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Rene Meulensteen opens up about his role with the Union

Rene Meulensteen was in town this week, and spent quite a bit of that time in the spotlight. On Thursday, he joined Union owner Jay Sugarman, CEO Nick Sakiewicz, techinical director Chris Albright, head coach Jim Curtin and assistant coach Mike Sorber at the Union's draft table. Then, on Friday, he gave a seminar to convention attendees about his coaching methods.

To wrap up coverage of this year's NSCAA Convention, I wanted to go back to an event on Friday that was of consequence for Union fans, but might have flown a little bit under the radar for some people.

Rene Meulensteen was in town this week, and he was pretty busy. On Thursday, he joined Union owner Jay Sugarman, CEO Nick Sakiewicz, techinical director Chris Albright, head coach Jim Curtin and assistant coach Mike Sorber at the Union's draft table. Then, on Friday, he gave a seminar to convention attendees about his coaching methods.

A few hours before that seminar, Meulensteen took some time to chat with reporters about his consulting work with the Union's front office. I found the conversation, which lasted for about half an hour, to be quite interesting. I am pretty sure many of you will too.

Not everything we discussed related to the Union. Some of it was more generic, and some of it was more narrowly focused on coaching methods and tactics. But much of it was right in the wheelhouse for people who've wondered just what his role with the Union is.

So here's a transcript of those remarks. As with the transcript of my interview with Paul Breitner, it's edited slightly for clarity, but not by much.

On his impressions of the scene at the NSCAA Convention:

Well, it's obviously an experience, for a start. It goes back a long way - the NSCAA has organized this convention for how many years now? [The answer: 67.] So they go a long way, and I think with that, American soccer has come a long way.

People ask me what the difference is from when I came to America in the late 80's, early 90's when I did some soccer camps here. You work with those kids when they are eight, nine, 10 years of age, and they're all now 30, 35, 40. 

I think the big difference in America now is you've got a soccer generation, which wasn't the case then - you had baseball parents and American football parents that dropped off the kids for soccer. Now you've got a soccer generation.

So along with that, a lot of things have happened. A lot of good things have happened. This convention is one of them. It shows an interest. There are so many things going on at a soccer level with clubs and camps.

And I think especially now, as MLS goes into its 20th season with two expansion teams - it's growing, it's an emerging market. And I think if they go and get a few things right over the next 10 years, I think they could have a fair chance of winning the World Cup. But they need to get a few things right.

On his view of the quality of player that the American youth soccer establishment is producing:

I went to the Academy Showcase in Florida last December. It was a really good eye-opener for me, and good benchmark to look at the better academies that are competing there.

What stood out for me was that in all the age groups - 15's, 16's, 17's, 18's - the sorts of patterns of the games were all the same. It's athletic, it's energetic, it's competitive, but the football, as such, is very frantic and erratic.

That, I think, is where the biggest gains can be had. Have teams play with a bit more composure at times, knowing what it is to create different rhythms and keep them, rather than the hustle and bustle and see how they get on.

It's strange, because in flashes you see some really good football, some really good play, and it disappears like that [he snaps his fingers]. That means it's not sort of embedded yet, but again, it comes with time, I think, and with coaching.

On whether tactics-based coaching should start with younger players in America than it does now:

I wouldn't necessarily start earlier, definitely not. I think what America needs to get right is that six-to-9 bracket, then nine-to-12. That should all be very much skill-oriented, because kids are much more receptive when they get to the ages of 12, 13, 14, and the game starts to open up. The identity of the player comes out a bit more. You know what you want to be - midfield, attacker, and the understanding that goes with it as well.

On what he was doing at the draft with the Union, and what he wanted to do; and on what he makes of the draft, since the caliber of the college players coming through it often doesn't measure up to the hype of the occasion:

Well, again, put it under the header of being an experience. I think MLS is in a sort of constant reviewing process. When you look at it, I wouldn't say it's necessarily a completely pointless exercise, but -

[He paused dramatically, and everyone in the room laughed]

It's a long day, for a start. 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 of the better college players, I didn't really think there was anybody, as such, about whom we could say, "Alright, bang, we can throw him right in the MLS team and he's going to make a difference."

So all that has to be sort of maximized, because it's part of the product of what the college system is about: the short league, then a big break, then you have whatever things that come with it.

With regards to the boy that we picked up [Dzenan Catic], we actually were quite pleased, because he was one of the boys that was pointed out to me by a coach that I know very well. The boy has always been a bit under the radar - he's been away, he's been in Germany, and obviously, the coach that I got tipped off by is a good coach, and understands.

So I said, "Let's have a good look at him." He showed some flashes, and something to work with. When we got to the point of picking, I couldn't believe he was still there. I thought, and all of our staff said, that he was going to go in the first 10 picks. So we were quite pleased with that.

On what age group he is focusing on while working with the Union:

None. I'm focusing on everything. They've asked me to come in and to have a really sort of good look throughout the whole of the club, anything related to football, from the first team to the academy and the school, as such.

That is another challenge for those academies that have built links with MLS. They need to find mechanisms now and create partnerships with these affiliated clubs, to try to get to these younger sort of "elite" kids, as it were. You know what I mean? There are plenty of players, but you want to identify these kids earlier. And to create an environment which is still fun: they learn, and they get that skill set, that tool box.

So that when a club gets an interest in bringing them into the academy, they've got that. I'm not necessarily saying that they have to drag that 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 at clubs to help them.

On what his role will be with the Union once the 2015 season starts:

It's not, as such, defined very clearly. I will definitely be with the first team a lot, to support Jim [Curtin] and Mike [Sorber] and Chris [Albright]. So therefore I'm going to go with them for part of the season just to have a good look, get 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 my extra time will be divided with the academy. So it's a good setup in that respect, because people know exactly what their positions and their roles are. Mine is definitely to not create any confusion as such, but to be a good resource for them to tap in to.

On whether he think he'll be telling the coaching staff what to do:

I think it's going to be a two-way conversation. At the end of the day, where I can help with my experience and expertise that I've built up over the years, I'll probably have a different sort of look and insight, and a different opinion.

Like I've said, from my first period here, my first two months working with the guys, one thing I can say is they've got some good guys in the club, and the academy. I think they all want to do the right thing, and put it in the same direction. It's challenging, because MLS brings its own complexity with it, to say the least. But it's a good learning curve.

On whether he shares Jurgen Klinsmann's famously controversial view that the American players, especially the best ones, should want to play in Europe because it's inherently superior to MLS:

Well, he backtracked that a little bit, didn't he. I can see where he's coming from in some ways. But I think also, he needs to realize that with America growing and getting stronger, getting a stronger league, getting more exposure and everything, I think that where they need to get something right in grassroots football, they also need to get something right for homegrown, elite, talented players. 

Because when they do surface, rather than being tempted to go to England, Germany or other European leagues because the money's better, they ultimately need to find mechanisms to keep them here. For me, that is a job that MLS needs to look after.

Otherwise, you will always have that other stream of players where they're told, "Hey, you're good enough - listen, hey, you don't need MLS, you can play in Germany right now." They are still, probably, stronger leagues as such compared to MLS, but it's not a gap that's from here to here. You know what I mean? America is getting better. You want that influx of homegrown players to get in there and stay here.

On whether he thinks the level of American soccer right now is such that a player can reasonably believe that he should stay in MLS instead of going to Europe:

I think so, yeah. But the key is that there's only one shortcut in soccer: that's when clubs pay X amount amount of millions and bring world-class players in, to some extent, to make the team better on the pitch. Which is the L.A. Galaxy, Seattle, the Red Bulls, and all those.

On the other hand, what any team needs to do is [focus on] environment and resources. You need to make sure that the elite player who comes through has got the right support to fulfill his potential. That is something that is what they naturally get if they go to England or Germany because of the competitive action that is there. The level is always there, that sort of thing.

On whether he thinks the youth development path to MLS has to change, including college soccer:

Yes, and I see that coming. It's obviously a little bit of a sort of a cultural breakthrough, because at the moment you're still sort of dealing with that as an aftermath of what was before.

But with all the changes now in MLS, and all the academies coming in, you've got a strong second league in USL PRO and all that, you need to have, basically, the route should be: young kids identified early create a big pool, and the better ones, obviously, stream into that academy.

Once you've gotten in to the academy - now, can you make that jump straight in to the roster? Or do you go into a second team like LA Galaxy II, or what the Philadelphia Union tries to create with Harrisburg. At least you get another pathway to give playing experience to them. That, I think, is a better route.

On whether he thinks America is more open to change than other nations, especially England:

Well, I can only speak for myself. But in all the time I've spent here in the United States, meeting people who have done a lot for the game, I've always felt that the open-mindedness - the willingness to absorb and learn - I've worked a lot with players and I've always enjoyed it. That is, I think, why America has the ability to grow really fast if they embrace things that are good.

Because you've got the numbers now. I think in many ways there needs to be an improvement facility-wise. You need a better environment, better resources, and I think some academies have done that already. I think the Union have got a great setup in that respect, and they are still looking to build.

If you go to other academies, you will feel that we can't play on a pitch like this. The better the circumstances, the better the facilities, the better the product.

On what Union fans' expectations should be for when the academy - especially the high school - should be producing first-team players, in the context of a fan base that is growing impatient and a city overall that is not known for being especially patient with any of its sports teams:

And you are one of these impatient people?

[Okay, I'll admit that I asked that question, and all of us in the room had a good laugh at his answer. But to his credit, he got the point.]

Well, I think the most important thing for every club to be successful is to first of all have a clear vision. Then to put a strategy into place, which is investment and all that. Then to get the train rolling, and next to that making sure that you get positions filled with the right people to make sure that the strategy is put into place.

Now, you look back at the Union - they're five, six years old? [And the high school opened in September of 2013]. I have to say I'm very impressed. What I'm impressed with is the sort of way how they educate the kids. It's different. It is so different, and so how it should be. Modern, and all this.

But back to your question about what you should expect. I think you always need to aim realistically, and you always every year need to aim higher. Therefore you need to say, if we got to this point last season, what can we do to do better? And then, again, you come back to what is the club prepared to spend in investment on better players?

If that is not X amount of millions, i.e. for Steven Gerrard, you have to look and be creative in trying to find those players in a different pool to make the team better. Honestly, when I saw them at my first impression, I didn't think the Philadelphia Union are that far off. I think they definitely should aim to get into the playoffs.

And basically, looking at that [U.S. Open Cup] final they played against the Seattle Sounders last year, which they narrowly lost - unfortunately, if [Vincent] Nogueira's ball goes in at the last minute, they win it - if you look at the game as a whole, you can really say Seattle and L.A. are the pace-setters.

I didn't see that much of a real difference, a real gap in that game. I didn't think they [the Union] were out-played, I didn't think they were out-classed, I didn't think they were out-thought, right the way until the end.

That's when you saw this [Sounders] team coming up. It was clever of Sigi [Schmid, the Sounders' coach] to keep Obafemi Martins on the bench, and then say, "Right, now you score the winner." And probably the disappointment of [Nogueira] hitting the post, and seeing the cup gliding out of their hands.

Then Seattle said, "Oh, we got away with that one, we'd better step it up." Then they have got the extra qualities to convert those chances when they fall for them. It's fine margins at the top.

On whether Major League Soccer's inherent parity is a good thing if it can create a balance of power not just on the field, but also in terms of what clubs can do with off-the-field infrastructure:

I can understand that opinion. When there is no promotion and relegation, what it does do - because what it has created in Europe, especially in bigger leagues where the demands and the money are big - you get a lot of emotional situations where clubs have knee-jerk reactions. So as a head coach, as a manager, you haven't got any chance to put things in place, never mind to work on a basis of a process.

Because it takes time. I can tell you now 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. You can tell that managers now [elsewhere] don't get that time. That is a thing that is very good for MLS.

So that's one thing: there's no relegation. There is the challenge of getting in the playoffs. There is the balance within the setup of the roster - Designated Players and this, that and the other thing. So it is very important how well that team is coached.

You really, I think, as a coach, you have to step up to the plate. You can't say when people under-perform, "Hey, see you later," and bring another one in. You have to find ways and means to make them better. And I like that, myself.

On what he is most excited about regarding his time in the United States and his work with MLS:

It's new to me, which is exciting, because you're learning and seeing new things. But the most important thing I'm excited about is to really try to discover where I can really make the best impact. I really think, looking back after so many years, I had a fantastic time at Manchester United, with a lot of success. Now it's sort of a new chapter. I hope I can use my experience and expertise and hopefully find the right place.