B.J. Callaghan on behind-the-scenes USMNT coaching, the scouting process, and his path to the 2022 World Cup

Before joining the U.S. men's national team staff as strategy analyst/assistant coach in January 2019, B.J. Callaghan  coached at every level of the game. He went into coaching at Ursinus College in 2003 after playing goalkeeper for the Black Bears. He coached high school and youth club ball, including for FC Delco and Montgomery United. Callaghan spent six years with men's and women's soccer programs at Villanova — where his grandfather Jack Kraft served as basketball head coach in 1961-73 — and two years coaching the Saint Joseph’s women’s team.

When Gregg Berhalter welcomed Callaghan to his staff, he had been with the Philadelphia Union for seven years, the final five as an assistant coach to Jim Curtin and the first two with the Union's academy. He also spent time as assistant coach of the Union's USL League Two affiliate Reading United.

Since the initial staff hiring for the 2022 cycle in 2019, assistants Josh Wolff and Nico Estevez left for head coaching positions at Austin FC and FC Dallas, respectively, before the World Cup. Luchi Gonzalez took the San Jose Earthquakes' helm after the World Cup. With Berhalter's contract having expired at the end of 2022 and Anthony Hudson, who moved from U-20 coach to USMNT assistant coach in 2021, becoming interim head coach, Callaghan remains a constant with the USMNT.

As the USA prepares for Concacaf Nations League games at Grenada March 24 and vs. El Salvador in Orlando on March 27, Callaghan’s pre-training camp duties include visiting foreign-based U.S. players Auston Trusty (Birmingham City), Zack Steffen (Middlesbrough), Josh Sargent (Norwich City), and Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson at Fulham.

SA: You’ve coached at almost every level available in the American soccer pyramid. How does your experience coaching the national team differ from your other roles?

B.J.  CALLAGHAN: During training camp, you're spending more time with them than you're spending with your family. That's followed by much less in-person contact time. The challenge is continuing to build those relationships in other ways — staying in touch or visiting, because I do think those are key dynamics to a good culture and to a good team.

Right when you break a camp, you want to give people a little bit of time to reintegrate and focus back on their club environment. Then we'll start to slowly ramp it back up again. Watching their games from afar and trying to set up visits to see them in person — meet for a coffee or a meal. Even little text notes back and forth with guys go a long way, I think. Just saying, 'Hey, we see you, recognize you,' those types of things.

Recognizing moments: guys gets married, have babies, their birthdays — showing them the human side. Trying to keep it intentional and organic as possible, but we know that regular communication and feedback is important.

SA: How do you tailor your communication with a 26-man roster with just as many personalities?

B.J. CALLAGHAN: I think that's a key aspect to any bit of coaching: knowing  which guys need an arm around them, which guys you can go six weeks not talking to and they're still OK. There's definitely individualized approaches and some guys even want feedback on their games and other guys kind of want support. That's a key to any really good coach: to really know how to communicate with them.

SA: What does your role as opponent analyst for the men's national team entail?

B.J. CALLAGHAN: We do extensive scouting on each individual player from the opponent. Our players get iPads that are tailored to show them small videos of certain direct match-ups we're going to have.

It isn't any secret that a team like Wales had a strong, big striker in Kieffer Moore, who we know from analyzing scores a lot of his goals moving into the back post. Are we unearthing anything that nobody knows? No.

But what's important is that when you have an individual meeting with center backs and fullbacks, you paint a very clear picture and highlight a major point. That's going to stick with them when they're in the heat of the moment and regardless of how exhausted they are. What one or two things are stuck in their brain while they're playing? That, to me, is the importance of the video.

SA: How did you train against what you predicted Wales would do with Kieffer Moore?

B.J. CALLAGHAN: We'd do training with the back four, have guys get crosses coming in, and mimicking the three runs that we would see Wales do. One of those was using the back-up center backs that weren't getting the reps getting to that back post. Then talk about body shape defending it and how we wanted the weak-side fullback and the weak-side center back to really reduce the space and make it difficult for him to get up in the air.

SA: In terms of player evaluation, talk about how you judge a player's performances for club and how they do in the national team?

B.J. CALLAGHAN: We have very specific position-specific player profiles that we're looking at. Attributes and aspects to their game that fit the position that we expect to see them in. When we evaluate in their club games, those are the things that we are looking for. Are they performing some of these? At the same time, through communicating with the players, we know that they may or may not know what they're being asked to do certain things. That's never held against them.

We're just trying to take snapshots over a period of time and asking, 'Are they showing attributes that fit our game model and the way that we want to play?'

Conversely, there's also areas in their club environment when they're playing and building it into our game model. What areas do our players like? Where do they want to receive the ball? What areas of the field do they feel like they can make an impact? And then it's our job as the national team staff to try and also build that into the game model. We don't ever want to deviate away from the principles that we have, guiding our play, but at the same time we know from a positional aspect it might benefit us to put certain guys in certain positions to get the most out of them.

SA: Like how Weston McKennie pulled out wide for Juventus a lot and then did it for the USA at the World Cup?

B.J. CALLAGHAN: Exactly. If Weston wants to rotate into a wide area to get the ball, can we find rotations to get him the ball. We know Yunus [Musah] likes to come down and get the ball, and he has an unbelievable ability to dribble the ball from one third to the next third.

So I agree, a lot of how we look at the player evaluation side is, 'What attributes do they have? What are their strengths? Where do they want to be on the field?'

SA: Talk about the preparation work against Netherlands in the round-of-16 game in Qatar.

B.J. CALLAGHAN: We had a team of scouts there that were working on all of the advance teams and scenarios we could play. With their help, we could make a really good quick turnaround, in terms of getting as much information. They had worked prior to the World Cup as well. We worked with that same group, they were watching teams for all of that September window. Once we drew Holland, they came in and gave us a quick brain dump on everything. We were watching games as well.

SA: How long was that meeting?

B.J. CALLAGHAN: It was for sure a couple hours. We spoke to the team that we thought it was a game where we could control the buildup, we knew that they were going to force us into the inside of the field. We still thought with someone like Tim [Ream] that we could be narrow and exploit those areas. Those were some of the big moments for us — just giving the players confidence that we were going to be able to have and control the ball even though we were playing against a really good opponent in the Netherlands. That was, for us, a big piece of that game plan.

SA: Looking back, is there anything you would've done differently? Of course, hindsight is 20/20 and it was a disappointing result.

B.J. CALLAGHAN: Yeah, I mean ... it's hard. I don't know if there's anything we wish we would've changed — I think giving up the goal, there was an idea that we could've made some adjustments at 1-0. But giving up a goal at 2-0, now it's about we gotta go get that goal. It's less about, we have time to get the goal.

It wasn't if we could do something different at the point, it was more about keeping belief in the group and understanding that if we got one, we could get that second one. And I still stand by that. There was that period of time when the momentum was in our favor.

SA: When did you began thinking that you might coach at a World Cup?

B.J. CALLAGHAN: That's a great question. My coaching journey has spanned almost every level that the U.S. Soccer ecosystem has. I don't think I ever thought that far in advance. I like to pride myself on, 'Whatever job I have, I'm going to do the best I can, and if someone recognizes it and gives you another opportunity, then you sort of take that opportunity. I never said, 'In 20 years, I'm going to coach at a World Cup.' I think when I was coaching Division III, maybe I could coach in Division I. It's incremental.

But when I was offered the position at the end of the 2018 MLS season, I had no other thought other than that we were going to qualify and that we were going to go to a World Cup. So I would say, when those conversations began, that's when I was super determined and only had a one-track mind. This was gonna happen and do whatever it took to make it happen and achieve that dream for myself and for everyone involved.

SA: What were the major obstacles for that three-year long trip to Qatar?

B.J. CALLAGHAN: I mean, the first one was Covid. We were rolling. The new staff, the amount of young players, the volume of players we were introducing, and then it just comes to a screeching halt. That was a crazy roadblock. As a staff, it allowed us to pump the brakes and reflect on where we were going. Maybe look at the international game a bit more and see what kind of trends were fitting our player profile.

We actually switched the way we defended in that period of time. We went and studied. Starting in 2019, we were defending in a 4-4-2. During that break in 2020 we studied different pressing ideas and maybe implement a different pressing system. Therefore made that transition out of Covid.

To give you a second one that I never thought would happen: triple fixtures in World Cup qualifying. More games than ever in qualifying, and doing triple fixtures in pretty much the same amount of days. It was something none of us had experienced. There was no playbook on how to do this. We were basically trial and erroring how to travel, where to host games, all of those things.

SA: Eight days, three games, with players arriving Sunday and Monday in a different time zone  after 10 hours of travel. Multiple that by a 26-player roster — those are a lot of logistics. How do you piece that all together?

B.J. CALLAGHAN: It's always about the player performance and the players in front of every decision that we make. There's a ton of chaos in terms of trying to get guys into camp. Some of them are playing in cities around the world where it takes three flights to get there with 24 hours of travel.

First and foremost, we want to create the most welcoming and safe environment for the players so that they can be recovered and they can be fresh. Trying to get, from a technical standpoint, the biggest concepts that we need to cover over a 10-day period of time. And get that to them in the most simple way. How can we slowly drip that into them? If the first day we can't do a hard training, then maybe we need to spend more time in a meeting. Maybe it's less meeting, the more we get into the training.

There was no expense spared in trying to get recovery strategies for these guys between matches. Traveling the best way we can and prioritizing nutrition and sleep. Giving the players the most amount of support possible. So that when all of that chaos is happening, you never feel like it'll impact your performance.

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