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John Hackworth's advice to U.S. youth soccer prospects: Don't think you've 'arrived'

The former Union manager had strong words for his U.S. under-17 national team players after their run to the quarterfinals of this year's World Cup in India.

Former Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth (second from right) coached the United States under-17 national team to the quarterfinals of the 2017 World Cup.
Former Philadelphia Union manager John Hackworth (second from right) coached the United States under-17 national team to the quarterfinals of the 2017 World Cup.Read moreTsering Topgyal/AP

For most of the three years since his dismissal from the Union, John Hackworth has worked outside of the spotlight. You might have followed his work if you're a close observer of U.S. youth national teams, but other than that, he hasn't been in the news much.

That changed in October, when Hackworth's U.S. under-17 team reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in India. The tournament came at the same time that the U.S. senior men were knocked out of their World Cup qualifying, and the under-17 success gave American soccer fans a much-needed shot of optimism. It also put Hackworth back in the headlines, along with a group of young players that included some high-profile prospects.

Hackworth's schedule has quieted since then. This past weekend, he came to Philadelphia to watch his oldest son, Morgan, play for Akron in the NCAA men's soccer College Cup.

(Of course, he also did a bit of work while in town. He visited the Union's academy in Wayne to watch some prospects.)

Hackworth had some free time on that snowy Saturday morning. So he met up with the Inquirer and Daily News over breakfast, and spent some time reflecting on the last few months.

You've been all over the world this year with the U.S. under-17 team, and as everyone knows, you've enjoyed some success. How has it been personally for you?

It's hard to quantify the year in a short, easy package. It's been a challenging year in many different ways. It's been a really productive year for the team that I was in charge of, and the group of players. It's been disappointing at the same time, because I thought the team that I had going into the World Cup had the potential to be the first team on the men's side of the game to win the whole thing.

So there's a lot of emotions that, looking back and on reflection, can go different ways. But in the big picture, it's been a good year.

For me personally, it's been a good year, because [of] the work that my staff and the team that I was involved the most with. We feel good about that. That being said, it's a really hard time to be in U.S. soccer and look forward, and have a good feeling about what this last year meant for all of us.

And now, what direction are we going in? It doesn't change that much for me personally, but look, I've been around long enough to know that when some of these changes are happening at the top, it always affects everybody.

So there's a bit of uncertainty. Which is fine. My attitude is I'm just trying to keep my head down, do my job to the best of my ability, and function within the structure and process that we have at the current time.

It's been well-documented that your run at the U-17 World Cup came at the same time that the U.S. men lost to Trinidad. As that was happening — it was starting to happen independently of what the senior team is doing, but it grew even more — we all saw that there's more attention than ever on youth national teams.

It's one thing if it's at the under-20 or under-23 level, when the players are professional already and some of them are playing for clubs regularly. But is it different at the under-17 level, where not all of the guys are professionals or legal adults yet? Is all of that attention a good thing in your mind?

It's a really interesting question, from the standpoint that I've been now through four under-17 World Cups. One as an assistant in 2003, and then in 2005 and '07, and then this last one as a head coach. It is significantly [higher], the attention, the exposure, the expectation, the criticism, the unwarranted praise and promotion of 16- and 17-year-old players. It's so noticeable. And that concerns me for sure.

But it also makes this process a little more real to what these young men are going to face. And some of them, I think I had seven guys that had already signed pro [contracts] by the time we got to the World Cup in India. If you count Josh [Sargent going to Werder Bremen], it was Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin [both Atlanta United], James Sands [New York City FC], Chris Durkin [D.C. United], Jaylin Lindsey [Sporting Kansas City], Tim Weah [Paris Saint-Germain]. And then I had numerous guys who were on the pathway with their clubs.

So it was interesting, because now, when you sign those guys that young, they're pros. But they don't know what that really means.

And a lot of guys, because of our structure where we had a [full-time] residency, that meant we were in our own little bubble in Bradenton, Fla., training and playing what I felt was a really demanding schedule to try to get them ready for the World Cup and ready for the future. But it also insulates everybody a little bit from what it's like to be in a club environment, and to have to battle every single day for your job and your spot.

Some of that is because you're a homegrown player like Andrew Carleton or Chris Goslin were at the time, and they were going back and forth between Atlanta and being with the first team, and being with us and the under-17s. Chris Durkin was the same way. No matter what, they're not truly being held accountable at that point in their careers. The idea is they kind of have this other team they're trying to develop at and within.

So the very long answer to your question is, you look at that process now in 2017, and it is so much different than it's been in the past. It does raise a lot of concerns, and at the same time, I think it ramps up the reality of what it's going to be like.

If I think back to other players that were in a similar place, I think we hopefully can learn — we [as in] U.S. Soccer, clubs, media — lessons from where we might have lauded a kid with a little too much too early in their playing career.

[Hackworth famously coached the most famous example of that phenomenon, Freddy Adu, when he was in charge of the Union.]

When you headed home from India and you sent those players off into real life, what did you tell them? So that they keep taking those steps up, instead of thinking they've already made it.

It was a really tough message. And look, often times I don't give this message immediately postgame. I think postgame is not a great time to give messages. There's a lot of emotions going on.

But it was in the locker room after we lost to England in the quarterfinal that I said:

"Look, now your responsibility is to make sure that this game that you just played in, and that you feel all this emotion about right now, is nowhere near the highlight of your career. Your responsibility is to do this with the senior team, and your responsibility is to go farther than the quarterfinal of a World Cup. So don't for one second think that this is it, that you have arrived."

"This is the start of it. Now you have this experience. You have this pain and disappointment of losing a game in a World Cup where you felt like you could have, and should have, maybe gone farther. But now it gets real for you. Now the grind and everything that we've been talking about, now it goes back solely on your shoulders. The responsibility and the accountability to get better every single day. And you're in the senior level now. You're in a man's game."

Now, some of those kids aren't going to be in that. Which I have a super-big concern about. Because they go from what we did in residency, and what we did going to a World Cup, and those guys that aren't pro — it's such a difficult gap in this country for those guys. Do they go back to their clubs and play youth soccer? Do they go to college? What happens in their main developmental years, where they need the environments that we're talking about?

Some of them are going to get [that], but that class of players, it's not just Sargent, Carleton, Weah, Durkin, so on and so forth. That is a really talented pool, and it's deep. There's going to be guys that come out of that group, because they're so deep and talented and have pushed each other.

But if you have Tim Weah at PSG playing in Champions League games; and at the other end of the spectrum, there's a kid named Blaine Ferri who is a little younger, and he was going to go back and play with his club team in Dallas — that difference, about what they're going to get, is shocking.

Look at Andrew Carleton. He went back to Atlanta, Atlanta was in the MLS playoffs, and he didn't go back and get into an 18 or a game or anything. For sure, the club didn't really have the opportunity to invest in development at that time. All his counterparts from England went back into their first teams and have gotten some minutes.

The guy who's most like Andrew Carleton is Phil Foden, who goes [home] and gets in a Champions League game. Their pathways are so different, and it's just such a challenge. I could go on and on and on, but that's just an example.

[Foden scored the winning goal for England's under-17s in the World Cup championship  game against Spain.]

If one of your young players comes to you and says, "There's a scout from Europe in my ear. I don't know the guy, I've never met him, but his idea sure sounds interesting," what would you tell the player?

I'd tell him he has to look at it. He absolutely has to. I talk a lot when I'm off the field in front of the group, and I'm trying to teach them some life lessons, specifically about what we're doing and how we're doing it, and what their choices are going forward. It's so important that they choose a path for themselves that meets the demands of what they think their ultimate goal is.

It's a really tough question. We had a number of guys that chose to go to Europe, and we had a number of guys that chose to stay domestic and go to MLS. People said, "Well, you have to go to Europe!" I don't know that it's that cut-and-dried. What I do know is that for every individual, they have to make some really tough choices, and make decisions based on what they think is best for them.

Most of the time when those kids get that European scout, or interest that is real, then there are some great opportunities along that path for sure. 

Fans may know about Andrew Carleton, Chris Goslin and the other guys who play in MLS. Josh Sargent, too, because he played in the under-17 and under-20 World Cups this year. But they might not know so much about Tim Weah, since he's been at Paris Saint-Germain for a few years. They might know about Tim's father, George, of course, because he was a global superstar player at AC Milan and PSG. But you know Tim well. What is he like to coach?

He's an American kid. He played for BW-Gottschee [a prestigious club in Brooklyn] and the New York Red Bulls in the Development Academy. He had his chance to go to PSG, and he took it, to be a youth player over there.

I've been fortunate to be around him for three years, and he's just really — that environment, it's been good for him, because it's tested him. And every time he starts to get better and better, they have the ability to push him up to another level and test him, you know? And he, being the individual that he is — the athlete, but also the person — has taken all the chances really well. Some of them have been very tough.

People should know that it's a really hard road for a young kid who at the time is 15, 16 years old, and goes off into a foreign country at a really big club. His name is huge there, and there's expectations just by the name. But he's not his dad. He's Tim. And the great thing about Tim is that he's a wonderful human being, and he wants to be a great soccer player one day for himself — not for anybody else. And he goes about his job of doing that in all the right ways.

He's very humble; his work ethic is excellent; he's very coachable. He's hard on himself, but he also gives himself some credit when he does do something well, and smiles.

On a personal level, I watched him grow a lot. People have said, well, Tim Weah started in the World Cup and he wasn't even a starter in your group for the last two years. And I said, "What do you mean? I don't know where you're getting this starter or non-starter [question from]." Tim Weah started a lot of games. I think we ended up playing something like 56 internationals in the two years, including the World Cup.

I don't know off the top of my head, but he for sure started half of those games that he was involved with, and he scored a lot of good goals for us, you know?

The World Cup was a little bit of a breakout for him. He took that opportunity so well, and played a couple of games that were fantastic. I told him after the Paraguay game where he got a hat trick that it was one of those games that allows him to take another huge step in his own development.

The third goal that he scored, where he cuts inside and bends one to the far post — that's the kind of goal that he needed to score to take the next step in his career.

I'd seen him do it hundreds of times in training, but in a game I'd never seen him do that. And on a world stage?

So, long story short: What people want to know about him is he's a good kid with a lot of potential, and he has the mentality that I really like, and believe going forward can make him very successful.