Every soccer coach in the world is at some point faced with this conundrum: go with older, proven veterans or throw your young players into the mix.
In this culture of 140-character text bites and “what have you done for me lately” thinking, fans and media are constantly calling for new blood.
Of course, for a coach, it isn’t that easy. The coach is charged with finding a balance between fielding veterans who have been steeled in the most competitive of sporting cauldrons and young players who can inject new energy, speed and enthusiasm into the lineup.
There are dangers on both sides. A coach too loyal to aging players can risk being overrun by youthful opponents and injuries. However, playing young up-and-comers who might not be ready not only risks an unnecessary blow to the confidence that might be counter-productive to their development, but it also may lead to losses, and losses lead to coaches pulling out their resumes for updating.
PULLING THE CORRECT STRINGS
Throughout her four years at the helm of the U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Pia Sundhage has maintained a purposeful approach, showing an appreciation for veteran experience while sprinkling in younger components with patience and savvy. She has never been afraid to make a tough decision.
Sundhage’s methods have paid off as the U.S. team has revolved around a core of legendary veterans to go along with some exciting young talent, remaining at the top of the world while most recently earning a coveted berth to the London Olympics.
Sundhage has made no secret of her appreciation and value for her veteran leadership and experience. But never has she lost sight of the value of new, young players. She has in fact given 17 players their first caps since she took over at the very end of 2007. Among those first capped by Sundhage are Rachel Buehler, Tobin Heath, Ali Krieger, Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn – all members of the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup Team – and young striker Sydney Leroux, who tied a U.S. record with five goals in a game against Guatemala during CONCACAF Olympic Qualifying.
“Many of the new players who are young have a different approach and different expectations. They change the environment a little bit, which I think is important,” said Sundhage. “Even though our team is a winning team, you have to change the environment sometimes because sooner or later you take things for granted and sooner or later you forget where you come from. I think when a new player comes in, hopefully it pushes the veteran players – the players who have been around the team for a while – to not to take any training for granted or a game for granted.”
The team is clicking heading into its main Olympic preparation as the Americans are coming off a dominant CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Tournament that included five shutouts, 38 goals and a third straight qualifying title.
CHANGE IS GOOD
Sundhage is a fan of change. In fact, she enjoys is it and embraces it. Given that characteristic, she always has an eye on that toughest element for a coach: knowing when she can rely on a long-time player or when the team needs to make the transition toward a rising star.
“That is absolutely the hardest part, knowing when it’s time to let her go and she doesn’t want to go,” Sundhage said. “I think it’s important to prepare for that, and we’ve thrown it out there a couple of times – that she was good last year, but how was her performance today? I have so much respect for experience, but if she doesn’t perform and she doesn’t produce, then shame on us for not recognizing that.
“I have good coaches around me, and we have different eyes and different preferences,” Sundhage said. “If we debate a little bit and I ask, ‘Is she good enough? Are we really sure about this?’ then I’ll have one of the coaches just watch her. And we have video. That is the hardest part of all the coaching. I would say that if you get that right and have good timing as to when you decide to let a player go or when to bring in a younger player, that will make you a successful coach.”
Part of Sundhage’s caution with giving game minutes to younger players is that it takes veteran leadership to have a full understanding of the amazingly competitive level of World Cups and Olympics games. Those matches call for physicality, mentality, speed of play, the tactical ability to read the game at lightning speed and the technical ability to execute under all that pressure, all things that are a stratosphere above the college game and youth world championships.
VETERANS WILL LEAD THE WAY
Fortunately for Sundhage, she clearly has a solid group of veterans, several in their 30s, who are continuing to perform at the highest levels. It is a group that has been primarily responsible for the USA’s success during Sundhage’s run as head coach.
“You can imagine how many games Shannon Boxx has played, and because of that, she can recognize and do very well in certain situations,” Sundhage said. “She’s gone through different playing systems – 4-4-2, 4-3-3, and now we are playing another system (4-2-3-1) – and she’s embraced that because she knows the change and she likes the change. If you’re 20 or 22, you haven’t gone through that many changes and it is more difficult. Every time you go through a change, I think you grow a little bit, especially if it gets better.”
There is no question that the U.S. team will still look to its more experienced players to produce. There is nothing a coach loves more than a consistent player, someone whose performance is a given. Forward Abby Wambach, 31, continues to be the team’s most consistent offensive threat and if she cranes her neck just so, she can glimpse Mia Hamm’s all-time scoring record.
The 34-year-old Boxx, a devastating ball-winner with the skills to play-make, seems to fit well into any formation the U.S. team finds itself in. And of course 36-year-old captain Christie Rampone, one of the fastest, fittest and toughest players on the team, continues to be an athletic freak of nature, anchoring a back line that has not allowed a goal this year. Carli Lloyd, 29, scored in every game at Olympic qualifying – including her first ever hat trick against Costa Rica to earn the U.S. its Olympic berth – and is climbing up the USA’s career goal scoring chart.
Defender Amy LePeilbet, 29, has quietly become one of the USA’s toughest and most consistent players. The 33-year-old Heather Mitts, who played in only a handful of matches last year because of injuries, has experienced a resurgence and her vast experience could benefit the USA moving forward after the injury to Krieger during qualifying. Hope Solo is now 30 and continuing to separate herself from the rest of the world’s best goalkeepers.
A coach must not only balance using veterans and rookies but also carefully orchestrate the way in which young players are integrated. Sundhage has shown a virtuoso’s touch with that skill.
THESE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT
Lauren Cheney, a reserve in the 2008 Olympics, burst into an impact role in Germany playing a variety of positions and now at 24 is proving herself to be a vitally important cog – perhaps the most important – in the U.S. attack.
After playing in two youth World Cups, Amy Rodriguez started the 2008 Olympics on the bench but came into the first match as a sub and started the rest of the games. She also started five games at the Women’s World Cup and tied for the lead in scoring with six goals at the Olympic qualifying tournament.
The 21-year-old Leroux, who is the USA’s all-time leading scorer at the U-20 level, has just a handful of caps but has trained enough with the full team and has gotten just enough of a taste of the international game that now she is ready to burst out of the gates and perhaps contribute to the USA’s run to and through the Olympic games.
The remarkably skillful Heath has never been a consistent starter, but she was an important reserve in the 2008 Olympics and last summer’s Women’s World Cup. In Canada during Olympic Qualifying, she contributed a pair of goals, including the game-winning score in the critical match against Costa Rica that earned the USA its berth to London.
Sauerbrunn has just 18 caps, but her play against France in the semifinal of the Women’s World Cup shows she is ready for the big stage.
O’Hara, the 23-year-old Hermann Trophy winner as a forward at Stanford and one of the best young attacking players in the last decade of youth national team play, has bided her time until Sundhage found a place for her at outside back. She got her first two starts at the position (the first two starts in her life at outside back, mind you) during Olympic qualifying – and amazingly played on both the right and left – putting in solid games while distributing the ball well. Of course, bigger challenges await, but O’Hara has shown that versatility is a valuable commodity in Sundhage’s eyes no matter how old you are.
And then there is the 22-year-old Morgan. She has created the most buzz of any new players during Sundhage’s tenure but has been brought along slowly. She has shown the ability to score big goals in the biggest of games, earning her status as one of the world’s top young forwards. But the way Sundhage has used Morgan in most matches – unleashing her already world class speed on fatigued opponents during the second half of tight games – has been a prime example of what the essence of coaching is: putting players in positions to succeed.
Morgan’s early shining moment was a game-winning goal on the road against Italy in October of 2010 in the first leg of the do-or-die series to determine the final qualifying spot for World Cup. She gained acclaim during last year’s World Cup with a goal against France in the semifinal and a goal and assist in the final against Japan. Most recently, Morgan notched four goals and six assists during Olympic qualifying, including getting a rare start and playing 90 minutes for just the second time in her national team career while scoring two dazzling goals in the 4-0 championship game victory over Canada. Showing Sundhage she can produce in a starting or a reserve role certainly bodes well for the youngster’s playing time in 2012.
PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE
The U.S. is off to its most dominant start to a calendar year since 1991, when the team posted 11 straight shutouts, outscoring its opponents by a 77-0 margin. But even with that 1991 team, eventually certain pieces needed to be interchanged along the way. When defender Megan McCarthy went down with a knee injury before that first Women’s World Cup in China, world class right midfielder Joy Biefeld (you may know her as Joy Fawcett) moved to the back (where she stayed for the rest of her career) and a 19-year-old with Hamm on the back of her jersey was slotted into the starting lineup at right midfield. That move would turn out pretty well for then-coach Anson Dorrance and for the U.S. team over the next decade and a half.
Sundhage will continue to take a patient approach while integrating the next wave of talent into a team that is aiming for the top of the podium once again.
“I say a good coaching staff has the courage to be patient,” Sundhage said. “It’s easy to see someone doing well and to want to throw them in right away. But you need to hang on a little bit. That’s something I tell the players – it won’t come easy to you. If they have the approach that they have to work for it, they have the chance to make the team.
“One of the most important things is that young players need to be patient,” Sundhage said. “It’s not enough to have one good practice or one good drill and think, ‘Am I as good as Abby? Am I as good as Carli Lloyd? Am I as good as Boxx?’ Playing soccer day-in and day-out is something that makes the veterans so good and this team so good. They perform so well every time they walk out on the field. For a younger player to think ‘Hmm, that wasn’t bad’ after one practice, but then you throw them in a game and talk about tactical stuff, and they have to adjust their game. That just takes a while.”