US Soccer has been clearing house somewhat of late, dumping most of their youth team coaches - but now installing new coaches for teams that, of late, have seemed a little stale. The youth women’s teams now have new U-23 and U-20 coaches in Matt Potter and Laura Harvey respectively. Potter comes to US Soccer from his head coach position at Oklahoma, although he was also an opponent scout during the 2019 Women’s World Cup. He has a USSF A and USC premier license and finished his eight years at Oklahoma with a 63-77-23 overall record.
SSFC spoke to Potter by phone last week to get a feel for the new U-23 head coach’s philosophy on coaching and approach to getting the youth pipeline straightened out. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
Matt Potter: Happy new year.
Stars & Stripes FC: Happy new year. Starting off strong for you.
MP: Lots of change for sure. Lots of good positive change.
SSFC: I want to start with the hiring process. How far back did the process go for you?
MP: I had a number of conversations with Kate [Markgraf] and obviously enjoyed them. Over the years I’ve had the privilege to contribute at the youth and obviously this past summer at the Women’s World Cup as a scout. So over time I’ve had the privilege of being involved. But now obviously it turns attention to a new role and I’m really excited about the future.
SSFC: When did the conversations with Kate turn explicitly towards the U-23 job?
MP: The process wasn’t necessarily, the conversations weren’t necessarily about a specific age group or position. It was more conversations about philosophy and where I felt I could fit in and what roles and so on and so forth. That obviously has picked up pretty rapidly over the last couple of months or so, but really they were more good dialogue about soccer and that was what I enjoyed.
SSFC: How would you sum up your philosophical approach to coaching soccer?
MP: I think first and foremost, any position of influence that we have and space that we have, it’s about seeing them as people first. As a coach it’s about finding a balance between almost fixing, guiding, or following what individuals need. To do that you have to build relationships. That’s why I think for me I would stress it’s about people first. The environments that I’ve been in, it’s about helping people to be a more complete person.... Ultimately it’s about helping players participate in their own success and so to collaborate to bring clarity to their goals. Connect with them as people. Build out a plan and then ultimately commit to that plan. Helping them with different opportunities and recognizing when you need to step in or when you need to follow their lead or guide.
SSFC: I think a criticism in the past of the youth programs at the U-17 and U-20 level, there was some tactical rigidity. How does your player-first philosophy influence you tactically?
MP: It’s not ultimately about me, it’s about following the vision of what Vlatko and Kate have for all of our women’s programming. It’s fitting into the vision that they have and how they want to see from top to bottom the team evolve and the players evolve. Obviously the world game, if you wanted to talk tactically, the world game continues to evolve. I don’t think that’s any big secret here in the States. Everybody knows how others have improved and I think now we’re in this period of time of growth. The clubs have grown tactically, it’s not only recognizing that we have some of the best players in the world in the United States, I think it’s also appropriate to compare ourselves to the international benchmarks of the world’s best players sometimes and all the styles that they have. More importantly for me, Vlatko has also talked about the idea of evolving his group, and for me it’s about exposing these players at the U-23 level to different environments and stages and supporting their development, helping their game evolve, and ultimately preparing them for opportunities to perform with the full national team.
SSFC: You’re working with Vlatko in camp now, and Laura Harvey got hired to coach the U-20s. It’s early, but have you started discussing creating a cohesive philosophy that goes up the age groups?
MP: I don’t think we’ve had a chance to sit around the table, but the personalities you’re talking about, Kate identified people that she believes maybe would fit Vlatko’s vision and philosophy that he’s obviously shaped in becoming our new women’s national team coach. And when you talk about people like Laura and myself, both of us have had the privilege of knowing Vlatko as a person, as well as a soccer coach. What excites me is to learn from people like Vlatko and Laura, and together hopefully we can write a new chapter in what’s an exciting time for soccer in America on the women’s side.
SSFC: What were your first impressions of your biggest immediate challenges?
MP: I think the first thing is to very quickly align with Vlatko and his vision and philosophy in more detail. I think it’s about getting to know the pool that we have and see some of the personalities. Obviously Vlatko had the camp in December, which brought in a fresh group of talent and a pool of players that they got to identify, and so I think once you’ve aligned with Vlatko, once you’ve aligned with, okay who are the pool of players and the pieces, then it’s about getting to work identifying new players potentially, it’s about monitoring, and then ultimately preparing players to step to our next level which is our women’s national team.
SSFC: What does success look like for you in the short term and the long term?
MP: I think success in the short term is building relationships and learning how to fit into the bigger picture between Vlatko and Laura. It’s about continuing to evolve the role in detail. And then I think long term, the goal is to help players. Help players as people first, but ultimately I feel if you build those relationships and you spend that time to get to know them, then you’re going to gain their trust, which is important, and once you have that, the goal would be to give a positive problem to Vlatko to welcome as many new faces into his player pool as possible that he then goes on to select for our women’s national team.
SSFC: What specifically are you looking for that you’re trying to develop to feed into the senior team?
MP: First of all, all players are somewhat fitting into the pathway of player profiles that’s being developed, and talent that is being developed across the board in very similar ways across the youth national teams. And progressing them through the ages at different stages in their development, different stages in their careers, they’ll identify themselves out. And so I think US Soccer has worked hard to start to create that kind of pathway and so my job and my piece would be to continue to help build out that pool and aligning it with Vlatko because ultimately the players that I come across, a lot of them are going to find themselves probably in a professional environment or last few years of their youth or collegiate careers.
SSFC: Over the past decade or so, on average, do you find soccer knowledge has increased in the players you see?
MP: I think it’s grown exponentially. It’s physical, it’s participation, it’s supported on a scale that has pushed it into the mainstream. Youth soccer reflects that. The volume of players, the quality of players is on the rise. And that’s allowing us to see a new generation of exciting players to have actually grown up with the game. A lot of this group coming to now have had parents that played the game... And with the evolution of youth soccer has come the quality of coaching has improved over the years. So there’s many factors that go into it but I think at the end of the day it’s ultimately an exciting time.
SSFC: Can you sum up your philosophy on scouting? What stands out to you when you’re looking at players?
MP: I think first and foremost, talent knows no age. Talent can be developed. But in terms of scouting, if it’s talking about an individual player, it’s their ability to dominate with and without the ball, whether that’s individually in their technique or whether that’s physically, whether that’s in their position. And then their game understanding and intelligence is at that next level is often what separates people. So in terms of the overall game, in terms of the tactics or the style of play it’s about, there’s a much better understanding of the game in its totality, in terms of principles of play and style of play.
SSFC: Who are a couple of young players in the U23 pool that excite you as a player?
MP: Oh gosh, well Sophia [Smith] obviously is here in camp as we speak. Catarina Macario is obviously somebody that people have identified and talked about. But I think the beauty of it is there’s a huge pool of players coming through and I’m excited to get to work with them all.
SSFC: Let’s say you can’t have won a Hermann Trophy, and you can’t be projected to go #1 in the NWSL college draft. Who excites you in the U23 group?
MP: [laughing] I think at this point it would be naïve of me to pick any one person. I’ve just come into the position.