Hoping to restart the U-20 cycle soon, Hudson happy with the progress of players
September 15, 2020
WHEN LOOKING at the current American soccer landscape, 2020 has been a challenging year due to COVID. While it has been a positive sign that domestic leagues have returned to the field, the national teams have had no games since January camps. Despite the inactivity of games, the national teams have been very active behind the scenes.
For the U.S. U-20 national team, that has been particularly true. As is typical with players of this age, the status of players can change in the matter of a few months. Head coach Anthony Hudson has been monitoring the developments of his player pool across the globe and has paid particular attention to the developments of these players both at various levels domestically and abroad.
While there is no set timetable for the team’s return and the World Cup qualifying tournament set for Honduras in June/July was postponed, Hudson remains optimistic that this cycle will resume before the end of the year. ASN spoke at length with the manager about running this team during lockdowns, the changes of the player pool, and what he is seeing from his group of players.
BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: How has it been handling running the team during COVID? What have you been doing to keep the team together without camps or games?
ANTHONY HUDSON: It's almost been two phases. The first part is when we had the lockdown and there was no end in sight and people weren't allowed to train. That part, when people were in their houses, we had an opportunity to do a lot more activities to create a little bit of connection among the group. Along with my staff, we had a real opportunity to learn a lot about the guys. We created WhatsApp groups and we had fun challenges, skill challenges, videos, and things to challenge the players to speak among each other and encourage communication.
That stuff was all really, really good. We invited a bunch of ex-players to come on and speak to the group and talk about different things. We really tried to focus on ways to help the players in their development in their mindset and how to handle social media. There were lots ways we tried to help the players…Gregg has said this but we are trying to be a supplement to their clubs.
The second phase is now with everyone getting back to training. It's a lot more difficult to get these types of calls and gatherings. It's been a lot more now about individual calls and video sessions. We are working with their clubs and work with their club coaches. Obviously, we're watching their games and it's been great to see so many of them doing well.
We want them to know we support them in their development we want to let them know we are there for them. That is what we are trying to create.
ASN: How big is the group of players who you had in your Zoom sessions and have been in this circle of activity?
HUDSON: Early on when we had guests and national team players to come on and speak to the group, we had sixty-something players and staff. That group has grown since then because so many players, especially the younger guys like the 2003's, have done really well.
That was in the early days when we could create those situations, but now with the group we have, we're all going to work together to see who is watching who, who is speaking to who. We have weekly meetings, look for red flags and see if there are any players we need to speak to and help or support. We speak with clubs. It's been all that on a weekly basis.
ASN: How much are you working with the other men's national teams? The full national team and the U-23 team are all active right now. Does your staff overlap?
HUDSON: We're really involved with the men's team as well and the good thing about that is that there is no real division. We have a few meetings weekly with the men's staff. We share everything in detail and we analyze who has played. I share with them information about who I've seen, who has stood out and done well. I show examples and clips. To be honest, they're watching these games as well.
With my staff, I have a few assistants but we haven't had a camp together yet. But they're speaking with the players as well. We have the talent ID scouts that we speak with every week and they're covering games on a wider basis.
ASN: Do you believe that U-20 cycle will happen? What have you heard about future camps and qualifying?
HUDSON: Honestly, we're waiting for a decision with FIFA. My gut feeling is that the World Cup will go ahead but that's just what I am feeling… Officially, we don't know anything. In terms of preparation, we're waiting to see how things unfold. We're certainly have a plan but it is dependent on other things but we do want to get the team together, hopefully this year - once if not twice.
ASN: You have players all over the globe right now - MLS, USL, Central America, South America. Is getting players released a major concern for you right now? It just seems as if some foreign clubs might have a concern about sending players all over the globe when it is not mandatory to release them.
HUDSON: Yeah. I think it is more for camps. Just to get the team together, maybe there might be a European-only or a U.S.-based only camp. When we get toward qualifiers or closer to the World Cup, I think it will be on an individual basis. We could have a domestic-based player not released.
It's not a straight forward answer that it will be [an abroad-based] team or [a domestic-based] team. I am confident we will get players.
To be honest, this is a lot of what we are trying to do now, build relationships with clubs. We are speaking with them as much as we can so when the time comes, we're in a good place with communication.
ASN: Are you confident that your team will have good chemistry heading into qualifying? Do you feel you will have your players in at least one camp before they play in qualifying or possibly the World Cup?
HUDSON: That's a tough question because we don't know the answers yet. But assuming no more lockdown and things gradually continue to open up, then I am confident. In the back of my mind, I am really hopeful and optimistic but there is a part of me that thinks if certain states get locked down or certain parts of Europe get locked down, then maybe we have to do something different.
ASN: MLS has enjoyed a wave of young players playing in recent weeks. Each of the last few rounds of games have seen over 50 U.S. youth national team-eligible players play. The number of U-20 players has also increased. Lately we've seen players like Cole Bassett, George Bello, Tanner Tessmann, Julian Araujo play roles in big wins for their club. How pleased are you with this progress? Have there been any players here who have particularly impressed you?
HUDSON: To answer your question: this is so good. It's great to see because a lot of the players I haven't worked with. But as a result of the lockdown, we got to know the players and have made an effort to speak with them individually on a weekly basis. Now the games have started up, it has made it even better to see these guys play. I think they've done really well. I've been really pleased. I think among the players you mentioned, they've all fit in and held their own. In some cases, they've imposed themselves like senior players.
There are even younger players - 2003s like Kevin Paredes and Dante Sealy the other night... who have been so impressive. I think it's a really exciting time. The 2001s and as you get younger to the 2003s, there are some exciting players. These young players playing now, it has not only given other clubs, players, and coaches confidence to trust these players, I think it has given other younger players confidence to believe that they not only can but should be pushing themselves and forcing their way into teams. It's a positive sign.
ASN: Shifting over to Europe, you have a big group of players this cycle - especially on the attacking front. A few have made some big strides with their clubs recently. Konrad de la Fuente is training with Barcelona's first team and made the bench for a Champions League game. Cameron Harper is also knocking on the door for minutes at Celtic. Indiana Vassilev made Premier League appearances in 2020. Assuming releases go smoothly, how do these three players fit into your plans and what do you make of these accomplishments?
HUDSON: I don't think I could not like what I am seeing. I worked with Cameron that one week and, trust me, I saw enough to know that he's a really talented player. Not only is a talented player and a really exciting player, he's a fantastic kid as well.
During the lockdown, I've gotten close to Konrad as well. He and Indiana are top players. It's exciting to see how well they're doing. You never know how these next few months play out. They may force themselves above my team. You never know. But if those guys are in my team next year, I'll be very, very happy.
ASN: Speaking of Cameron Harper and Indiana Vassilev, both those players have turned down call-ups from other national teams (Harper with Scotland and Vassilev with Bulgaria). Those were positive developments that the players had choices and chose your team. How big of a job is it for you to both find and keep American players with real options with other national teams? A lot of American players these days have options with other teams with other federations reaching out to these players.
HUDSON: I think it’s something we have to be really mindful of. We’re always talking about how we can do more. I am just part of the overall staff with Gregg and Jason. We talk constantly about this with Brian McBride and Tony Lepore. I think the key is to constantly keep in communication with the players to show them that we care sincerely. We are following their games and supporting them if they’re going through good or bad times – whether it be when they make their debuts or they get dropped.
And we are also communicating with the players who are really important, tell them that we have a pathway for them. I think those conversations are going on. But the key to all this, is to get back to playing. You can talk to the players as much as you want but we have to get the teams together. Then when they’re with the squad you can meet easily and talk to them about the future.
ASN: It would seem Gio Reyna, while age-eligible, is unlikely for your group based on where he is now. But you have other players eligible for your team who have played with the U-23 team or have either been mentioned by Gregg Berhalter or have been called up to the full team in 2020. Johnny Cardoso was mentioned by Berhalter and has played several games for Internacional and was with the U-23 team. Ulysses Llanez made his national team debut in the January camp and was set to be with the U-23 team for Olympic qualifying. Now it appears he is off to Heerenveen on loan. These players could be anywhere within three U.S. national teams. What is their situation right now with your team?
HUDSON: [With Johnny Cardoso], Jason initially was really keen on him and spoke to me about him. We spoke about him after these last few games and presented it actually to the staff…. I think we just have to be adaptable. There might be times, given the landscape of everything that is happening, there might be more opportunities for young players with the first team. I need to be adaptable in terms of maybe looking maybe a little deeper at younger players as well.
Until we get to camps and Gregg knows what he wants and who he wants, then it will be [clearer]. Uly is very effective. But once Gregg selects his team, then I can start getting excited [laughs].
ASN: Shifting down to USL. There are some teams now that are playing waves of very young players – most notably Philadelphia II, Red Bulls II, and Tacoma. You have very young players starting to show themselves well like Caden Clark. How do you scout this league? What are your standards? What is your take on the progress of getting young players on the field in this league and their ability to compete for a spot on your team?
HUDSON: I think it’s a very interesting league and the reason I think it is interesting is because they are giving lots of young players a chance. Those games are not easy. Physically they are tough and the results matter – so they are getting a really good education there. I just think its great for the opportunities they are giving to young players. We are not scouting it more or less than any other league and we are giving it a lot of attention. We have scouts who are high on all the players we really want to see in USL. We have scouts that go and report back to us and we get all the games on Wyscout. For the players that are highlighted, I watch those games as well. There are some really interesting players.
For the USL, it is different than MLS. If we are looking in USL for players on our national team, if they are playing in USL, they have to be young. We are talking about younger players. I think if you are getting older and are playing for the national team, you have to be playing at a higher level. But that is not a black or white statement. I just think it’s a really interesting league with the 2003s and 2002s getting chances. That is really good for developments.
ASN: Staying in USL, San Antonio’s Jose Gallegos seems to have been on your radar earlier in the year. Is that still the case? He seems like a promising No. 10.
HUDSON: Yes. I like him. He was going to be coming into camp with us in March. He’s an exciting young player. He’s really interesting and he is a different type of No. 10. We have a few No. 10s and they are all doing well, so there is competition. But Jose is a little bit different in terms of his style – which I like. I also really like his personality on the field. He has a really good personality.
ASN: When you look at the team and the player pool in a broad picture, what are your sources of optimism and what are your biggest concerns? Do you have an idea on the team’s strengths and weaknesses heading into essentially a restart of the cycle?
HUDSON: My optimism is everything we’ve talked about. It is such an exciting group… I can’t wait to get started and start working with the players. I don’t have any major concerns and I share everyone’s concern when asked if the team going to be prepared. We are all in the same boat. All the other teams and coaches are all in the same situation.
Positionally, probably the one area where we’ve been a little bit light is the left-sided centerback. But in saying that, we’ve come across some other players in USL and a couple of players overseas that are interesting as well. But that is one position where I would say we aren’t quite as deep as the other positions… If you look at Leo Sepulveda over in Spain, he’s a natural left-footed center back. But that’s probably one area where it is not our deepest position but it’s not a major concern because we have some good players there.
ASN: Over the past decade, college players have declined at the U-20 national team level. I know it is tough given how COVID has affected the NCAA season, but pushing that aside, are any college players on your radar?
HUDSON: I would say at this stage there are probably a handful of college players that we are keeping an eye on, but there’s not a huge amount. It makes it a lot more difficult with their schedule now and when they’re going to play. But some of the guys we are watching have done a good job keeping in touch with us and speaking with us. There are some players we are watching - and we have to, as well because, like you said, say there is another lockdown and we can only get U.S. based players. So, we are keeping an eye on them.