"I think if they're going to get a few things right over the next ten years, I think it could be, you know, have a fair chance at having a go at maybe winning the World Cup, but they need to get a few things right." This was the last sentence of his first answer pertaining to getting to know the Philadelphia market, and American soccer in general. He noted that the NSCAA Convention has gone back many years, and American soccer has come a long way from when he visited in the 1980s doing soccer camps. The United States finally has "a soccer generation" which has helped grow the development of the sport here rapidly. The size and content depth of the Convention, in his view, is evidence that the sport is flourishing. He seems to intimate that with the sporting culture that exists here, and the growth that continues to happen in soccer, it's conceivable that the United States could compete for the World Cup title in the next ten years.
As for the younger levels and what he's seen at December's MLS Player Combine...
Regarding youth ages 15-18: "What stood out for me was that in all the age groups the sort of patterns of the game were all the same. It's athletic, it's energetic, it's competitive. But the football as such is very frantic and erratic. That's I think where the biggest gains can be had. The teams play with a bit more composure at times, knowing what it is to create rhythm, different rhythms, and keep it rather than the ball and the hustle and bustle and see how we get out. And it's strange because at flashes, you see some really good football, some really good play, and it disappears like that. That means that it is not embedded yet, but again that comes with time and coaching. ...I wouldn't necessarily start earlier, definitely not. What America needs to get right is that 5-9 [age] bracket and the 9-12, and that should all be, basically, very much skill orientated. Because kids are very more receptive than when they get to the age of 12, 13, 14. When the game starts to open up, the identity of the player comes out a bit more. You know what you want to be; midfield or attacker." I believe his summary is that if the system of youth soccer starts with more skill work and less on game results in the earliest stages, that it will be the best way to ensure that the children fully understand how to play the game properly. The system already yields good footballers and with some slight tweaking it will produce great ones.
Rene was not exactly complimentary of the system of the MLS Draft, given that this year was his first encounter with it. "Well, again, put it under header of 'experience' and take the book, but I think the MLS is in this sort of constant reviewing process, and I think when you look at it, it is, I wouldn't say a necessarily completely pointless exercise, but (he pauses, smiles, and those assembled in the room chuckle)... it's a long day for a start." The MLS SuperDraft, as we well know, is far from super. The best players of that age are not going to college to play, they go to Europe, where they can work on the game full-time, and grow beyond what the NCAA level would allow. But, it's not marketable to call it "The-Best-of-the-Rest Draft."
Meulensteen goes on to add: "And to be fairly honest, we at the Union, we went to the combine and looked at it, and you see those games and players, if that's the sort of standard, the better college players, I didn't really think there was anybody as such that you can say 'right, bang' and we throw in straight in the MLS team who's going to make a difference." He did speak well of Union's first selection on Thursday, Dzenan Catic: "With regards to the boy that we picked up (Catic), we're actually we're quite pleased with it, as that was one of the boys that was pointed out to me by a coach that I know very well. But the boy has always been a bit under the radar. Obviously, the coach that I got tipped off by, he's a good coach, and understands, so I thought 'let's have a good look at him' and he showed some good flashes and something to work with. So, where we got to the point of picking, I couldn't believe he was still there! I thought, we all said, all our staff thought, he's going to go in the first ten picks. So, we're quite pleased with that."
The conversation returned to what Meulensteen knows best, which is how to train young footballers. He spoke about how the players can be developed to achieve the success, and be that better player that can be signed during high school:
"To be able to be creative, you need to have the tools to do that. Creative, you can only be if you've got options, simple as that. So, what you see, when that skill element is not developed at a younger age, you're actually starting to develop a one-dimensional soccer player; somebody that can pass the ball and run. And that's what you see in the games: pass and run, pass and run, pass and run. But, what do the top attacking players show us? Whether you're looking at the past or present, there's an element of unpredictability, because whenever they faced any one-v-one situation on the pitch, they wouldn't just kick the ball away because they didn't know what to do. No, they had a Cruyff turn or a step-over, or whatever it was, to make sure they created a better situation for themselves. So, when they get through that process of getting really skillful, and then you start to teach those kids and young players the sort of decision-making process. They start to 'hey, when it's better to pass and when it's better to take somebody on' that's a gradual process, because at the end of the day, when you want them to sort of hit 15, 16, 17, 18, you know where they sort of fit in in the team. You want them to have a good understanding about the sort of defensive duties and things they need to do there, the importance of transition, how quickly that needs to happen, But then within possession, whatever position they play, you want them to have that level of creativity within the decision-making process. But, you need to have the tools for that. So otherwise there's only one decision to make: you pass and you move."
"And that's the interesting bit, basically in my opinion where you should focus on, it's sort of a flip thing, so where I start in with young kids and I focus basically really 80% on skill development, and passing is part of skill development, one-touch passing, receiving, it all goes with that. But I would 10% or 20% based on right decisions, not really that important, but when it comes the other way down, it's sort of 20-80. It's 80% where the ball moves around the pitch, you're keeping the momentum, you're keeping the ball, you're creating that rhythm. And 20% is have the players got the tools at the right time to do something individually?"
On if there is the system of 80% focus on skill development at the early age: "I don't think so, no, and it's not only in America. It's the same in England, and certainly in a lot of players. Basically, the reason is, that people talk a lot about that, you know, grass roots and skill development and all that we need to this, we need to do that, the most important thing is that most people have not got the structure to implement it. Because there's a clear structure to do it where with the young kid, so in other words what do you do with the 6-year-old when he comes in his first day? What do you with that same kid when he is 6 months down the line? What do you do when this kid is 8, and he's had two years of that skill development? So there's a sort of a structure. It's the same thing with taking the kid to school. You don't say to a kid, 'sit down and read this.' He needs to understand the letters and the words, and then bit by bit he starts to sort of read. That's I think a massive hole to some extent that America needs to focus on and need to get that right."
He was very direct that this is the way to get players to be top, world-class footballers. It's more than just introducing more kids to the game; it's about starting their education into how to best play the game at the earliest age. The young brain learns better than the old brain, which is not news, but he seems to be saying that teaching skills outside of the confine of games is the way to go. Though, he concedes that there isn't enough fun for kids if it's just training, so the scrimmaging play is needed so that it's fun enough to keep them interested.
The focus was then again turned back to the Philadelphia Union senior team. I asked him what age group his work is focusing on specifically: "None. I'm focusing on everything. They've asked me to come in and have a really sort of good look throughout the whole of the club, anything related to football. From the first team, and the academy, the school, as such. And that is another challenge for those academies that have built links with the MLS. They need to find mechanisms now and created partnerships with these affiliated clubs to try to get access to these younger sort of 'elite' kids, as it were. There are plenty a-playing, but you want to identify these kids earlier, and create an environment which is still fun. They learn, and they get that skill set, that toolbox that I'm talking about. So when the clubs get an interest in bringing them into the academy, they've got that. I'm not necessarily saying that they have to drag them out with all the clubs. I think they need to find mechanisms to create partnerships to do that. That's why I think a lot of academies could be arranged at grade eight, with coaching education for clubs to help them.
I think that, especially with younger kids, a lot of physical development can be integrated in skill acquisition. Automatically, when you work, and you work with the ball, you work with two feet, coordination, balance, agility, all them aspects will be introduced and trained with it. From a physical point of view, it's probably not what it used to be, in that respect. I think there's an element there that can be integrated alongside it to making sure that the kids learn tactically, and learn physically from a tactical point of view how to jump, to land, to turn, and that can, again, be related to the ball. You match the two things together. The real physical element kicks in when they grow, when they're getting older, and doing more with their own body weight, it is obviously very important that as well as develop the footballer, you also develop the athlete."
The next question piggy-backed off of mine and then asked what his role would be with the Union senior team
"It's not as such defined very clearly. I will definitely be a lot with the first team as well, to support Jim (Curtin), Mike (Sorber), and Chris (Albright) so therefore I'm going to go with them part of the pre-season just to have a good look, to have a good feel for the composition of the team, the roster, the style they want to play, the training sessions. And on top of that, the extras, my time will be divided into the academy. It's a good setup in that respect because people know exactly what their positions and their roles are. Mine is definitely not to create any confusion as such, but really being a good resource for them to tap into. I think it's going to be a two-way conversation and I think at the end of the day, where I can help with my experience and my expertise that I've built over the years, you will probably have a different sort of look and inside and a different opinion. With my first period here, my first 2 months been working with the guys, I can say they've got some good guys in the club, and the academy. I think they all want the right thing, they're all pulling in the same direction, and it's challenging, because it's not easy. The MLS brings its own complexity with it, to say the least, but it's a good learning curve for me."
That's really at the heart of why we were in that room. There was some confusion when Meulensteen was rumored to be working with Union regarding exactly what his role would be. We didn't know if he was going to be the Technical Director, the General Manager, the Manager. It then seemed strange when his signing was announced that he was a consultant to the club. That title makes him sound removed, and "just a phone call away" so to speak, but not hands-on, in the facility every day, kind of role. What he described to us seems as if he will be very busy, spending a lot of time with the club because he will have his hands in every aspect of the organization's players, at all levels.
When asked if there was one player that he could take from anywhere to put on this team, who would it be, his answer was, "Cristiano Ronaldo, because I would play him at the back, the midfield, and at front. He is Superman in soccer clothes." Well, duh. And the obvious talk continued as he said the way to ensure that the best home-grown players stay here and eschew Europe is to have ways to match the money. American youth soccer culture is behind Europe also because they already have the competitive environments set up for those age groups. Though he mentions the change here with the advancing number of academies and a "strong second league, USL-PRO." He sums the ideal route to professional football as:
"The route should be: young kids, identify early, create a big pool, the better ones obviously they stream into the academy, you got that academy now, right? Now can he make the jump straight into the roster? Or, does he go into a second team, like LA Galaxy 2 or what Philadelphia Union tries to create with Harrisburg, at least to get another pathway to give him playing experience to then excel."
He finished by speaking about where he feels Union are in the progression. He emphasized a need for some patience while the system begins to work, but he believes this team should be able to make the playoffs. His optimism comes from the US Open Cup final against Seattle, where he characterized the difference between the two sides was, "Fine margins at the top," referring to Sounders' ability to bring Obafemi Martins off of the bench to provide that needed level of quality. Speaking about patience with respect to coaching, he says, "it takes any manager to start from now with a team a season and a half before he actually can say 'I've got them now where I sort of want them' and then build from it." So, by that standard, Jim Curtin has had, roughly, a half season managing. In Meulensteen's mind, the team will be set to really build on the system going into the end of this season, or the beginning 2016. He didn't have a defined term for when the Union might see the fruits of the labor its academy is doing, but what has been defined is a collective vision and plan for the future of the franchise.