ASN takeaways from Matt Crocker's introduction as the U.S. Soccer Sporting Director
April 25, 2023
U.S. Soccer today formally unveiled Matt Crocker as the new sporting director of the federation. The position has been vacant since Earnie Stewart left the post on February 15 and now Crocker will be tasked leading the national team program into the future – which includes hosting the men’s World Cup in 2026, possibly hosting the Women’s World Cup in 2027, and the soccer tournaments at the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Crocker will formally start on August 2 once his contract with Southampton expires. Before that, he worked in the English FA where he was the head of development. During that period, England’s youth national team’s achieved unprecedented success in winning the U-17 World Cup, the U-20 World Cup, and the U-19 European Championships.
But Crocker will not be inactive with the program as he knows that hiring the men’s national team head coach has to happen as quickly as possible.
Here are some thoughts on his hire.
Enhancing, not rebuilding
This is not the first time U.S. Soccer has hired someone to make broad changes to the direction of the men’s side of the program. U.S. Soccer initially wanted to hire Jurgen Klinsmann to make big changes in 2006 but that deal fell through when the federation did not want to give him the power he wanted. Eventually the deal was completed in 2011 and Klinsmann took over as coach and then eventually as the technical director as well. But after some tough results during World Cup qualifying in 2016, he was fired.
Then in 2017, the team failed to qualify for the World Cup and the federation hired Stewart to run the sporting side. And while there were some tough moments along the way, the 2022 cycle was largely successful. The U.S. team advanced to the knockout stages of the World Cup, the youth national teams generally played well and produced players that added to the senior team player pool. The program also qualified for the Olympics for the first time since 2008.
Given that present status of U.S. Soccer, Crocker doesn’t need to be a revolutionary. Certainly, he needs to make a solid hire with the national team head coach. But on the men’s side, things are generally tending upward. Crocker’s task is one of enhancement and maximizing the potential current structure. It is not to tear down and rebuild. This is true for both the youth national teams and the senior team.
“When I think about the team that I saw at the World Cup, I saw a front-footed team, a fearless team, a team that walked towards a challenge, a team that had speed, a team that had real technical ability, and could manage the ball in those tight moments of pressure,” Crocker said. “So, we need a coach who can support those behaviors, first and foremost.”
“Clearly, there’s been some great foundations put in place by Gregg and by Anthony around the style, and we want to continue to evolve that style of play,” he added.
Unlike when Klinsmann took over or when Stewart took over, Crocker seems to want to build off positive things he sees as opposed to trying to dramatically tear down and rebuild.
The USMNT coach
On his day of introduction, Crocker made it clear that the process of hiring a men’s national team coach will start well before his start day of August 2. He did not want to set a deadline, but he did stress the importance of starting the process now.
“There are some key projects that need to get underway in the interim period between now and the time I start in the beginning of August,” Crocker said. “One of those glaringly obvious ones is the men's senior team head coach. I will be working very closely with JT [Baston] and Cindy [Parlow Cone] to work out what processes we're going to follow. Some of that stuff is already underway. I guess I will be working as hard as I possibly can behind the scenes to make sure that we, at the right stage, identify, recruit, and put in place the next men's head coach that can take us forward, not just into the World Cup, but also be part of our player development program and the opportunity to leave a legacy for the future of the game.”
Crocker didn’t want to mention specific names, but his Southampton background probably will create speculation with Jesse Marsch. Back in February, Marsch was linked with the vacant Southampton job but it fell through during the negotiations. But the fact that Southampton wanted to hire Marsch under Crocker’s leadership is telling.
There is also Gregg Berhalter too. The fact that Crocker spoke highly of the team’s play recently speaks well that Berhalter might still be in consideration. Crocker also spoke of having players who are emotionally invested to the team and the program. Again, that was one of Berhalter’s strengths was his push for a “brotherhood” comradery on the team.
Crocker pointed out that an American head coach could have an easier time galvanizing the players in a meaningful way, but he was quick to say that the search for a coach would be global.
“Clearly it would be advantageous if that candidate was American, however, my job is to source the best candidate across the world,” Crocker said.
As for a timeline, Crocker avoided setting a deadline, but he said the search would intensify in the days and weeks ahead.
Would this mean that Anthony Hudson is set to lead the U.S. team this summer through the Gold Cup? Again, this is not clear but when parsing his words, Crocker said that in the “days and weeks” they’ll identify the process. That would take them into May. Anything is possible, but it seems like they’re running out of time quickly to have a new coach for the Gold Cup.
“Of course, we want to move quickly, and we want to move decisively,” Crocker said. “But we want to go when we have the right level of information. We need to go when we've done the relevant checks. We need to spend that time now and in the coming days and weeks really identifying and exploring what the process is going to be. This is an absolutely key appointment. It's an appointment we must get right.”
Style alignment & youth teams
Crocker said one of the things that he wanted to do was develop a style alignment for the youth teams and the senior team. But this will be an interesting development to follow. Having a unified style alignment throughout the program was a stated goal for both Klinsmann and Stewart. Berhalter had a say in this, and the youth teams often tried to follow the 4-3-3 formation in a similar style of Berhalter’s recent teams.
But Stewart also had a goal of having the style implemented over the past few years would outlast him and be part of the federation’s identity well into the future. Well, is Crocker going to once again make a change to the uniform style of the national teams or is he going to build off the existing style.
His statements sort of cut both ways. In one sense, he said he wants U.S. Soccer to develop but he also said part of what he wants is already there and he wants the next men’s coach to develop that style.
“[There] is clearly a style of play alignment we are going to develop,” Crocker said. “There already is underway a great technical program of how we want our teams, our senior teams on both the men's and women's [side], and the extended youth national teams. My job is to make sure we can recruit a coach who can deliver that style of play.”
But Crocker also preached patience, especially with the youth teams. Once the men’s coach is hired, there will be key decisions needed on the youth teams. A big one will also be the U.S. U-23 Olympic team for the men’s team and possibly the U-20 men’s coach if Mikey Varas wants to move on after this cycle.
Crocker pointed out that he needs to listen and learn once he begins the job. He needs to understand where all these programs are and what is needed.
"It would it be wrong and silly of me to come in and think that I've got all the answers," he added. "I haven't."
That is fair, of course. But decisions will be needed quickly for some teams.
A big emphasis on Crocker’s introductory day was also his emphasis on leadership. And one of the points of emphasis from the new sporting director is for the head coach to develop relationships with players and never be fully out of sight in the long periods between international windows.
Again, this was also a positive with Gregg Berhalter (and even with Anthony Hudson in his brief interim role). Berhalter was often in Europe visiting players with their clubs. He also scouted the domestic side frequently. But Crocker wants to take this to another level.
“Coaching on the field everyday when you're in a club environment is very, very different from a national team program,” Crocker said. “We want a head coach who is excited by the opportunities that exist outside of coaching on the field every day, that sees the benefit and is motivated by sharing good practices with coaches in the national team pathways, who is motivated by going and supporting our players when they're away from us - going and watching them train in their club environments, supporting them, showing a level of care that has existed beyond anything that has existed previously.”
But part of this is also done with an aim to empower the players in the direction of the program. But like other aspects of what Crocker said, this has also been a positive aspect of the team and the new goal is to find a way to continue to improve on the present and not invent anything new.
“We want to create a leader that can develop player ownership,” Crocker said. “That can give players trust and responsibility. A coach that is vulnerable enough to ask players questions to get answers to move the program forward. We want to create an environment of self-learning and growth and development in the team. That takes a very specific type of leader.”
MLS in development
Crocker also spoke at length about MLS, and he also pointed out that he has been following the American game closely from England. But one thing that was not lost on him is that now a majority of the top prospects and key national team players began their careers in the country’s top domestic league.
This is a trend likely to continue when looking at the youth national teams and the continued investment in MLS academies.
Of course, almost all player development comes at the club level. And if the national team is going to emphasize player development, working with clubs is important. But clubs also have their own agenda. While he was with the FA in 2017, Crocker spoke with Soccer America in a wide-ranging interview. In it, he spoke of the need for the FA and the professional leagues to work together.
“I think finally the Football League, the Premier League and the FA are all working together,” Crocker told Soccer America in 2017. I think it’s clear and recognized that all those governing bodies want more young homegrown English players in the Premier League teams.”
With this, Crocker spoke of his goal for U.S. Soccer to continue to work with MLS in the area of player development. If most of the top young American players are in the league, U.S. Soccer has an interest in it continuing to improve as a developmental hotbed.
“MLS is fundamental to the success not just in terms of the senior team to give the players the right opportunity to play at the highest level with fans in stadiums with a high level of competition, but also we need to consider MLS NEXT and the academy system that underpins that,” Crocker explained. “That gives our young players the opportunity to develop in an ecosystem that prepares them for international soccer at the youth level. And if we can work really closely with MLS, that is going to give us an opportunity to develop a player development system hand-in-glove with our national team development program.”