The Golden Eaglets battle USA tonight in their opening Group A match at the FIFA U-17 World Cup. In this interview with USA Soccer, American coach, Richie Williams says it won’t be a stroll in the park for the four-time World Cup winners from west Africa, who he warns to expect an energetic play from the Yankees.
How do you feel about this team you were able to assemble?
Richie Williams: I think it’s a pretty well-rounded roster. When you look over the two-plus years we’ve been together, we’ve had the ability to push forward and score goals with a lot of talented attacking players, but also on the defensive end we’ve had a lot of great games where we’ve defended well. We were able to play a good amount of international matches and domestic matches and we hope through all of those experiences we have a really balanced team of 21 players that comes together and gets positive results.
Were there difficult decisions that had to be made to get to a 21-player roster?
There’s always difficult decisions to be made. There are guys that have been with us the whole time here at residency and didn’t make the roster. It’s difficult because they’re 16 and 17-years-old and they put a lot into it and worked extremely hard. To leave players off the roster is definitely always difficult, but I think we had a very fair process and we had the ability through these two years to play many international matches. Everyone has been able to start in international matches, come off the bench and have opportunities to play through training and through games. I think we came up with a really talented and strong group that we think will do really well for us.
Are there certain qualities that, with your experience, you know are important that players have to be successful in a World Cup?
I think you need a group of guys that are willing to compete. For as talented as you are, I think you need to be able to get out there and compete and play as a team. You need players that are willing to play their role and do what it takes for the team to be successful and that’s not always the guys scoring goals or keeping the goals out of the back of the net, but willing to do whatever it takes to get positive results. Whether you’re starting or coming off the bench, you’re there for the team and I think in any major tournament, with a team in any sport, you’ve got to be competitive and willing to give your best for the team and that’s ultimately the end product to win the World Cup as a team.
The team will play in the opening game of the tournament against Nigeria. Is it a challenge playing in the first game?
I think it’s a great challenge and I think the guys will be excited. It’s a great opportunity to compete against the champions of the last World Cup and I think our guys are going to have a lot of energy, they’re going to be excited and they’re going to be ready to play, so we’re looking forward to it. I think every World Cup game is important. You can’t say one is any more important than the other. You can’t overlook any team. It’s a World Cup game and everybody’s got to be ready to go. Whether you think they’re the strongest opponent or the weakest opponent, it’s the World Cup and all the games are very important and very competitive and anything could happen, especially if you’re not ready to play. Having a clear four days to train before our game against Nigeria will help us a lot.
In group play you will also go up against the host, Chile. What challenges does playing against the host nation present?
We’ve played them before. We played them in Chile and drew them 2-2. It was a good game and we had more opportunities to score that we didn’t take and we made a couple of errors on defense, but I think we played very well against Chile. We have experience against them, we’re familiar with them and I’m sure they’ve developed like we have and gotten better so we have to be ready. I think games against the host can work in two ways. They’re going to come out with energy so we have to be ready to match their energy, they’ll have the crowd behind them and it’ll be the third group game so there could be a lot on the line and we have to make sure we’re ready to go and be able to absorb their energy from the beginning. But I think also sometimes it can, especially with young players, potentially work the opposite where they could be really excited and feel a little bit of pressure because they’re playing at home and are expected to do well and if that’s the case we have to take advantage of that to and potentially pressure them and get after them right from the beginning of the game.
Was it helpful to have played against Chile in Chile a year ago?
I believe so. We’re familiar with the country, even though we’ll be in different cities. We’ve taken the flight from Miami and we have the same travel plan. Just being there the year before, I think it helps and definitely benefits us.
Have the last two years prepared the group for the challenge ahead?
I believe so. I think we have an experienced team and I think we have enough games. We’ve traveled to different parts of the world and we’ve had games here in the United States and we’ve been able to play different teams from different parts of the world. Again, for me, that Chile game that we were able to play was important. We were able to play Turkey in Turkey, France in France, the list goes on. I think we’ve given our guys a ton of experiences through International matches and again in our training here in Residency over the last two years we’ve been able to look at players. We’ve had some that were right with us in the beginning. We’ve had some that have been added over time, because we know over time with development, things change and guys are going to step up and do a little bit better and some guys might fall off, but I think the process has given them a huge opportunity. It’s really going to benefit them. I think U.S. Soccer has done a really good job of being able to give them these opportunities to play domestic and international games to get them ready for the World Cup.
When you informed the 21 players who would be going to Chile, what was your message to them?
First of all to say congratulations and that they should be proud of the fact that they have made the final roster and will get to represent the United States. We started this process two years ago and want to finish in a very positive way. We still have a couple weeks to train and focus on all the little details, and they need to focus and get ready.
There are two players on the team, Luca de la Torre and Danny Barbir, who have never been in Residency and others who have moved on to professional clubs.
How were you able to monitor them and keep them integrated in the group?
Luca and Danny started with our U-15’s so they knew the group, and we have been able to keep them in involved from day one in terms of participating in the majority of domestic and international trips. We also monitor them through updates from their clubs. Other guys were here for a year and then signed with professional clubs, which has been a great experience for them. Being around older professionals has helped them mature and develop as players. You can see they are growing, and that’s a positive.”