22415_isi_williamsrichie_usmntu17jd120214147 John Dorton/isiphotos.com

Richie Williams Discusses Under-17 Roster, Qualifying

The U.S. under-17 men's national team failed to reach the 2013 World Cup, but coach Richie Williams believes a new qualification format and a talented team will help his team succeed.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 24, 2015
1:28 PM
THE UNITED STATES UNDER-17 national team is traveling to Honduras today ahead of its World Cup-qualifying opener on Friday night against Cuba. This team has gained a lot of attention during the cycle with impressive results and several of its players signing for big European clubs.

Richie Williams, 44, is currently in his second cycle as the team’s head coach and the New Jersey native is eager to get started with this team. In his first cycle, in 2013, the team was eliminated from qualifying after losing to Honduras. This year’s tournament has a new format that is similar to the U-20 qualifying—two group winners qualify for the World Cup and the second and third place teams from each group move to a playoff round in which two more teams advance. The U-17 World Cup will be held in Chile in October..

The U.S. was drawn into Group A where it will play Cuba on February 27 (6pm ET; Fox Sports 2 and Univision Deportes), Trinidad & Tobago on March 2, Guatemala on March 5, Honduras on March 8, and Jamaica on March 11.

Here's the roster, which was announced today.

GOALKEEPERS: William Pulisic (Richmond United), Kevin Silva (Players Development Academy)

DEFENDERS: Tyler Adams (New York Red Bulls Academy), Hugo Arellano (LA Galaxy Academy), Daniel Barbir (West Bromwich Albion), Tanner Dieterich (Real Salt Lake AZ), John Nelson (Internationals), Matthew Olosunde (New York Red Bulls Academy), Alexis Velela (San Diego Surf)

MIDFIELDERS: Eric Calvillo (Real So Cal), Luca de la Torre (Fulham), Thomas McCabe (Players Development Academy), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund), Alejandro Zendejas (FC Dallas)

FORWARDS: Pierre da Silva (Orlando City Academy), McKinze Gaines (Lonestar SC), Joe Gallardo (Monterrey), Josh Perez (Unattached), Brandon Vazquez (Club Tijuana), Haji Wright (Unattached)

Williams took time to talk with American Soccer Now about this year’s team. The interview below has been lightly edited.

Brian Sciaretta for ASN: How confident is the team heading into these important games and what can we expect from this team in Honduras? What are their strengths?

Richie Williams: The 20-man roster that we’re going to bring down is a strong roster. We think it’s deep and we are very comfortable putting anybody on the field at any time. I think that is very important. Again, I think we are a very solid team in terms of defensive and in the midfield. Our attack has gotten a lot of headlines, with a lot of the attacking players that we have playing clubs abroad. We’ve been fortunate enough to play well offensively and score a lot of goals. So I think they get a lot of attention—which they deserve. But I also think, again, the whole team should be getting attention.

ASN: Several of the players come from abroad on this team. That is quite unusual at this age since there are so many restrictions on minors moving abroad. Do you think that this makes the team unique? Has this come as a surprise to you and how has it changed the dynamic of this team?

Williams: All of these players were born and raised in the United States. It wasn’t like they were all from overseas and we brought them here. They were all part of the U-14s and U-15s. But we had a situation when the cycle started where there were about four who didn’t come to residency. They went straight to their club. After year one, there were a couple more. I think it looks great for us in the United States that our players are being identified by foreign clubs at earlier ages. This is probably the first time ever at this age group that we’ve had players going abroad and signing with teams. That’s No. 1. No. 2 is that everyone understands we have a residency program and some of them did start here at residence then moved to clubs abroad. Again, they’re still part of the national team setup and the players here at residency understand that.

Saying all that, all of these guys have been together from the U-14s and U-15s. They’ve played together and moved along. So I think they’re very comfortable with one another. They’re able to come together whether they’re here at residence or at club abroad.

ASN: You talked a little bit about residency but what is the future of that program? Especially with so many avenues of domestic development like MLS academies that didn’t exist at the time the residency program was created. How relevant is residency now and how relevant will it be in the future?

Williams: I definitely don’t see it declining. I think it still serves a purpose. I think it is very important because I still feel that our players at these ages are in a good enough environment day-in and day-out that it makes sense for them to be here. Our Development Academy has improved greatly and it continues to improve but we don’t feel that we are quite there yet. But eventually that’s our goal—to have our Development Academy improve our clubs to be able to have the players in a good environment where they’re training every day and have games on the weekend.

Maybe at that time we can discuss not having residency. Especially if we see a bunch of players able to sign overseas who have the passports and are able to play at age 16. Then I think we can have that discussion but we still believe as of right now that residency is serving a purpose and it’s a great environment for our players to be able to continue to develop. You can see it from the group we have right now and the depth that we have and the improvement that they’ve shown that it is definitely working.

ASN: In your discussions with Tab Ramos as youth technical director and Jurgen Klinsmann as the overall technical director is there a long-term vision you have for the U.S. U-17 team as to where you eventually want to see the players drawn? In the years ahead, where do you see the primary feeders to the U-17 team?

Williams: We’re going to continue to have the best players that are playing in the United States in residency. Tab, as the [youth] technical director, and the rest of the staff at U.S. Soccer are working with Developmental Academies, MLS academies on a regular basis trying to improve them daily and yearly. We’re going to continue to do that and we’re going to continue to have the residency setup. Whether they are players in residency, whether they are players in the Developmental Academy, or whether they are abroad, we just want all of our players to be in good environments where they can develop, play well for the U-17s, and later on for the U-20s, and hopefully eventually for the senior team.

ASN: I know it was a difficult time in 2013 when the U-17 team failed to qualify for the World Cup. What lessons did you take away from that tournament and how is this year’s team different?

Williams: We had a talented team two years ago. We feel we were definitely one of the top four teams in CONCACAF. I think a large part of it had to do with the format. We won our first two games and then unfortunately it was just a one-off game and on that day Honduras got the result against us. Even in that game we didn’t play badly. We didn’t take our chances and two of their three goals were outstanding goals. Unfortunately we were eliminated. The new format, as you can see with the U-20s, you can have a little bit of a slip-up in terms of some results but you’re still in the tournament and you can still redeem yourself from a tie or a loss. If you look back on that Honduras game in terms of a one-off game it was very simple. We had chances early in the game to go ahead. We just had to perform a little bit better and execute better.

No disrespect to the 2013 team, but I think now we’re a little deeper and we have certain positions in that last team where we were lacking a player in certain positions. We think in every position here, we’re very good and we have someone to back them up. Again you learn from your losses, you move on, you get a good experience from it and then you hopefully apply it to this tournament so we can go in and get the wins we need to get to the World Cup.

ASN: We often talk about development of players at the U-17 level but how about your development as a coach? You are now in your second cycle with this team. How have you grown as a coach? How are you different now than when you started this job?

Williams: I think every coach learns every day you are coaching. The reason why I like this job with the U-17s is that it is not your tradition job with a national team where you get together every six-to-eight weeks for a one- or two-week trip. This is everyday coaching, out on the field, putting a team through sessions five days a week with a match on the weekend and international tournaments. Of course, I believe in the last three-and-a-half to four years I’ve been here that I’ve definitely improved as a coach. I’ve had great experiences as a coach being on the field with some really talented players, bringing them together as a team and having them play a certain way.

ASN: Aside from results, a big measuring stick for the success of a U-17 team is how many players it can move to the U-20 team. The current U-20 team took a lot of players from the U-17s. How do you see this team from that perspective?

Williams: Exactly, that’s the goal of ours. It’s great to see that in the last qualifying for the U-20s there was a great number of players that came through the U-17s and were involved in the residency program. That’s the goal—to get our players to move up into the U-20s. Hopefully we’ll see these young players with the senior team at one point.

ASN: The high-water mark for the U-17 program was in 1999 when the team advanced to the semifinals of the World Cup and produced players like Landon Donovan, Kyle Beckerman, DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, and Oguchi Onyewu. This team has been getting a lot of positive results and some players have drawn attention from big clubs. Do you think this team could match the 1999 team?

Williams: I don’t really want to comment on that. We have to qualify first and I know how difficult qualifying can be—especially when going down to a Central American country. I want to concentrate on that. But in terms of talent, I believe this team is very talented in all positions on the field that has some very good players. Our goal is to get them on the field, get them to be able to perform well, and obviously get those results at qualifying.

ASN: What kind of conditions are you expecting to find in Honduras? We saw with the U-20 qualification in Jamaica, conditions can be difficult and Tab Ramos’ squad found it hard to play the game they wanted to play in the poor field conditions. Are you expecting anything better for your group in qualifying?

Williams: We were fortunate enough to take a trip down there for six days at the end of January just for the exact reason of getting them into the hotel they will be staying at, to train on the field they’ll be training on, and to play a match in the stadium they’ll be playing at. That was a really good experience for our guys. The fields are not ideal, if I can put it in a nice way. But both teams have to play on it and we have to do our best to deal with it. I was surprised with how well they were able to play on the field. We played an inter-squad game.

We told the players it is what it is. We’re going to do our best to perform on maybe not the best surface and play well and get results.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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