Danny Sanchez has coached at all levels of college soccer and is the current head coach at the University of Colorado. We ask him about what he looks for when recruiting players and how coaches can get in to working at university.
How happy have you been with your season preparations so far?
We had a great season last year and a great run but I think we overachieved a little bit so the expectations have been set high. I think as a coaching staff we are realistic about where we are. We have had one bad loss, which is probably our first bad loss since we’ve been here. But we are a work in progress still. I don’t think we’ve played our best soccer yet but we’re 5-2 but the big challenges are coming ahead with the PAC-12 games starting next Saturday.
You start conference play at the end of the month, how confident do you feel about the progress the team has been making towards then?
I think in non-conference you need to play well, you need to have good results, but really for us you have eleven games in conference play and you could win any of them or lose any of them. We’ll be evaluated by how we do in conference play and it is a tough division.
Last year you finished 6th in the PAC-12. Is that what you mean by “overachieved”?
No I think more that we got in to the tournament and made the Sweet Sixteen. If we’d won another conference game we could have been 4th and if we had lost one we would have been 10th so that’s how tight it is in there. So it’s more of the fact that we got into the tournament and won a couple of games; I think that was more unexpected. I don’t think finishing 6th was a big reach. Well, maybe a little bit, I mean we are pre-season 11th but for us I thought we were more than capable of that.
For a neutral watching a division that is that close it is exciting, but how is it for a coach?
When you look at our league top to bottom there is no question that it is the best one in the country. Looking at the results there is one team that is struggling but nobody else has more than two losses, a few teams are still undefeated, one team hasn’t given up a goal yet, so yes it is one of those situations where any game could go either way. It’s exciting from that sense but it is also its tough with the travel, tough weekends where we are going to have to get results so we’ll see how it goes. The first weekend is a single game weekend but then after that we are five in a row on the road.
Good luck! Talking specifically about your team now, what kind of players do you look for?
We feel that we play in the best conference in the country so the best players in the country are playing in our conference. So when we look at players we have to be able to forecast whether they are going to be able to compete against the best players in the country in a couple of years when they get to college. As we evaluate them they need to have one or more special qualities or things that you can build from. All the players are good. Almost every player in the decent competitive clubs is a good player but we have to forecast whether they have special qualities that we can build off to help them compete against the best players in the country. Solid players without special qualities are not going to win you championships.
What would be an example of a “special quality”?
The obvious one would be pace, but to be honest everyone in our league is fast. Is she a great ball striker? Is she a great distributer? Is she a good passer? Is she dominant in the air? Does she have a dominant presence if she is a holding center midfielder or center back? For goalkeeping do they have great distribution? Is she good off her line?
Do you choose players to fit positions or adjust your system to fit the players?
I don’t think we are at the point where we go out and recruit a left back or a holding center midfielder. We budget a certain amount of scholarship funding for every position but we don’t get too caught up in specific formations if we have four center backs on good money we are not going to recruit anymore, but if there is a center back out there who we feel could be a holding center midfielder we would still go for them. We look at it a little bit but we are not at the point where we can say this player is graduating so we are looking to recruit that exact same player, we try to get the best players we can get without overdoing it in certain areas.
Would you change your formation? Do you change it?
Yes, we’ll play to their strengths, we don’t have a set formation. We lost a player earlier this year so we’ve tweaked with our formation a little bit. If we play UCLA we’ll play differently than when we play a non-conference game, but I think most good teams will do that. If you’re the best team and you can dictate to everyone all of the time that’s one thing, but where we are at we have to modify our game to cope with the strengths of the team.
We spoke to Jerry Smith at Santa Clara and he described playing a specific 4-3-3 formation with his teams. Anson Dorrance at UNC has traditionally played a 3-4-3 for the majority of his career there. Do you think there is a recruiting attraction for players knowing they are going to a certain system?
I have to be careful about how I say this, but I don’t think players are sophisticated enough to care about that. They are attracted to the university, they are attracted to the coaching staff, and they are attracted to the players within it. So I don’t think that they get too caught up in that. As a program you don’t necessarily want to be pigeonholed into saying this is how we play because the game evolves. North Carolina does play a lot of 4-2-3-1 now. They’ve gone away from the 3-4-3 because people have figured it out. So if your personnel dictates that you have a great center forward and great wide players and a certain formation makes sense, then you do it. I think most coaches will still modify what they do, even though they might have a principle for how you want to do things. I think for us how we play at the back and how we play with our holding center midfielder doesn’t change – whatever formation we’re in. What we look at is the other five attacking personalities and how we organize them.
I saw there are currently 5-6 players from Colorado high schools. Is it part of your recruiting strategy to find local players or do you just choose the best available players, regardless of where they are from?
When you are recruiting you want to get the best Colorado kids first, for a lot of reasons: sometimes they have a more vested interest, they have a connection to the university through their parents etc.. But we realize at the University of Colorado that we can recruit anywhere nationally or anywhere in the world. It has a great academic reputation and Boulder is a beautiful place to live so we’ll go after the best Colorado players and hopefully we get some of them, and if not we move on to anywhere else we can go. To get to where we want to, to win championships, you can’t just rely on Colorado players.
A large number of your players are from California. Do you target them in recruiting?
If you look at the student body for the whole university, outside of Colorado most of the student body is from California. There’s an attraction to come here, there’s a lot of alumni connections and it is a natural attraction for a student from Northern or Southern California to want to come here. The amount of talent in those areas is pretty impressive so there’s players you can pull out of there that can make immediate impacts on your program so we do spend a large amount of time down there.
Are there certain tournaments you go to throughout the year?
We go to every ECNL event and then we go to the big showcases. There’s Surf Cup, the Vegas Showcase and Disney. We’ll go to the biggest events. We have six committed players in our 2016 class and only one of them is really a full time ECNL player though. A lot of them are coming from USYSA teams or they guest-played with an ECNL team, so we don’t restrict ourselves to certain areas. There are definitely events that we are 100% attending but after that we pick and choose as we go.
How do you divide up scholarships? Are you maximizing kids or prioritizing star players?
As a Division 1 team we have 14 equivalency scholarships which we can divide among the players. Some are on small percentages and some are on big percentages. When we look at our budget and how we want to forecast it over time we realize that some players are going to cost more than others so you try to factor that into the equation. If you have a couple of goalkeepers on good money the next one you can’t afford to commit as much money towards. It’s not an exact science, it’s more of a gauging process where we try to make sure we are not committing too much money in one area. If we graduate a couple of players from a certain area we want to try to stay within a range bringing players in.
How much of an issue is it needing players to meet CU’s grade standards vs other universities?
Fortunately for us most female soccer players are good students so it’s more of an attraction for us: the fact that the academics are good. A challenge is that it is very difficult to get academic aid. As an equivalency sport we can offer academic aid on top of athletic aid but it is very difficult and competitive to get. Sometimes in other sports it can be a problem though, depending on the type of student you are trying to recruit. Almost across the board though an elite soccer player if they have made the commitment to sport they are pretty good students.
How do players get noticed by you? Does writing letters and calling really help?
I’ll talk specifically about the situation here because I’ve also coached at other divisions and levels where it is different, but for here it’s more of us identifying players. If a player does write and she is from an area that we don’t see a lot, and she has a good resume and grades, she’s played at a good level then we’ll show more interest. If it is a player from an area we are familiar with we’ll reach out to the club coach and ask if there is anything there. Most of our communication is with club coaches because we can’t communicate directly with the players until the start of their junior year.
How about ID and summer camps? Do you actively recruit from them?
I always preface it by saying that obviously they have to pay to be there. But especially for a player coming off an injury or who hasn’t had the looks because of where they live of the club team they’re on it can be useful. We have taken players from our ID and summer camps. There are players on the team and will be in the future where without going to those camps the opportunity may not have happened. So for youth coaches if their player is going just to check out Boulder but the soccer piece isn’t there then that’s one thing, but for a competitive player checking out a lot of schools the first question they should ask the coach is are they looking for players in that class and do you know who I am, do a little bit of homework so that when they get there the coach can get a good look at them and make a decision. You’ll find that most coaches will be pretty up front with the player – I know I am. If it’s a player from outside of the state or region who is interested in Colorado if we don’t have a spot then I’ll tell them. If we do, then I’ll invite them to come show for us at the camp. We have had players show up who we didn’t know about who have surprised us, and even if they didn’t get an opportunity here we’ll have other coaches at those camps, regionally, who will get to look at them also. But the onus is on the player to do some research – don’t just sign up and show up.
What’s the attrition rate? How many drop out before the end?
Not that much. What you find here is that the players come here because this is where they want to go to school too. Now I’ve coached in places where that’s not the case, but here I think there is a lot of attraction because of the academics and the location. This is where they want to be so they are more willing to stick it out than maybe they would be at other places.
How can coaches best prepare their players for college with you?
They need to get to college games. They need to see what it looks like and now there are so many games on TV so if a player things hey I can play at the University of Minnesota, well have you ever seen them play? Has the club coach seen them play? Can they fit in at that level? So I think it is important for the coach to educate themselves on what it takes to play at each level. I’ve coached at all of the levels and there is a lot of good soccer at all levels. What we look at, especially when we are recruiting younger players is what’s their mindset? What’s their real motivation? Do they work hard in training or do they just say they work hard? Are they self-motivated? Are they fit? Do they take care of themselves? Are they taking care of their academics? All of these things at our level we don’t have to mess with. If you don’t have all of these then we’re not going to recruit you, but if you were here you’re not going to survive.
For coaches to prepare them they need to talk about being professional. Kids on scholarships are getting paid. How do they carry themselves at games and at training? Even if they are playing high school, these are all things people look at. How mature are they? They are going to get into a situation where there are 24-26 other players on the team and none of them are bad. How will they deal with adversity when they get into that situation and they are not necessarily the best player? Will they fold up shop or will they work harder and stay focused? You can get a lot of that early, you can kind of forecast it.
How can coaches get into working at college level? Is the only way to start at the lowest level and gradually work your way up?
There is no set way. The old adage of how do you get experience without having experience applies. I think the path that I took was the hard path that you had to prove yourself. Starting as a part time coach at a junior college and being director of a youth club, then getting an opportunity at Division 2 and so on. But every step of the way you have to be successful. You have to treat people the right way; you can’t burn bridges, you have to build relationships, but you also have to be consistent with your message. I don’t know that I’m much different than when I started in 1995 at Mesa Community College. I look at things differently and I’m a better coach now because I have more experience but on the field how I treat the players hasn’t changed a lot. It’s a small circle though so you must be honest with people and treat them well because they will expose you. I’ve been in the Rocky Mountain region now for 12 years between Metro State, Wyoming and Colorado – it’s the same club coaches from when I started so you have to be consistent.
I think there are a lot of opportunities though and I really encourage a lot of our players to get into it. I finally got one of our players from last year who is a graduate assistant at a school in Alabama into it. There are faster paths to do it that I did it but there certainly isn’t one set way to do it. At some point though you are going to have to take a chance. When I left Arizona to go to Denver there was a huge pay cut, I didn’t know anybody and I was going in to coach the worst team in the RMAC. When I went to Wyoming I took a big chance. When I moved here I don’t think I took much of a chance but they were last place in the PAC-12. Sometimes coaches are in a comfortable family situation and they are unable or unwilling to take the risk to stick their neck out there.
Be successful and be consistent in your message. If you are trying to reinvent yourself every year to get that next job, maybe that next job isn’t for you. Sometimes you might have to take a step back to make a step forward. Especially for club coaches who do make good money and have good situations it might not be a good fit. I was there for 7 years but I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I have good friends who do it and love it. You can have a lot more impact on youth in their formative years that we don’t get here.
A director at Real Madrid told me that he felt the NCAA was the biggest single problem the US faced in trying to compete with other countries in the world because of the restrictions on training hours compared to European rivals already with a club training full time. What do you think?
Spain finished last in their group at the 2014 World Cup and the US went on. I think there is a sometimes a very egotistical view in Europe as far as every country thinks they’re perfect. Who is the top dog right now? Germany right? Before that everyone was in love with Barcelona and Spain and that went out of the window, so sometimes I get a little bit defensive on it because I think they don’t know. What I will say is on the men’s side with the Developmental Academies there are a lot more avenues now to become a professional than there were even 3-5 years ago. Players can be a professional at 16-18 years old now through the MLS and other academy programs. To say that the NCAA is to blame I think nowadays the best kids are not necessarily going that route anyway. However I think Clint Dempsey is a pretty good player and he went to college, Brian McBride, Brad Friedel all went to college. I played against Kasey Keller in college.
I’ll agree that it has changed now though and it is better for those players to compete against professionals when they are 16, 17 years old, to get chances in the MLS or go overseas. But I certainly don’t agree that the NCAA is responsible for ruining the national team. Is playing in a small country at a low end professional team any better than UCLA vs Creighton, I don’t know? That’s pretty good soccer and pretty good coaching. They are trying to change the hours by making the season year-round in men’s soccer with less games and more training but I don’t know that that will happen. For the women’s side I think the model we have is undoubtedly the best. If you go anywhere in the world, and we have, except for a few pockets, the best coaching on the women’s side is in the college game. They have a lot of opportunities during the season and in the W League in the summer which help us produce the best players in the world.
Men’s is a whole different situation. I think the way they have gone though they will start to produce more and more players. Landon Donovan went straight to professional. Had he gone to UCLA I don’t think he would have developed as quickly into the player he was. Shane O’Neill at the Rapids could have gone to the University of Virginia – a top five program – but he’s gone from scoring a bunch of goals at high school to being an MLS starter and a fringe national team player. Five years ago if he had just gone to Virginia that wouldn’t have happened. I think MLS is doing a great job of bringing those players in. If it doesn’t pan out they can always go back to school but to jump into that professional environment is a great opportunity.