U.S. Soccer has hired 48-year-old Welshman Matt Crocker to set its “sporting vision,” to oversee its women’s and men’s (and girls and boys) national team programs, to develop “sporting culture, philosophy,” and implement the technical development plan.
During Tuesday’s 45-minute press conference introducing Crocker as U.S. Soccer’s next Sporting Director, he referred a dozen times to his eagerness to learn.
“The U.S. has always been a passion of mine and I’ve always followed the soccer,” said Crocker, who arrives after serving as Southampton’s Director of Football Operations (2020-2023), the England FA’s Head of Development Teams, Coaching (2013-2020) and Southampton’s Academy Director (2006-2013).
“To see the developments in the MLS, to see new teams coming into the franchise, the development of stadia. The MLS Next programs, the academy development — I've seen that from a distance. …
“I've also been close enough first-hand when I worked at the English FA to play across both the boys and the girls sides with the U.S. national teams and see their developments. … In particular, that 2000 age group that we played in the  World Cup at the U-17 level, some outstanding talent and obviously many of those players have now gone on to make that jump through into the seniors. …
“I’ve watched it from afar. Clearly, I've got a lot to learn, both in the men's and the women's game. … I'm really excited. But I'm under no illusions of what I need to learn and I need to learn quicky."
The U.S. population under the age of 18 is about 26% Latino, and in recent years on the men's side the youth national team rosters have been from about 25% to 40% Latino. How familiar are you with Latin American soccer? What is your opinion about the Latin style of soccer and how does that demographic impact you as you set the sporting vision for U.S. Soccer?
Crocker: “As I mentioned, there's a lot of things about U.S. soccer that I need to learn and I need to understand. And that would be one of the significant landscapes. You've given me a statistic that I hadn't researched yet. As I mentioned, I've got a great amount to learn in a short space of time and I'll be doing all I can behind the scenes to pick that up.
“What I want to make sure is that we've got real diversity across our teams. It's about the best players being picked for the best teams at the right moments in time. And what we want to do is to make sure the most important part is the pathway.
“So we want to make sure our selection process is right at the very, very youngest ages, to make sure that the players can grow and develop with us, and I'll be doing all I can behind the scenes with the staff to support that process.”
During his first stint at Southampton, Crocker directed an academy that spawned stars such as Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and James Ward-Prowse. (Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott made their first-team debuts coming out of Southampton’s academy shortly before Crocker’s arrival.)
When Crocker moved to the English FA in 2013, England had not won a major title since lifting the World Cup on home soil in 1966.
In 2017, England won for the first time both the U-20 World Cup and the U-17 World Cup, which it had only qualified for three previous times since biennial tournament’s 1985 inception. In 2019, England won the UEFA European U-19 Championship.
Crocker led the establishment of the “England DNA" project, worked with the English Premier League on the Elite Player Performance Plan, and designed an “aligned pathway” from youth national teams, starting at U-15 to the full national team — combined as “a four-year project, [with] a real clear vision about us wanting to be successful at the top senior level, targeting 2022 and podium finishes thereafter in terms of World Cups.”
England’s shootout loss to Italy in the final of the European Championship that England hosted in 2021 was its best performance in the tournament’s history. (Previous bests were semifinal losses in 1968 and 1996.) At the 2022 World Cup, England, which played the USA to a scoreless tie in group play, exited with a 2-1 loss to France in the quarterfinals.
In February of 2020, Crocker had returned to Southampton, which won promotion to the Premier League in 2012, after playing in the second tier in 2011-12 and 2005-09, and the third tier in 2009-11.
Southampton finished 15th in the EPL in 2020-21 and 2021-22, and is currently in last-place of the 20-team league. (Southampton announced in December that Crocker would be leaving the club at this season's end.)
In February, the BBC reported that Southampton considered hiring American coach Jesse Marsch a week after he was fired by Leeds United.
As Crocker is charged with leading the hiring process for head coach of the U.S. men’s national team, currently led on an interim basis by Anthony Hudson, Crocker was asked about Marsch and the possibility of re-hiring Gregg Berhalter.
"It would be unprofessional of me right now to talk about individual names,” Crocker said. “Gregg has done a fantastic job and I intend to follow up with a number of candidates, both internally within the organization and externally, to begin to understand more and to assess my learning. I'll be doing that as quickly as I possibly can."
On his criteria for U.S. coach, Crocker, who succeeds Earnie Stewart in the Sporting Director role, said:
“What I see from the current team is an aggressive, a forward-thinking, a fearless team that went to the World Cup and did some great stuff. And I’m really, really keen to make sure that we produce a coach that can replicate and continue to drive forward some of those behaviors. Clearly, there’s been some great foundations put in place by Gregg and by Anthony around the style, and we want to continue to evolve that style of play. …
“And we clearly want a head coach who is a role model and a cultural leader as well, and can inspire the next generation. So the legacy piece around the future is as important, if not more important, than build up to the next World Cup.”
Crocker begins work full-time on Aug. 2 but “will immediately begin the process of hiring the head coach of the men’s national team and supporting the U.S. women’s national team,” stated U.S. Soccer.
Including the nine extended national teams (beach soccer, futsal, CP, deaf, power), men’s and women’s full national teams, eight youth national teams down to U-14s at both genders, Crocker will be overseeing 27 teams.
“Both on the boys and the girls side,” Crocker said, “to have the opportunity to step in and build on those foundations, and be part of that, and listen and learn in the early months to understand the landscape is something that is really exciting. And then obviously you've got the amazing tournaments that are around the corner."
Crocker, who was born in Wales, served as Academy Manager of Cardiff City FC in 1999-2005 after earning Sports Coach & Physical Education degrees at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
He said his first coaching experiences were in the USA.
“First of all, in Little Rock, Arkansas, when I came over a few summers,” he said. “Then I had the opportunity to spend some time in Kansas City, with the Louisburg Legends, under-12 boys and U-12 girls teams. …
"My history [with the U.S.] actually goes back a long way.”
This time around, he’ll be based at U.S. Soccer’s headquarters in Chicago.Photos: U.S. Soccer & English FA.