Mike Freitag played at the University of Indiana from 1976-79, earning All-America honors in ’79. He played professionally for the San Diego Sockers of the North American Soccer League and the Denver Avalanche of the Major Indoor Soccer League. He was assistant coach for the United States Under-17 National Team and coached the University of Indiana to a national title in 2004. Currently he is the Executive Director of Coaching for Colorado Soccer Association. Mike has the USSF A license and the UEFA B through the Scottish FA.
You were outspoken recently about the lack of defensive training taking place in youth soccer. What caused that conversation?
My understanding of the game comes from experience as a player and a coach. Fundamental to that is the importance of being able to defend better than your opponent. As I watch what is going on in soccer in this country at the moment, very few people are talking about defending. I was fortunate enough to coach with Roy Rees on the U17 National Team and he had a philosophy that I have adapted, that defending is more than half of the game (especially if you are the weaker team) so you better know how to do it. People see it as a negative tactic, when it really doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe Barcelona can defend by keeping the ball all the time, but there are times when you will have to win the ball back, and be good at it. The teams that win championships know how to attack and defend.
Is it a technical deficiency, tactical, or both?
I think it is both to some degree. There is some technical deficiency for sure, but also a lack of mentality. It is important to develop attacking technique (passing, dribbling etc.) in practices, but we are at the point now where two thirds of some of the sessions I see are patterns of play and technical drills. This may develop players but it misses out on two vital components – decision-making and competition. We need to teach individually and collectively to defend. You may think you are defending well, but you don’t know unless you are tested. Just look at the offense of the Denver Broncos in 2013: as soon as they came up against a good defense in Seattle in the Super Bowl they were beaten easily. If you can get your team defending well at practice every day, it will increase the challenge for players training against them, improving your offense too.
What are the specific coaching points you would like coaches to have a better understanding of?
The game can be broken down to 1v1 battles. When I coached at the collegiate level the first training session we did every year was 1v1 defending. Periodically throughout the year we would review the principles of it again because you fall into bad habits. Then we build to how to defend collectively as a group. How can we in a 2v2 situation defend? I don’t see coaches working on this nearly as much as I see the attacking side of the game. As we get bigger we talk about lines of confrontation, team shape, the distance from the front runner to the last defender and so on. If I can get my players to condense their block, it becomes much harder for the attackers to generate opportunities against them. I’m watching a French game right now and at times there are only 25 yards from the front to the back player, which is very hard for the other team to break down (when properly managed).
How often should coaches be theming practice sessions around defending?
I’ve been helping out with the US Soccer National training Centers, and we never ever talk about defending. Ever. It’s almost like it’s something they assume will just happen. We’ll just get numbers behind the ball and win the ball back… Well maybe if I improve as an individual at defending we won’t need as many people behind the balk, which in turn will make us better offensively. Every session during the season should have attacking and defending emphasis. Even in attacking topics, you need players to defend and do so at their highest level of ability – which you need to coach when it is appropriate.
If coaches want to improve their understanding of defending, where can they learn more?
Getting out and watching other people is helpful, since a lot of knowledge comes from experience. There are sources on the internet and books for sure too. I haven’t seen a definitive source out there though. Years ago there was a DVD series through Soccer Learning Systems called International Tactics, with one DVD series on group defending and one series on individual defending. I thought they were very well done.
What was your strategy for taking over from Hall of Famer Jerry Yeagley at the University of Indiana?
I think the transition was easy because I was his assistant. Jerry was my mentor; I had studied under him for many years. I knew how he ran the program. It would have been stupid to come in and change something that was being very successful. It was announced early that I was taking over and the transition was quite seamless. I emphasized the things that were Indiana Soccer and then put my twist on things in time, little by little.
Did you find that the existing players accepted you?
We won the national championship the next year. Once you have the right team, with the right chemistry and character it becomes their team. I was just the headmaster; they already knew how to play. I just tried to continue to guide them in the right direction. It is still Jerry Yeagley’s program to this day. Even though I was the head coach, people would say the only reason Freitag won was because Jerry Yeagley left him a championship team. Sure we had a good team, but I was part of what made that championship team over the years before. So in some ways I was always going to be second-fiddle as far as getting praise, but that didn’t matter, it was about winning games and championships.
I followed the legend, and if you look at guys that followed John Wooden and others usually they fall on their face and fail. I had success. The guys on the team knew how much I did in previous years so I didn’t have to gain their respect because they knew me already.
You have coached several elite players during your time there who went on to have MLS careers. How does coaching at elite college level differ from competitive youth?
Those players are already motivated. They are internally motivated or I wouldn’t have recruited them. They were made up of what we used to call the “winning fiber” so really it is easy to coach at the college level in so far as that I had quality players already. I didn’t have to teach how to trap a ball, I had to teach them how to go about their business and play as a team. The role I am in now is completely different from that. There you had thirty young men that you were trying to guide and piece a puzzle together for. Now I am trying to create good pieces for the puzzle. Which is a little bit different.
Did you ever have to keep them grounded?
Oh yes. Most of the kids coming in have been big fish in little ponds and now it starts all over again. They are used to playing every second of every game and being the star, now you might be red-shirted because you are not ready to play or maybe you have to play a different position that you are not accustomed to. You almost have to break them down sometimes so that you can build them back up because it is all new to them. The kids in youth soccer today don’t have that competition within the team – if you are the best player you know you are going to play. When you get a lot of them together you have to hold kids accountable and some kids are not used to that. I think that is one of the weaknesses of youth soccer sometimes – coaches don’t hold players accountable because they are worried about losing kids to other clubs, which is sad.
How did you communicate that message to the players?
It’s always honest and upfront. You talk to them in person. You can see a kid is down from their body language, you pull them into your office and give them some examples “so and so who was an All-American went through the same thing, it’s not where you are at now it’s where you are at at the end.”
When you were a college coach, what was the best way for potential players to get recruited to your team?
First of all players have to do their homework. They have to be realistic in their ability and what level they can play at. I would get hundreds of letters and thousands of emails, but there are only really a handful who could actually play at the level of my team. Coaches have to guide them and give them feedback on how good they are and what level they can play at. I think it is important for coaches and players to go out and see how good the college teams are because otherwise they don’t know. Maybe occasionally they see a game on television, but it is important for players to see the level of play during your junior and sophomore years. There are a lot of youth coaches out there who have never seen college games.
It is important to have an idea where you can play, but then again, don’t sell yourself short. If you feel you can play, you should go for it. You need to catch the coach’s attention somehow. The club team you play on hopefully plays in good tournaments where you can be seen. The ODP program and DA are probably the best places to be seen now because if I’m a college coach I want to go see the best kids in competition and those programs offer that.
Another way, if you are not on an ODP or Academy team is to sign up for the camp at the school you are interested in going to. That way the coach gets to see you for 5-6 days, your training habits, they get to know you. I’ve recruited a lot of kids who weren’t on anybody’s radar, but they came to camp and caught my attention. You look in your crystal ball and say hey this kid has something, what can he be down the road in the right environment? So that’s another avenue to be recognized. What’s happening now at college is instead of having the long week of camp, a lot of schools are having these mini-identification camps over a long weekend that is less expensive but you still have an opportunity to be on the field in front of the coaches that you want to see you.
What is the best way for coaches to improve?
I think you have to become a junkie. When I say that I think you have to go watch other coaches work, not just their games, but go watch them train people. Also I think you have to watch soccer as much as is possible, whether it’s TV or live I think there is transfer no matter what you are watching. Today kids have such a better range of opportunities open to them in this country because now it is on TV and you can see how players moved. I was fortunate because I got to watch college soccer in St Louis University, which was a top school. My dad would take me to watch every game. For coaches I think the internet also offers all kinds of activities and videos to watch, which makes it so much easier today to become a better coach if you take the time to use the resources out there.
Most important is that you get out there and coach and experiment. Try new things, steal an idea from another coach, and try it with a different twist to it. You have to be passionate about wanting to learn though. I have watched plenty of training sessions where I am blown away about how poor the coaching is. The coach stands on the sideline and I hear nothing from them, nothing instructional, no passion. For those coaches it is no surprise that players quit soccer.
You are an USSF A and UEFA B licensed coach – are there particular courses you enjoyed or didn’t enjoy along the way?
I always walk away from every course a better coach because you pick up things here or there. Some courses you say you didn’t learn a whole lot but picked up a couple of new things and reinforced what I knew already. I went to a course with Glenn “Mooch” Myernick in Scotland, which was a B International course. It’s funny because I saw Mooch one time before he passed away and he said “hey, that one guy in our course did pretty well for himself” and I said what are you talking about? He said “I think The Special One [Jose Mourinho] was on our course back then!” But at that time he was an interpreter at Barcelona. That was a course that was good.
Coaching with the U17 National Team was probably better than coaching courses for me though. You get to see the team dynamics. Coaching is not always X’s and O’s, it’s also people management. Things behind the scenes that you have to deal with, players having bad days, trouble at home and so on. A lot of that is very important to the success of the team. Look at Alex Ferguson: he doesn’t do much of the coaching on the field, he’s just making sure everybody’s feeling good and everything’s going in the same direction. Jerry Yeagley was the same way, a lot of people skills – how you deal with players and how you get them to play to their best.