournament?

GONZALO SEGARES: Yes. It would be easy if we had a crystal ball and could see which guys will make the senior team in the next couple years, but we consider whether players are early developers or late developers, which players are making an impact because of their qualities or because of their physical attributes at the moment.

We know that there might be players that we see as prospects, we believe in them, and in the future we know that they're going to be high level players. But right now it might be a little bit difficult for them because of where they're at in their development.

Those are players that we always try to keep engaged.

And we definitely know that there are going to be players that we might have missed that will end up in the senior team. It’s just not the case that we can be 100 percent sure of who will develop into senior team players.

SA: Who’s your boss now at the federation?

GONZALO SEGARES: We still have Earnie Stewart [Sporting Director]. He’s still here until departs in February [15]. I chatted with him yesterday at the office. And Barry Pauwels [Director of Technical Development] is in charge of the development of the coaches as well in the youth national team systems. He's someone that I have a lot of conversations as well.

SA: When you coach your team, when it comes to the tactics or the style or the approach, how much of that is influenced by what the senior national team is doing and how much is what you think gets the best out of the players that you have?

GONZALO SEGARES: This process of the style of play — “our way” — our identity is something we focused on during the Covid break when all the national team staff — men, women and youth — came together.

Barry Pauwels was the one who led us through this process. We took in consideration the player, and from there we start building on a youth national team style of play that parallels with what the MNT is doing is doing at the senior level.

We started with our principles of play and our idea of what the youth national teams should look like. And we've been implementing it ever since at our camps.

Everybody was involved in this process and it was great to see the collaboration.

SA: How would you describe the style of play?

GONZALO SEGARES: We want to be brave in the buildup out of the back, to control the ball, and be able to advance the ball through the thirds of the field.

Be relentless in front of goal and relentless in defending. We want to be relentless in our pressing, trying to recover the ball as high as possible up the field so we can be closer to goal when we try to score.

And the same with the transitions. We want to be quick to react to try to get the ball back, and if our pressure is broken, to recover as quickly as possible.

It goes back to “our way.” To be brave, honor our tradition and to honor our diversity, which our country is very rich in and which is a strength.

SA: Is there room in that system for a traditional playmaker, a No. 10 who can create, improvise, and set the rhythm of a game? Is that something that you look for in players? Is that something you might have on your team?

GONZALO SEGARES: I think that we look for that from everyone. Nowadays we're asking the center backs and even the goalkeepers to be playmakers.

We ask them to be comfortable with the ball. We want center backs who are not only great at defending, but comfortable with the ball and have a high game understanding.

That they're brave as well to play with the high line because of how aggressive we want to be trying to recover the ball.

If you mean like a Messi No. 10 — you always would love to have that kind of player.

I think that we have a solid group of players who are special and have high qualities. And as a team, we have a strong culture and everybody's supporting one another.

I do believe that we definitely have the special players that that can change a game.

SA: One sometimes worries when there’s talk of all the players being all-around players that there isn’t a place for the creative player who’s not a good defender on a team that's so intent on winning the ball back quickly. Is there still room for a specialist, attacking player?

GONZALO SEGARES: For sure. I think that we do have those players that are, for example, specialists in the front of the goal. That's also important.

You need to have those players, and players with qualities to combine, who are quick to pull the trigger in front goal, who can play that through ball for a teammate running behind the back line.

That’s important as well and it goes to back to “our way.”

And part of our culture is that diversity, and I think that we have a great mix of cultures within our group.

We have players who are more defensive-minded, players who are more offensive-minded. I think we have a well-balanced team.

A big part of picking the roster is creating a well-balanced team.

SA: When you were the age of these players — you played on Costa Rica’s U-17s — how different was the world of soccer for that age group?

GONZALO SEGARES: It's interesting to see how much we have advanced. How much it keeps growing.

A lot of our guys are already having their first preseasons with the first team, and are already signing with professional teams.

That’s something that I never experienced at that age. I went through the college process, so I didn’t sign my first contract until I was 21, 22.

That these guys already having this experience at such a young age just shows how much we keep advancing soccer in this country. And that's great too.

SA: It also sounds daunting for kids in their mid-teens to be making career decisions, and they must be under a high amount of pressure. As a coach, do feel it’s also important that they have a chance to be kids?

GONZALO SEGARES: I think that's super important — for us to never forget that they're also kids and they're 16, 17 years old. That they’re thinking, "Do I sign a pro contract or not?" It's a huge decision.

Parents are key in that area as well to provide support, as are we as a coaching staff and support staff.

It’s always important for us to remember that they also need to live regular lives.

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U.S. U-17 men’s national roster

Adam Beaudry (Colorado Rapids; Castle Pines, Colo.)
Diego Kochen (FC Barcelona/Spain; Miramar, Fla.)
Christian Diaz (LAFC; San Bernardino, Calif.)
Tyler Hall (Inter Miami CF; Miramar, Fla.)
Aidan Harangi (Eintracht Frankfurt/Germany; Zwingenberg, Germany)
Stuart Hawkins (Seattle Sounders; Fox Island, Wash.)
Sawyer Jura (Portland Timbers; Bend, Ore.)
Oscar Verhoeven (San Jose Earthquakes; Pleasant Hill, Calif.)
Christopher Aquino (Seattle Sounders; Pasco, Wash.)
Adrian Gill (Barcelona/Spain; Denver, Colo.)
Taha Habroune (Columbus Crew; Columbus, Ohio)
Cruz Medina (San Jose Earthquakes; San Francisco, Calif.)
Edwyn Mendoza (San Jose Earthquakes; San Francisco, Calif.),
Paulo Rudisill (LA Galaxy; Irvine, Calif.)
Pedro Soma (UE Cornella/ESP; Coconut Creek, Fla.)
Micah Burton (Austin FC; Mounds View, Minn.)
Brian Carmona (Charlotte FC; Concord, N.C.)
Keyrol Figueroa (Liverpool/ENG; Warrington, U.K.)
Ezekiel Soto (Houston Dynamo FC; Menifee, Calif.)
David Vasquez (Philadelphia Union; Los Angeles, Calif.)
Three alternates will train with the team in Guatemala and return before kickoff unless they replace an injured player. They are goalkeeper Duran Ferree (San Diego Loyal), defender Noahkai Banks (Augsburg/GER) and midfielder Santiago Morales (Inter Miami CF).
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