SARASOTA, Florida — Anthony Hudson knows there are doubts, and while he doesn’t agree with them, he understands why they exist.
The new U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team coach not only stepped into a role vacated by a highly successful predecessor in Tab Ramos, but Hudson also landed the job just eight months after a disastrous stint as head coach of the Colorado Rapids.
Hudson’s MLS tenure led to a largely negative reaction to the news that U.S. Soccer was hiring to take over the U-20 program. How could a coach who failed so badly in his first significant job in American soccer be hired for such an important position in the player development landscape?
“I think it’s a fair point if you just look at the last year and a half,” Hudson told SBI. “I don’t think there’s any coach or manager that hasn’t had a bad experience in a club. I think my experience in Colorado, I learned some big lessons. There were things that definitely I would have done differently. There were things that I’m proud of what we did. I certainly come away much better for it, better coach, better person, stronger person. Even more determined.”
Hudson will be working to erase the bad taste of his time in Colorado, and overcome the stigma that came with his messy departure, which included some highly-publicized comments he made at the end of his tenure, when Hudson criticized the quality of his team’s personnel in a lengthy post-match interview.
“We are fighting down the bottom with a bottom group of players,” Hudson said after a loss to Atlanta United last April. “And we have to find a way to pick up results whilst also being a team that tries to play a certain way.”
It was shocking moment for Hudson, who was fired just days after he made the comments, a moment that left the 38-year-old coach with the label of the kind of coach who would throw his players under the bus.
“When I look back I cringe,” Hudson said of his controversial remarks. “I don’t like the fact that happened, but I take full ownership. What a big wake-up call that was for me. But certainly that’s not who I am. That’s not who I am as a coach. It was a big lesson.”
“I a hundred percent made a mistake there,” Hudson said. “What came out, I didn’t mean it to come out that way and it was a big lesson for me. I think anyone that truly knows me and has worked with me, players and staff, even in Colorado, we had a tough time changing the team. It was a tough period and right up until that last couple of minutes I defended the team. That had just been my way. That certainly is not a reflection of who I am, but it was certainly a mistake that I take full responsibility for.”
Hudson takes charge of a U.S. Under-20 program that has enjoyed steady success over the better part of the past decade, with Ramos having led American U-20 teams to the quarterfinals of the past three Under-20 World Cups. The most recent cycle set a high bar, with standouts such as Sergino Dest, Tim Weah, Chris Richards and Alex Mendez, but the group Hudson is inheriting is also stacked with prospects.
Consider that Gio Reyna and Indiana Vassilev, two teenage wingers eligible for the next Under-20 World Cup, made their league debuts in Europe last weekend, Ulysses Llanez and Julian Araujo have been part of the current U.S. Men’s National Team camp, and David Ochoa is coming off a 2019 that saw him play in the Under-20 World Cup and win a USL title with Real Monarchs.
Ochoa headlined the U-20 squad in its recent camp, the first under Hudson. It was a camp that featured a pair of scrimmages against Mexico, and a scrimmage against the USMNT in a week that left Hudson feeling very good about the state of the program he has inherited.
“There’s a lot of players here that I’m really excited to see as well, and the guys that have been in this week I’ve been really, really pleased with,” Hudson said. “It has been a pleasant surprise really. The best thing is the team, the players have been really receptive. You have a new coach coming in, new ideas. It’s not easy for young players. First of all, some of the guys it’s their first time with the national team at this level, there’s nervousness there, their’s anxiousness, and then you have a new coach come in with a new staff.”
The USMNT’s decision to cancel its training camp in Qatar, which led the team to switch to a camp in Bradenton, Florida, became a blessing in disguise for Hudson and his team because it gave him a chance to have his team train against, and work with the senior team, while also allowing him to spend time with and strengthen his rapport with USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter.
“I can only see it being a positive process because, first of all we’re aligned in terms of how we work, how we think, how we want to play,” Hudson said. “I probably wouldn’t be here if we weren’t. Even before I came to the national team there were certain coaches in MLS that I had a huge amount of respect for and admired from a distance and really wanted to know more about how they taught their style of play, how they coached their players. Gregg was one of those. Peter Vermes is another person who I had just a huge amount or respect for.
“I was really curious about these guys and when I started to learn about how Gregg works, and just watching his teams play, it was something very inspiring,” Hudson said. “Something that I want to embrace, and learn from, and also add my own stamp on it.
“But in terms of having core principles of how we do things, how we want to work, on and off the pitch, it really is about alignment. This week’s been good because I’ve been able to jump into a few meetings with those guys and talk about players, talk about processes, talk about training. It’s been good.”
The alignment of U.S. Men’s programs was on full display in Florida this past week, with half of the USMNT squad in its January camp being eligible for the U-23 team, and with that young USMNT side playing against the U-20s, which deployed the familiar 4-3-3 system Gregg Berhalter has employed since taking over the senior national team.
Berhalter was in attendance for the U.S. Under-20 team’s matches, and even brought over some U-20 players —Cameron Harper and Dante Sealy — who impressed him against Mexico to train with the senior team.
“That’s the idea,” Hudson said. “I think the result from (the first Mexico scrimmage) was that, in the game Cameron did some things that obviously impressed the first team staff. And not only impressed them, but did things that were very much in line with what they want in that position.
“That’s the objective,” Hudson said. “If we were playing in a completely different way (than the senior team) I don’t think it would have been as easy. You’re going to spot talent, but it’s not going to be as easy to go ‘Right, well he’s doing exactly what we need from that position and he suits how we want to play’. It’s very easy to bring him in, and also easier once the players are there to have a base foundation, not to go in cold. You just don’t have any time with the national teams, you can’t have two or three days to warm up.
“From day one you need to understand exactly what’s going on and what’s expected. I know by doing it this way it can really help the players.”
Hudson has experience with establishing a national team/youth team framework from his national team coaching experience with Bahrain and New Zealand. With Bahrain, Hudson worked on the youth levels before moving up to coach the senior team, a process that helped him gain an understanding of the process of establishing an effective top-down development structure.
Hudson took that experience to his position as New Zealand coach, where he was able to build the type of national team structure he will now be working with U.S. Soccer to help cultivate.
“What we worked really hard at doing was making sure the 17s, the 20s, the 23s and the first team all aligned,” Hudson said. “We had a style of play all the way through the age groups. We worked very hard with the younger coaches. I used to bring the younger coaches with me to the first team. We used to spend a lot of time with the 20s. We brought a lot of young players into the first team. We brought in a significant amount of young players and gave them debuts, gave some real young kid their debuts with the national team.
“We were able to give those young players a chance because they were training the same way in the 20s, and playing the same style of play with the 20s so I think when they came up to us it was a seamless transition. That’s what we were trying to achieve.”
Hudson’s experience in New Zealand and Bahrain is what led U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart to hire him as U-20 coach. To Stewart, Hudson’s international experience fit perfectly with what he wanted in the U-20 role, and he wasn’t about to write him off as a candidate because of a bad stint with the Rapids.
What also worked in Hudson’s favor was his ability to convince Stewart that he had learned from the mistakes he made in Colorado. Where some took Hudson’s comments in Colorado as evidence that he wasn’t someone who held himself accountable, Stewart saw something very different when he interviewed the American-born, England-raised coach.
Stewart saw a coach with the kind of national team and youth national team experience that made him a good fit, but just as importantly, he saw a coach who was fully aware of his mistakes, and eager to learn from them and eager to prove that he is a much better coach than he showed with the Rapids.
“I think adversity is the moments when you learn so much,” Hudson said. “From when I left Colorado, the process internally went from disappointment to anger to frustration. It’s tough, it’s real tough because you put so much into the job and care so much and then suddenly it stops. But then you come to a point where you need to reflect and you need to figure out what happened. Why did it go wrong? Why didn’t it grow? What did you do well? What didn’t you do well? What do you need to change?
“And then it’s just the sheer determination to go and put it right, be a success, and be sure you don’t make the same mistakes again.”
Time will tell if Hudson has truly learned from his mistakes, and grown as a coach, and he admits to being fully aware that his hiring as U-20 coach was met with plenty of skepticism. He knew that would be the case whenever he took his first job after Colorado, and he also knows that the only way he will change opinions about him is to build and lead a winning team.
“I feel like the underdog in a way,” Hudson told SBI. “When people doubt you and question you it’s the biggest motivation in the world and I think there’s nothing better than going through adversity and really getting your head down and wanting to prove people wrong.
“I’m also in a position now where I’m extremely proud to be here,” Hudson said. “My motivation is to do all I can to make sure I help the national team and its development. The end goal for me is I want to really, truly play a part in developing soccer in the country and I believe I can help.”