English coach Tracey Kevins hasn’t had the ideal preparation for this week’s Under-20 World Cup in Costa Rica, where she will guide one of the favorites in the United States, but her pedigree for success and development is unmatched.
Joining U.S. Soccer five years ago as an U-15 coach, progressing to the U-17s, and then the U-20s at the end of last year, Kevins has taken on similar roles to the ones she held with the FA between 2004 and 2013 in her homeland.
One of the most experienced youth team coaches in the sport, the U-20 World Cup starting this week will see some of the top young talents in women’s football go head-to-head, and Kevins opened up about some of the challenges faced ahead of the USA’s opening game against Ghana on Thursday.
“Normally for us this would be an 18-month or a two-year cycle,” Kevins said from the team’s base camp in Costa Rica. “COVID-19 really spilled into 2021 for us; we didn’t take to the field in youth national team camps until October 2021 and at that point our players are in their collegiate seasons and because those seasons are so short and tight, we’ve always had an agreement with the colleges that we’d try not to take a player out for that time period, so I knew I wouldn’t really have the group until December.
“It’s tough, because I knew I’d have to pick a roster from that one camp and then we were straight into qualifying. Drinking from the fire hose is an overused expression, but it really was. I’m very fortunate, though, I’ve been with this federation a long time and I’ve seen these players come through, some of them were part of the U-17 side I had. I’ve seen some of them grow up from 13 years old, to now being 19.”
Kevins moved to the U.S. after a 10-year period working in the England youth system along with her role as Barnet Ladies first-team manager, and has gained a reputation as one of the top youth team coaches.
She also spent a period as the (then) Seattle Reign assistant and technical director of the Reign’s academy, further strengthening her résumé in youth football, and because of that, is already pretty familiar with a chunk of the squad she has taken to Costa Rica.
“That’s always really helpful. If I haven’t worked with them in a camp then I’ve almost certainly sat on the edge of a field with a pen and paper and watched them closely. I’ve been to their colleges or spoken to their coaches, so I’ve had a pretty good grasp of the landscape and the top players out there.
“Out of the 21, I’ve worked with the majority. We’ve got players at various different levels, all trying to get to the same space in terms of how we want to play, what our style of play is and our principles on the pitch. The group deserves so much credit for how cognitively they’ve stretched themselves to take on board that information.”
Working for U.S. Soccer comes with its own natural pressures. They have so often been the top women’s side in the world at any level, but particularly at the very top, where the senior team are the holders of the last two World Cups in 2015 and 2019.
It’s 10 years since they won the U-20 World Cup, not reaching the final of the past three tournaments. Kevins admitted that they don’t particularly feel a pressure to win but also don’t hide that expectation from the players, acknowledging those who progress to the senior side will have to face the pressure of the expectation to win major tournaments.
“Internally, we don’t really feel a pressure, we view it more as an expectation,” she said. “There’s an expectation to compete and be in the latter stages of tournaments. The players know that, to get into any camp as a U.S. player is really tough, just the sheer amount of players who play. You have over 300 Division 1 schools, of which every roster is 22–28 players. It’s hugely competitive just to get here, so players have grown up knowing there’s an expectation, that it’s tough, and once you get here there’s an expectation we want to be competitive on the field.
“Of course we want to win the World Cup, every team entering wants to win the World Cup, but for us it’s more about developing, I’d give up a gold medal every day to get these players to the senior team. It’s what-can-we-do-for-your-development pathway to make sure you are in the best possible position to progress through to our women’s team? How do we go about that? You have to deal with nerves, crowds, being on TV, on a greater scale with the women, but this World Cup is a phenomenal opportunity to be exposed to a bit of that and a lot of it is about exposure. I think if we do that and continue to work that way, the outcome can take care of itself.”
The rest of the world views the U.S. as the best at dealing with the pressure, of almost embracing the pressure. There’s a confidence most other national teams lack, but it hasn’t happened by coincidence.
The sport continues to develop, both on and off the pitch, and Kevins offered an insight into what U.S. Soccer is doing to help players deal with the expectation that will come with playing for the senior team and following in the footsteps of not just great players, but people who are outspoken and willing to fight for change within the sport.
“The game has made tremendous strides in things like sport science, the physical side of being a footballer,” Kevins said. “I think now a lot of attention is turning to cognitive load. Previously, we would periodize a camp and probably only think in terms of physical aspects. Deloading days, loading days, exposure days. Now we think in terms of cognitive load. That’s been new to us, I’ve been in the game a long time and that’s the biggest new one.
“Also, creating an environment where players feel safe, to be able to have a voice to let us know if they’re struggling and for us to be able to provide support networks. Our medics are huge advocates of making sure our players are supported from a mental point of view. COVID-19 took its toll, especially on young players, there was a lot of loss. Almost all of them lost something: an opportunity to play at an U-17 World Cup or an U-20 World Cup and that’s hard. I think what we put into the environment is the biggest change over the past 10 years.”
Are players influenced by those above them? Over the past generation, the U.S. Women’s National Team has seen names such as Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, and so on take center stage, both on and off the pitch. Rapinoe, in particular, has become well-known for her work away from the pitch and the team as a whole for its commitment to fighting for equal pay.
Kevins believes stepping up to the senior U.S. team is one of the biggest steps anywhere in the world, but says the culture of success is something the young players have to embrace.
“That’s the other thing. For a young player, stepping up to our first team, you have to be really ready. Whether that’s dominating at your club from a young age, and that’s not something that’s a given, and immediately you’re going into an environment as a young, top talent and you might be the worst player there.
“That’s really humbling, but if you know how to compete and think, ‘Okay, what’s my mindset, what’s my ability, what’s my circumstances?’ That’s good. We have a head coach in Vlatko who really embraces youth players and wants to continue due to the next generation. It is really tough to make it to our women, and it’s really tough to stay there. That environment itself just breeds a really high culture of both competing and winning.”
Ordinarily, most U.S. youth team squads are made up of solely college players, but this year for the first time Kevins can call upon two players who are already professional in the National Women’s Soccer League, and ironically the two youngest in the squad.
Olivia Moultrie, perhaps one of the most well-known names in the squad after joining the Portland Thorns as a 15-year-old, while Jaedyn Shaw just recently joined expansion side San Diego Wave FC.
The other 19 are all currently in college soccer, while the other national teams are made up of players in club football, but Kevins believes the college soccer program doesn’t in any way put the U.S. behind their rivals at international level.
“I can remember having a conversation with Mo Marley [England youth team coach] about four years ago. She brought a team over for a group of games called the NIKE friendlies and I remember speaking to her about her players — Alessia Russo, Chloe Kelly, players like that. I said, ‘Wow, it’s fantastic you’ve got these young players coming through’ and she said, ‘Yeah, but they don’t play, they sit on the bench.’ Alessia was going to UNC and she was going to play, that’s the piece at a young age you need.
“We can say as coaches you develop on the training ground, but you develop by playing. We are in a position where our players are all playing in college at different stages. Jaedyn and Olivia is extremes, Olivia has the most extreme situation. She’s 16 and her oldest teammate is Christine Sinclair at 39. For Jaedyn, it’s probably Alex Morgan or Carly Telford.”
Kevins added: “But for us, it’s the players are playing, that’s fundamental to us. There’s a different pathway for our players to the rest of the world and this is the first time we’ve had a professional player in. We also have a player who is full-time in an MLS boys team [Alyssa Thompson], in the U.K. that would be the equivalent of being in a Premier League Category 1 academy team. The most important question we will always ask them is ‘is your environment challenging? Are you growing?’ Because if you’re not growing, then that’s where we have a problem, but we’re not in that position at the moment thankfully.”
Handling the Socials
One element also taken into consideration, particularly during a high intensity period such as a major tournament, is the ever-continuing growth and influence of social media.
At a time in which women’s soccer is gaining more and more attention, the focus on young players can be particularly intense to deal with. During the recent European Championships, many senior England players left their social media accounts to their agents, while some deleted accounts completely in order to both concentrate on the task of winning but also to avoid the negativity that comes with comments, particularly on Twitter.
Speaking about the rise of social media and how young players can deal with it, Kevins answered extensively about its challenges, stating it’s the “most important phase we are going through right now,” but will leave the decision to each and every individual.
“The beauty of social media is there’s so much content put out about the team and about you as a player,” she said. “The negative side is that it’s immediate feedback and sometimes a player comes off the field, they’re really hard on themselves. Having a platform, someone giving you instant feedback is really tough. Players at this [stage] are developing and sometimes to read those comments is really, really hard, and that’s something we spend a lot of time on. Our press officer Aaron has been doing this since the ’90s, he’s seen the landscape change and he’s a huge asset for us.
“We’re able to sit and recount the stories, able to see the good and bad of social media and our general rule of thumb is we don’t tell players they can’t use it, but we generally tell them to stay out of the comments. We don’t want them having feedback from someone not in their inner circle, and by inner circle I mean their family, their friends, their coaches, and their teammates, because they are the people who will love them and support them the most. Someone who doesn’t know them and just takes a snapshot, who doesn’t know what we’re doing tactically and what not. Olivia has grown up with that, she’s a 2005-born, so she’s grown up with social media and has learned how to handle it and she’s so mature with dealing with it. She’s seen the good side and the bad side and she’s clever enough now to know when to switch it off, but when it can be used as a powerful tool and when it can become a distraction. The group are able to speak about when it can be used, but we leave it up to the individual and support them around it.”
Kevins is fast approaching a decade working in the U.S. system after a similar period of time spent working back in England with the FA.
Europe in general is still lagging behind the U.S. at a senior level, even if both Spain and England put up solid challenges at the 2019 World Cup, it wasn’t enough to break the USA’s hold on the trophy from four years previous.
Kevins is well placed as someone who has worked extensively for both the FA and U.S. Soccer to discuss the differences between the two, and offer insight into why the U.S. remains the team to beat.
“It’s only when you get here that you really understand the journey a player has to go on and how much they have to compete for everything. You take club soccer back in England, we had a center of excellence which is maybe just an A team. Over here, every single age group goes down to an A, B, C, and D team, so the fight you have to have just to get into an A team, even at Under-10 level, they compete at such a young age.
“If you want to go to the best school, it’s not postcode-based like it would be in the U.K.; you have to be based in the area, but you have to compete to get into that. Everything is based on competition. Recruitment and scholarships to get to college is based on competition, so from a very, very young age they really do understand that. The world is catching up in aspects, but mentality-wise the U.S. is still way ahead, just because of the sheer effort and the environment players have to go into. To be the best in their environment is so, so tough and it’s why they will continue to have that mentality over other teams.”
But is Europe catching up? With an ultra competitive Euros just ended and England in particular now the ones to beat on a European stage heading into next year’s World Cup, where Kevins may even hope some of her youngsters may make the senior squad, is there a chance the U.S. will finally be dethroned?
Kevins welcomes more and more associations, both in Europe and beyond, funding their women’s teams, but believes the nature of the NWSL and how it is structured offers a competitiveness most European leagues can’t match.
“In the past there’s always been a few nations putting the funding behind their women’s program, from the seniors down into the youth teams. We were looking at the staff list for this World Cup, back in the day with England it might be head coach, assistant coach, and goalkeeper coach.
“Now federations are investing in data scientists, more on the medical side, we need member associations to be able to produce that because from a support point of view it gives players a better opportunity. We want players to make it through to the NWSL and I think what the NWSL has that Europe hasn’t got is the top teams will play the bottom team and go, ‘We have to be on our best game today.’ The level of competition and depth of player, I spoke to Casey Stoney about it and she couldn’t believe how competitive the league is. There is no off-game, in leagues around the world you can go, ‘Phew, we’re playing them today,’ a team who might have one win all season — you don’t have that here.”