In September, Steve Swanson coached the USA to the 2012 U-20 Women's World Cup title. A women's college coach since 1990, including the last 13 seasons at University of Virginia, Swanson has also coached in the U.S. national team women's program at the U-16, U-17, U-18 and U-19 levels since 2000. Swanson spoke to us about his U-20 team's victory and the state of women's and girls soccer in the USA.
Interview by Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America's Youth Soccer Insider)
SOCCER AMERICA: Previous U.S. players at U-20 World Cup -- which the USA also won in 2002 and 2008 – who went on to star for the full national team include Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux, Lauren Cheney, Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Heather O’Reilly and Rachel Buehler. Do you expect we’ll see players from your U-20 squad star at the highest level?
STEVE SWANSON: I think there are a lot of players on that roster who can compete at the next level. They’re young. I think history shows there’s often a significant lag time between somebody playing on the under-20 level and their introduction into the full team. Yes, you get some outliers, like Alex Morgan.
But there’s a time frame … how they continue to grow, how they continue to develop. I think a lot of them have the makeup in their game to make it at the next level. I’m hesitant [to predict which ones] because I feel strongly there are a lot of late-bloomers.
SA: What was the key to success at the tournament in Japan?
STEVE SWANSON: It’s cliché saying you have to be a team, but you’re talking about the best players in the country at their age. Players who are extraordinarily talented who probably have never had to accept a different role that they might not like. They did an incredible job of understanding, “Hey, if we’re going to win this, everybody’s got to play a role. Everybody’s got to trust one another. We’ve got to push each other. This is all about the team and the goal of winning the World Cup.”
We had to stay together to win. We had to stay true to our style, which was to possess the ball. To try and move the ball. To try and build out of the back. I’m not saying we did that consistently over 90 minutes throughout the tournament as much as we would have liked, but we tried to stay true to that.
SA: It has become almost a mantra that American players need to improve technically. What have you seen on this front since becoming involved in youth national team coaching 12 years ago and from the players who’ve come into the college game in the past two decades?
STEVE SWANSON: There’s no question we made strides technically.
We had talented technical players [12 years ago], but I think on average we’re getting better and you’re seeing more players with the ability to handle the ball. More players with the ability to do different things.
That was one of things we emphasized with this U-20 group. We tried to emphasize and prioritize the technical side first in some of our selections.
I kind of liken it to golf. You’re on the golf course and you’ve got a putter, a 5-iron, a driver in your bag – you can only play so many shots. I think there’s more clubs in the bag now for our players. They can play different balls. They can do different things because of that.
SA: So you believe the youth game environment is now more conducive to producing technical players?
STEVE SWANSON: One thing that’s definitely improving is the coaching. I do think that happened. You can really see that.
When I go back 20 years when I first started coaching college soccer, the recruits now are a much more technically and tactically gifted group. So I think the coaching has gotten better. I think the education is out there.
But we still need to improve. I think maybe clubs need to realize how important it is to put the best coaches at the young ages. That’s going to be very helpful developing technique at a younger age.
I still think we can get better. We must improve. We’re not the most technical team in the world. There’s not just one – there are several countries that are better than us technically now.
SA: What is something about the American system that might not optimal for preparing players for the highest levels?
STEVE SWANSON: One of the things I noticed – and this is hard to say without getting wrath – is there is a huge difference between the international level and the college and club level. In terms of dictating tempo, playing a possession type of game.
I think we [in college and club] have a luxury because we can make so many substitutions. If we wanted to, we could press the whole game without having to worry about the legs or fitness, because we can make multiple subs. Whereas at the international level, you can make three moves and that’s it.
The fitness aspect, the playing aspect, the tempo of a game. Changes in the tempo of a game. It requires more from players at the international level because the coach can't make so many changes.
I’m not advocating we go to the international [sub rules] at college, but I think we need to look at some sort of medium where we can bridge that gap.
Our sport is awesome in getting numbers out, participation. I’m not advocating this at the younger ages. But at some point we need to be thinking about that.
And how many different rules do we have at this country? You’ve got college, high school, club. I’m not sure other countries have that same situation.
Part I of our interview with Steve Swanson.
Carolina connection powers Americans to world title
U.S. 2012 Women's World Cup Roster
U.S. Player Stats U-20 Women’s World Cup