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Q+A with Albertin Montoya, new USWNT U-17 head coach

On Monday, U.S. Soccer announced that former FC Gold Pride Head Coach Albertin Montoya would take over the helm of the U.S. U-17 women’s head coaching position and University of Virginia women’s Head Coach Steve Swanson had been hired as the U.S. U-20 women’s head coach. Montoya took the time to talk about player development, how U.S. Soccer changed his life and even reflected on the switch from FC Gold Pride to coaching a national team.

Jeff Kassouf: Have you been sticking to coaching youth teams since FC Gold Pride folded in November?

Albertin Montoya: I have. I started working with the U-17’s in January, so that is how long I have been with them. It is obviously official now. Then I have also been working with our MVLA club, which is something I am very passionate about. I’m just making sure that we are doing things right here on the girls’ side and U.S. Soccer has kept me pretty busy. I’m working with various age groups in camps and other things going on around the country, so it’s been non-stop. If it’s not one thing it is the other so it’s been busy.

JK: And there is Montoya Soccer Academy that you have as well, right?

AM: We do. We have our soccer school that my wife and I run that goes all year round, so that keeps us busy.

JK: So when did you get the idea that you would be involved with the U-17 Women?

AM: Well, I actually didn’t see it coming at all. It is something that I have been wanting to do for quite some time, even before FC Gold Pride. I played for U.S. Naitional Teams and it meant a lot to me. I’ve always wanted to be involved as a coach. And in January, out of the blue without me knowing at all, I received a call from Jill Ellis that they were going to be looking at various coaches to come in and work with the U-17 team and evaluate them and see how it goes. Things went very well for me, I think, in that first camp where I met Jill for the first time and April. I had spoken to Jill in the past on the phone because she had recruited some of my players in previous years from my club team. We sat down, we talked soccer, I ran some sessions and they invited me to the following camp. And the rest is history because I have been involved in every camp. It was announced to the players but not publicly yet until today. But I’ve been working with them and Jill since January. I’ve loved every minute of it.

JK: This team missed the 2010 U-17 Women’s World Cup. It was something of a fluke since they absolutely dominated in group play and stumbled in the semifinal. What is the goal? Is it a multi-year plan for you?

AM: Our goal obviously is to qualify for that World Cup. You are spot on in saying that – I thought our U-17’s were the best team in CONCACAF, but this is a crazy game that doesn’t always work out as it should. And I have to make sure that we are prepared for every team that we face and different styles. There are going to be teams most likely in CONCACAF that will bunker in and that will play for the tie. We need to make sure that we prepare and not just look forward to the World Cup, because qualifying is becoming more difficult every year now. We’ve got to make sure that we are able to play a certain way and I think it is nice that we have a good six or seven months to prepare for that. That’s a nice luxury that we have. But it’s all about understanding a style and imposing our game on teams and being able to adjust.

JK: There has been talk for a while now about developing players more. That’s why U.S. Soccer brought on Jill Ellis and April Heinrichs. What do you think needs to be developed more?

AM: I really spend a lot of time – I strongly believe in developing players technically. We have very strong athletes in the U.S. and we always have, but I think we’ve gotten away from more of the soccer playing ability that some of our youngsters could have. That is what I stress with all of the youth players that I work with in our club. And they have gone on to do some very special things in the college game and at the youth national team level. And they are all very technically gifted. I think seeing some of the way that our players and some of our youth teams, the way they play – our club team, my wife I’s, own nationals. They are all just technically gifted. My goal is to prepare these players so that when they go to the U-20’s and the full team they are technically sound and those coaches can spend even more time on tactics and not just developing them technically. I know Pia (Sunhage, U.S. Women’s Head Coach) spent a lot of time on the technical side of the game at that level, which is very important, but I want to make sure that we now do a very good job at this level so they are that much better when they get to the U-20’s and the full team. We’d love to win but it is more about developing players so they can play at the  highest level. That is my goal.

JK: Does that play into what Jill and April have talked about since January about fixture congestion in youth soccer? Is there too much playing and not enough training?

AM: It really does. We are starting to reward clubs that are developing players and not just winning teams. What happens in the club world right now; there is so much emphasis on winning. There is a lot of pressure on these club coaches and coaching directors, too, to produce winning teams and development has really taken a back seat. That’s unfortunate. But there are club teams that are producing some special players and if we can get the message out that ‘hey, that’s what we are looking for now,’ then the Xavi’s of the world and the Messi’s, those are the type of players that can play. We always look at the negative side of the club side but there are a lot of good clubs and organizations out there that are spending time on developing players and we want to make sure that we get more of those clubs and coaches on board. I think time will tell.

JK: So what has your title been for the last eight months if you have been with the team the whole time?

AM: For the last eight months I’ve been an assistant coach under Jill. I’ve been traveling around the country, evaluating players, watching games – I’ve been to tournaments and just trying to find players that can help us be successful but at the same time find players that can play and attack. We want to play good soccer. I’ve been looking for those types of players that have that combination of athleticism but the soccer brain. I call them soccer junkies. They love spending time with the ball and understanding the game. There are quite a few of them out there, so it’s an exciting time for U.S. Soccer. I was just involved with the U-14 camp last week and there are some incredible talents involved at that young age group, which goes to show that there are clubs out there doing a good job developing players. We just want to make sure that it continues and it will help us.

JK: Obviously there is a lot of talent in the player pool, but which players sort of catch your eye in this pool at this age group?

AM: Let’s see, we can start off with Morgan Andrews. She is a very special player for us. She’s been to every camp since January and she can pretty much play anywhere. I mean that is going to be difficult really identifying where she is going to play. And I mean it, this kid is special. Unfortunately I think we may lose her to the U-20’s – which is not unfortunate. It’s good for her and it would be good for the U-20’s. She is a special player. Joanna Boyles is out of North Carolina. She is going to be going to UNC. She has done very well for us in camp and she is a central midfielder.

We’ve got a camp coming up next month and Japan is going to play us. It is going to be August 21-29 and we are playing Japan twice – the U-17 Japan team. We are playing them twice, on the 25th and the 28th. That is going to be a very good camp to see where we are at. In January we played Germany and now we are playing Japan, so it doesn’t get much better than that.

But yeah, Morgan Andrews has done real well for us; Johanna Boyle has done very well. Our goalkeeper, Jane Campbell, is as good as they come. She is also very special. We’ve got Summer Green out of Michigan. Summer Green is a forward for us and her head has also impressed in every camp. I want to be fair to all the players who come in and make a difference. We’ve got a good group of players and it is going to be difficult making that final team just because of the quality. But those are four players that definitely stood out: Morgan Andrews, Joanna Boyles, Summer Green and our goalkeeper Jane Campbell. But with that being said, there are a handful of very good players that are challenging them every camp.

JK: So is it different for you being a national team coach? How is it making the adjustment from a club team, FC Gold Pride, to a national team setting?

AM: You know, I haven’t had any issues with it. It’s come easy because the way I look at it, I’m out on the field coaching players and getting them to believe. I get them to believe in playing a certain way and a certain style that I enjoy and that we did at Gold Pride in our second season, we did with club teams and that we are doing now. The challenge comes that I only have these players for one week every other month. So it’s not like you can train every single day. So that is where the challenge comes, which is why it is more important to identify player that play a style we are trying to achieve here in U.S. Soccer where it is just a more attractive game. It’s more Barca-like or Spain. We need to form our own identity but I think we can play a nice mixture of attractive soccer with very effective soccer just because of the athletes we have. But again we have very technical players that we need to make sure we keep having in this program and we need to make sure we continue bringing into camps. That is why we have a nice mixture of very technical players with good athletes to compliment them. So it will be interesting. It’s been a pretty easy transition. At the end of the day it is coaching and doing what I love to do. I really take pride in it and I am excited that I get to work with these young kids.

JK: Briefly on the subject of FC Gold Pride: It is over nine months since the team folded. Do you look at it as ‘the past is the past?’

AM: That is how I look at it. I’ll be tell you – I’ll be honest, I was devastated because we had a very special team and not only special on the field but off the field. All of the players were so excited. We were looking forward to coming back, to being together and being even stronger than we were. The way we were playing, I thought the more time we had together the stronger we would be. So that was devastating to me and it was very difficult for a lot of our players. Fortunately for them, a lot of players went on to excellent teams and are having a good year. Our team was pretty much assembled in Buffalo with a few really nice additions, so they have their own little special team over there. But the way I look at it is it was a good opportunity and I think we all learned a lot from it. Now I just move forward and can I help some of these youngsters prepare for that next level if they someday choose to be there. I definitely know what it takes to play at that highest level and what those players go through and how they have to commit themselves, so I want to make sure that these kids understand that and that I can help them in every way.

JK: Are you keeping tabs on WPS then?

AM: Oh definitely. There are so many of the players that I still keep in contact with; texting back and forth and congratulating them and just wishing them luck. And they reach out back to me. We had something special here at Gold Pride and I’m in touch with a lot of the players. It looks like it is going to be between Philly and [Western New York] so it’s going to be fun.

JK: Finally, you have some experience in the U.S. Soccer ladder. Claudio Reyna recently became U.S. Soccer’s Youth Technical Director and there are several other examples. Is it important for people who have gone through the system to get involved in the coaching ranks?

AM: I think it does help, at least for me. I can only speak for myself. U.S. Soccer opened so many doors for me. I came from Cuba. If I did not play U.S. Soccer I probably would not have been able to go to college because my parents couldn’t afford it. I got a full ride to several schools and I chose to go to NC State and transfer to Santa Clara which had to do with me playing at the U-17 World Cup and having an opportunity to play with the U-20’s and then with Bruce Arena on the 23’s. As they say, just wearing the crest meant a lot to me. It changed my life around and now I look at it and I have an opportunity to do the same for these kids. And it’s not only the soccer part, it’s an opportunity for life lessons in how we approach the game on and off the field. I think anyone that goes through the program, it’s an incredible honor. But I want to give back to the game. I want to give back to the U.S. Federation, which has done so many things. And it is that extra motivation and that passion that is really how I feel.

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