Youth Development

Namazi discusses U.S. U-18 progress

The U.S. U-18 team has already had three camps this cycle and head coach Omid Namazi is busy trying to expand the youth national team player pool and build the foundation for the future U-20 team. ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke with Namazi about the team. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 20, 2018
7:55 AM
THE UNITED STATES U-18 NATIONAL TEAM has had a lot of success in recent years. The team has served a key role in the development of many key players who made jumps to the U-20 team and then to the full national team.

In 2017, Tyler Adams used his U-18 performance to make a late push to the U-20 World Cup team and is now on the full national team. Cameron Carter-Vickers also got his start with U.S. Soccer at this level and is also part of the U.S. national team picture.

Head coach Omid Namazi (who also serves as a regular assistant for the U-20 team) has a very good group of players for the U-18 team including Taylor Booth, who is expected to join Bayern Munich soon, Ian Hoffmann who is performing well in Germany, Ulysses Llanez from the LA Galaxy, Cameron Duke at Sporting Kansas City, and defender Julian Araujo who will likely have a wide range of professional options in his near future.

American Soccer Now had a long conversation with Namazi about his team and how he sees the player pool early in the cycle.

ASN: The U.S. U-18s have been busy lately having just completed the third camp of the cycle where you posted two wins over Costa Rica. How have you assessed the start of this cycle for this team?

Namazi: When I took over this age group, I didn't know how to compare it with my last group, the 1999's. The more and more I get into this group, I find it to be very deep with a lot of quality. You can never tell. You can train and you can play friendlies against our U-19's or our U-17's, but until you get into real competitions against real international opponents, you'll never know. This past week was a real good indication as to where we are because we brought in our strongest group and I felt we were very good in both games. I played two different lineups and we used all 24 players that were there.

The first game was 2-1 but that wasn't indicative of our play. It probably should have been 5-1 or 6-1. We played really well. In the second game we also had a really good start. There were a few moments where we lost control of what we wanted to do. The game got choppy but in the end we were able to get it together and glide to a 3-1 win.

ASN: There are no major competitions for this age group. What is the driving motivation for this team? What are the goals for this team?

Namazi: It's a preparation for them to be part of the U-20 team. They have qualifying early next year and the World Cup itself. But these boys are motivated and they are sponges. They want to learn, they want to get better, and they want to move on.

We talk to them all the time about being national team players - not only for one or two camps but for a long period of time. The ones that really put the time and effor into it to progress and develop, they are there. You see out of the last U-20 group how Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie are now with the senior national team. That's the goal - to move these guys up to the senior national team. But the first step would be the U-20 team before the full national team.

ASN: The players you have are mostly eligible for the 2021 U-20 Cycle. We’ve seen many players in the past make the U-20 World Cup team while playing up an age group. Do you see players in this group who can push to be part of the U-20 team next year for World Cup qualifying or perhaps the 2019 U-20 World Cup?

Namazi: For sure. There is a few. Tab was at this past camp and he saw some players and I told him about a few that I think could easily mix in with the U-20s at this age and possibly be a factor for the U-20 qualifying and World Cup.

I'd rather not single out anyone because I don't want everyone else to think they're not part of it and keep pushing it.

ASN: It certainly is a weird time for U.S. Soccer. The national team has no head coach, no general manager, and the federation is coming off a bitter presidential election where the tone in the campaign was extremely negative. This has led to a great deal of uncertainty of the direction for U.S. Soccer. How much do those type of issues seep down to players at these young age groups?

Namazi: I don't think they bother too much with that kind of stuff. There are no signs I've seen that it is affecting them in anyway. We try to paint the picture that although our senior team didn't qualify and there is no head coach, there are a lot of good things happening on the youth side.

The landscape is really changing. I remember two U-20 cycles ago. When we started that cycle, there were only one or two pros. Most of the players were in college or just finishing high school. Now with the current 1999's who are starting the U-20 cycle, there are so many professionals from Paxton Pomykol to Juan Pablo Torres and Jonathan Amon. There are just numerous players and I could go on and on about players who are on professional contracts.

Even down to my age group right now, the landscape is changing. I have players who are in Germany playing in the U-19 Bundesliga. I feel players have more opportunities now and they are grabbing those opportunities. The result is their development is being accelerated.

ASN: Players at the U-18 age group are often faced with huge decisions over signing deals, turning professional, college recruitment, or possibly moving abroad. How much does this weigh on their minds at your U-18 camps? Do you ever offer advice? 

Namazi: That really comes down to the player. We are early in the cycle right now and they are 16. So it can be a little bit away. It's always about personal choice. Sometimes I would have families call and ask for advice. We are always bringing in former national team players who have played in college at at the professional level and they are great resources. We ask the players to bounce ideas off these guys or myself to get advice to make the right decisions.

ASN: What does the typical advice entail?

Namazi: The advice we usually give is to try to find the right people but the most important thing is that wherever you go, you're getting games week in and week out. Let's say you sign for Bayern Munich and you never see the field. That's not really a good decision. If you sign for a team in MLS and you never see the field, that's not really a good decision. It's where you feel you're going to get the most playing time because there is nothing like games that mean something - that accelerates player development.

ASN: When looking at the MLS landscape in 2017, Only a few American teenagers got consistent minutes. Obviously Tyler Adams did. Brooks Lennon did before turning 20 and Djordje Mihailovic did towards the end of the season. As a youth coach, does that concern or frustrate you?

Namazi: I wouldn't say it's frustrating. I would just like to see coaches be more open to playing young kids. At the end of the day, these kids maybe won't be the finished product now but maybe in a few years the teams can really benefit from having played them at young ages. Tyler Adams is a good example. Adams started most games for New York last year at 18 and now he looks like he'll be a national team regular. It's something coaches need to look at.

Granted, it is a competitive arena and results matter. I get all that. But [what about] a chance to play an 18 year old instead of a 30 year old? If both are relatively equal but maybe the 30 year old is a little bit better now, we feel that maybe the 18 year old should get the chance.

ASN: Describe your U-18 team at the moment. What are your team’s strengths or weaknesses? Is it balanced?

Namazi: I think this group, the 2001's, the talent is spread out and we are strong pretty much all over the field. It seems more and more I am coming across players who are forwards. 

Throughout a cycle you are finding out about more players you didn't even know. I just found about a kid Charlie Kelman at Southend United who plays as a No. 9 center forward. He is interesting when you watch his videos. There is a guy Michael Carmona and he was at Atletico Madrid. He’s a midfielder. We haven't even seen him yet but by him being there, it tells us he's worth bringing in and taking a look.

In the last three camps, I've already brought in around 60 players and I plan on expanding this pool. But I feel it's pretty balanced. It's not like there is a weakness at any position.

ASN: You mentioned finding out about new players. What is the process like for scouting and discovering players? Do the players ever reach out to you?

Namazi: We have several scouts actually in Europe and a couple in South America. It either comes through them or sometimes the club themselves. For Kelman, I was contacted by his club [Southend United] telling me that Charlie had an American passport and probably deserved to be seen. So I asked to see a video and I've seen them now. He's a goalscorer. He's scored something like 27 goals in his league. It's not the greatest league but if you're scoring 27 goals, there is something there.

ASN: Finally, you played a big role of Jonathan Gonzalez’s involvement with U.S. Soccer at the U-18 level. How tough was it for you to see him leave the program for Mexico?

Namazi: It was very tough being so close to him the past two years before he made the decision. I thought the world of him as a player. At the time, he played most of the time for as a #8 but I brought him to the #6 [where he plays for Monterrey]. He started everything for us and was a link from the defense to the offense. He was the cog for us in our team. I made him the captain. We brought him to U-20 qualifiers and I rewatched the video. When we were hoisting the CONCACAF Trophy in Costa Rica, he is there and celebrating. When he made the decision, it was heartbreaking. But we move on and we look to find the next great player.

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