Spanish-born Alfonso Mondelo serves as the Director of Player Programs for MLS and is thus the domestic league’s defacto technical director.
Mondelo has an impressive resume, from coaching the Puerto Rican National Team to guiding the defunct MetroStars for a campaign to working as an assistant with Bruce Arena’s US National team.
Mondelo is now acutely focused on improving the state of the MLS game. He was kind enough to speak at length with The Shin Guardian and our interview with him now ranks as a personal favorite.
Alfonso Mondelo on US soccer development and the quality of the MLS game:
TSG: I’m very excited to talk to you Alfonso, first why don’t you provide for an audience who may not know you what your responsibilities are.
Alfonso Mondelo: I am for the last 6 years the technical director of MLS concentrating mostly on player development and scouting.
TSG: And what does that role typically entail from a day-to-day basis?
Alfonso Mondelo: Oh, man, I wear so many hats.
I watch all the games of course and I’m responsible for delivering the technical report to the ownership groups.
I’m also in charge of the programming for the academies. I’m the driving force behind the all the MLS clubs getting into the academies and the development and the curriculum of that.
I’m also involved in the competition level and everything to do with it.
I’m sort of the soccer guy at MLS Soccer.
TSG: When’s your next technical report do or how frequently do you give those reports?
Alfonso Mondelo: We’ve had them in the past at the end of year and midseason. They go only to the ownership groups.
TSG: Let me ask you a question from when Don Garber spoke last year during the week prior to the MLS Cup. He said that there were foreign consultancy groups reviewing MLS and that there were certain incentives for teams that played attacking football or an offensive style. Would those comments, sort of, fall under things that you work on and reflect on that statement if you would.
Alfonso Mondelo: Well certainly, in regards to the offense, that comes from our reviews of the game and looking at what the trends are in MLS.
Perhaps what our deficiencies are compared to some of the other top leagues in the world.
Also in looking at what things we need to grow as league.
And as I’m sure you’ve heard the commissioner say many times, he wants this league to be the most attacking league in the world. And we always compare ourselves to the rest of the top leagues in the world and where we’re lacking in MLS and where we need to improve.
TSG: Let me ask two follow-ups. How would you compare MLS to another league? Where would you rate it in regards to another league in Europe let’s say?
Alfonso Mondelo: Well I think it’s very difficult to compare leagues, especially a league as young as ours as opposed to leagues that have been around for over a hundred years.
I do think that this league has made great progress, especially in the last five to 10 years where the technical aspects of the dominant players, which are the American players in MLS, has improved. In that respect, I’ve seen that improvement from when I coached in the league in 2001 and back to 1998.
I think the overall quality of the American players has improved.
We still lack in some of those so-called special players, the so-called “number nines” and the “number tens” and the creative players that make the game exciting and electric.
So clearly within the constraints this league has with the salary caps and the budgets, I think this league has come a long way in a short period of time, but it’s still far from where it needs to be.
TSG: In terms of those “number nines” and “number tens,” is it an innate skillset or is it something that can be honed over a period of time and through training? What’s your perspective on that?
Alfonso Mondelo: Well, I think it’s both. Well first though, you cannot take someone who doesn’t have the talent and turn them into a special player.
So first and foremost that innate talent has to be there.
After that type of talent is found, that killer instinct around the box, from the very first stages of playing when you see a kid and he gets the ball and he goes right to goal and puts the ball in the back of the net.
Having that talent and skill, it needs to nurtured.
And the same thing with those players who have the vision of the game who can make those passes and for others is impossible and for them is very easy.
So I think that’s the beginning point.
And then having them in environments that promote that type of play, that don’t stifle their creativity, which unfortunately in this country happens all to often. That creativity is taken away for the sake of being part of the team, instead of letting them flourish.
I think that’s one of the challenges for our MLS academies.
How do we take that talent, make it flourish so that they then can become that special player.
TSG: So how do some other leagues around the work or cultures address that challenge? Managing a team goal and conformity to it versus allowing personal expression on the pitch?
Alfonso Mondelo: : First, it’s done in the academies. That’s what we hope with MLS and that’s what happens worldwide.
It is the development of the individual within the team concept that is important.
It’s not as important that the club win tournaments, competitions and trophies at a young age.
It’s more important that these players, these special players, are surrounded by other good players that help them to flourish
When you look at any of the top clubs in the world, when they can produce one or two good players every year to the first team, they consider that a success.
We have to start looking at the same thing.
Identify the top players and put them in an environment that helps them to flourish.
TSG: Now do you think in the States that there is too much of a premium put on a winning at young age? Would that be a fair way to dissect the first part of your answer?
Alfonso Mondelo: : That is the biggest challenge we are going to have right now as an American soccer culture: To try to change that culture of win at all costs at a young age and become a culture of development and improving.
Having the players that are qualified and have special talents and putting them in an environment where they’ll be challenged and raise their collective level together.
TSG: Now getting back to the positives and negatives of the domestic league, where would you say there are some challenges–beyond the “number nine” and “ten”–and where do you think MLS is stronger vis-a-vis that average world league?
Alfonso Mondelo: : Well first, I think that MLS is one of the tougher leagues to compete in worldwide.
The amount of travel, the time of the year in which we play are challenges that are unique to this league.
We did some recent research a couple of years back of teams in Europe in that are playing domestic competition, domestic cups and Champion’s League and what they did in the entire year–I think it was Manchester United–competing travel-wise is what the Houston Dynamo due in one month.
When you consider that and then multiply it by the six or seven, eight months of the season, it’s unbelievable.
The amount of time our teams our team travel….wow.
So that already makes for a difficult competition and makes those games away from home so challenging.
Alfonso Mondelo: : Clearly I think having a more settled type of soccer schedule is something that our league needs to improve upon.
We are a very physical league–we are very demanding. It’s a very uptempo game. There is more premium placed on pressure.
No team in our league would ever consider playing a Barcelona, possession-like game.
Our league perhaps resembles more what happens in the English league, the Scottish league.
The game is more based on the physical nature of the players rather than the tactical tempo and skill of the game.
TSG: But isn’t that because there is a lack of those type of players…or do you think it is a lack of coaches willing and able to instill that Barcelona-type of system?
Alfonso Mondelo: : I think….everything comes down to players. If you have great quality players, whose first touch is always precise, you can play a different type of game.
Then the coaching becomes important.
But if you don’t have that type of talent, it’s very hard obviously to play that type of game. It leads to turnovers and that leads to chances on goal for the opponent.
And clearly the coaches are measured on success, so therefore you take less risk, so you take more chances only in the opponents third.
So something like building out of the back, in order to be able to do that, you need some very creative players who can execute with high proficiency and which I think sometimes these players are not here in MLS just yet.
TSG: Fascinating. Two things that bothers me about US players in general are the first you touched on, the “first touch.” The second being movement. Either moving with the ball in possession to consistently change what the defense is looking at or moving without the ball to change the complexion or landscape in front of the attacker in possession to create opportunities.
You’re the expert, what are the one or two skillsets that you feel Americans lack or wish they would work on?
Alfonso Mondelo: Clearly….technique and tactics go hand in hand.
So first, having players having a clear touch, both in the reception and passing of the ball.
But I think when you look at deficiencies, I think heading is a big deficiency in our game. Heading and crossing the ball into the box, making that final pass, making that killer pass to the forwards is not there.
The crosses from the wing certainly can improve.
But those are just some of the ones that are more noticeable ones.
But I also think the tactical aspect of the game, the moving without the ball as you say–and the timing of those runs–is lacking and is something that should be and is not worked on at a young age.
I just came from a U-18 camp this week.
And it something that was very obvious to me, when the kids got into the camp, their lack of understanding of moving without the ball, the lack of timing to make those runs, to make themselves available for the next pass….
And their lack of ability with the ball to think ahead, to think about where to go with the ball before they receive it.
Those are just some things.
TSG: Great detail. So how do you go about teaching that? How do you go about indoctrinating the right way to play?
Alfonso Mondelo: One of the things that US Soccer has started to do the past few years is…the fact that…there is such a premium placed on competition and games at a young age and not enough time spent on repetition.
The culture of the American soccer player…they want to scrimmage.
But, before you scrimmage, before you have a recital on the piano you spend many hours practicing the piano.
And the American soccer player needs to practice.
The understanding of the game, of moving with and without the ball, the quality of the touch required….if you have the repetition, because we have some really good athletes, that would improve.
We have to stop having the mentality of competition. We have to stop having players travel three and four hours just to play in one match when that entire time can be spent practicing.
Changing that mindset will be one of the key things we need to do in order to reach that level of aptitude and development in American soccer.
TSG: Great stuff. So what are the players right now that embody the right way to play?
Alfonso Mondelo: Well, first everyone’s seen the quality of Barcelona. It is probably arguably the best in the history of the game.
You could say the Dutch teams of ’74 with Cruyff, the Milan of when Rijkaard and van Basten were playing there with Gullit.
Those clubs were special. But the way that they’re [Barcelona] playing soccer right now, it’s taking the game to another level.
The ability to exploit breakdowns in the opponents is unparalleled.
So, let’s think of the players there.
So what are their skillsets? The ability to dribble, the ability to make decisions with the ball at the highest level.
Players also like the German, Ozil.
That’s a guy, a young player, who is comfortable with the ball in making decisions, making a pass, and scoring as well.
So those are the players at the peak in world soccer.
TSG: Back Stateside, do you think the American player, and specifically the US National team, puts too much of a premium on physical presence or physique as oppose to skill.
Alfonso Mondelo: I don’t think that it’s so much the national team, I think it’s just the players coming through!
I know there’s an extensive effort on scouting being done to identify skillful players.
But sometimes, those that are very skillful come in lacking in other areas.
And when they’re all put together sometimes the skillful players are left behind because the physical nature of some of the other players completely takes them out of their game.
Xavi and Iniesta are not maybe the most physical guys, but they’re both able to withstand the rigors of the game and that’s what you need at the top level.
TSG: So give me some sneaky good players in MLS that have that accomplished skillset.
Alfonso Mondelo: Up-and-coming players? Players that I worked with at Generation Adidas.
Players like Corben Bone and Dilly Duka.
The kid from Chicago, Baggio Husidic.
Probably not the most physical players in the world but they do have the talent.
The new kid just signed by the Galaxy, the kid from Uruguay, Paolo Cardozo…he’s going to be good fun to watch in the league.
It’s going to be very interesting to see how he does this year in the league.
He’s one of those players that is extremely gifted, very talented, great vision, but he’s not very physically imposing.
How’s he going to cope with the rigors of the league?
If these types of players have success, then I’ll think we’ll see more of them in the league.
TSG: So, continuing, what system in MLS is the most advanced or grabbing the most talent?
Alfonso Mondelo: That’s a difficult question to answer. In terms of youth development, the work that is being done by FC Dallas stands out.
They’re really going after the skillful players, not necessarily the ones with the biggest size….and they’re trying to play a more possession type of game. They’ve done a good job.
I think Chivas has done a good job, most probably because many of those coming in are from Mexican descent.
They play possession soccer and they’re on the lookout.
The academies are all doing good work but some have been around for longer than others.
Dallas has certainly taken a step in terms of their youth, the approach to the game, and the way that they are developing players.
TSG: Here’s a question. Jozy Altidore’s obviously playing in Turkey right now and there are no US players playing in La Liga. La Liga being, of course, more of a technical league. What players could you see from MLS playing in La Liga?
Alfonso Mondelo: Well staying with Generation Adidas players, two players that caught the eyes of a couple of clubs in Madrid.
One was Juan Agudelo from the Red Bulls and Brek Shea.
Brek Shea played centerback during our trip in December over there. He impressed not only with his ability to defend, mark and make good defensive decisions but more with his ability to play out of the back.
That’s something that’s never really been seen with the American players. Defend, control, and come out of the back in possession.
So he [Shea] caught the eye of the Spanish clubs.
TSG: So should Brek play in the back this year? Of course in MLS, there’s less attack talent, so a player like that gets pushed up the field. But do you think it’s stunting his growth to play in a different position, perhaps, than one that he is best at?
Alfonso Mondelo: Well that’s obviously up to his club to decide…what they have and what they don’t have on their team.
I think the coaches realize what they have and every coach sees the game a different way. What a team needs in MLS in a player is obviously different than what one in another league might need.
I can’t say where a player should be used because of that.
TSG: Fair enough. We’ll break there for this time, but we definitely need to speak again. Anything we should close with?
Alfonso Mondelo: Well, I think MLS needs to take a leadership role in player development in the US. There’s a vested interest in the quality of course.
It’s key that MLS–and the academies–that we create an environment where there is professional development and professional growth with the understanding that not all the players will be pros. Even those that won’t be pros will be good college players and the college game will improve.
It’s also, I think in my opinion, that we need to change mentalities to development at a young age.
Because those are the key years, from the ages of six, seven to the ages of 13 and 14. If the time is not spent well in developing the tactical awareness of the game, the technical skills needed to play at a high level than by 16, 17 and 18 it’s very difficult to change those behaviors.
If we do not do something at those ages, it will be very difficult to quote “move the ball” forward and improve ….and of course to develop those special players in the US that we all want to see!