Russell Payne Interview: Goalkeeping Insights with USMNT Goalkeeper Coach, Army Head Coach

cover photo from Baltimore Sun

After playing abroad in Ireland and Germany, Russell Payne has amounted an impressive knowledge of the game that he now passes on to the next generation of goalkeepers. Russell Payne is the current head coach at West Point and recently worked with the USMNT under Jurgen Klinsmann as the team's goalkeeper coach. Payne has also spent time with the U20s, where he worked along side Zack Steffen and Ethan Horvath.

Payne goes into the details of penalty saves with Zack Steffen, how he kept it competitive between Howard and Guzan, and the playing environment at West Point.

 

Tell me a little bit about the hiring process with the US Men’s National Team. How did that line up for you to become the USMNT goalkeeper coach?

I’ll go back basically two years from now, January 2015. We were just finishing up qualification for the U20 World Cup. I had been with Tab Ramos and the U20s since he got the job. So when Tab took over he called me in to be part of his staff. I took over working with the goalkeepers, obviously. We did the 2013 World Cup in Turkey and the 2015 World Cup in New Zealand.

Right after qualification I got a call from Jurgen asking if I could come in and be part of the January camp. Chris Woods was having, I think, a medical issue at the time and basically needed a stand in. So I went in for him and did the January camp in 2015. Chris was back in after that so I didn’t go to qualifying in March but then come the early summer, Jurgen called me back in for the Gold Cup. Chris had left and taken the job with West Ham and Jurgen called me in and asked if I wanted to be part of the staff.

 

You mentioned the 2015 U20 World Cup and you’ve worked with a number of goalkeepers now that have gone overseas, not to mention yourself, playing over there. I feel like I’ve heard this question a lot and I guess I’ve never really been satisfied with the answer. American goalkeepers do pretty well overseas and I was curious on your outlook as someone who’s been on both sides of that. Is there a reason for that or is it just a coincidence that American goalkeepers succeed in playing abroad?

No, I think it’s a number of things. First of all, goalkeeping is a very specific position. It’s a very analytical position. I think sometimes it’s a little easier to focus down on goalkeeper development than it is with field players. In this country, it’s probably a little easier to find a good goalkeeper coach to get you on that step-by-step process that could get you to progress your game. I think it’s a little bit harder with outfield players. I think with goalkeepers it’s more of a straight line with how a guy does with keeping the ball out of the net, how he does physically, the mental toughness side. I think it’s a little easier to scout and determine on a goalkeeping side.

We did a sort of goalkeeper analysis and DNA piece over the last year. We found, which is not rocket science, that all the goalkeepers that have done really well through the national team set up over, say, the last twenty-five years, have been multi-sport guys. Guys who were good at a variety of different disciplines, in terms of hand-eye coordination, in terms of body position, in terms of all those things. Not to say goalkeepers all across the world are multi-sport athletes, because they’re not, but I think that’s one of the things that has helped us in the US.

And then, you know, not everybody goes overseas and is able to be successful. I think for me, the biggest thing that played a part in being somewhat successful, and being able to stay put overseas for a little while, really is the mental side. I think in terms of having knowledge of the game, or the ability in the game, or the technical ability, those are all things that a lot of guys possess as US goalkeepers. But it’s the grittiness of being able to survive first and foremost when you get overseas. That’s the tougher part. And that’s something I don’t think that’s something I can really answer or put a finger on. Because I was a suburban kid. I grew up in the suburbs of Columbia, Maryland, between DC and Baltimore. So it wasn’t like I had some hard knock story of how I was going to make it. *laughs*

I just went to the University of Maryland, played, and got a great education there. On and off the field with Sasho Cirovski. I was his first recruit back in ‘93 when he got the job. So I went through the grinder with him and helped him build that program up. I was a nomad in MLS for a couple of years. When I got overseas I said “You know what, I’m here and I got to make it work.” And you know, locker rooms are tough and you just put your head down and you work. You push through and you don’t take anything too personally. You realize that Europe can be a cold place sometimes, physically and emotionally. You learn the language and you do the best to get along with teammates and you take your knocks and keep going. And that’s easier said than done. Most folks who try that wash out, because they realize they can fall back on something else. And I was the same, I could have fallen back on going to med school but I just decided I wanted it bad enough and I stuck with it.

I don’t think that Brad [Friedel] or Kasey [Keller] or any of the other guys - you know, I was never at their level - but I don’t think they’d tell you anything different as far as pushing through that wall. Because everybody hits it and you have to figure out how bad you want it and how bad you’re going to stick to it.

 

Going on the mental side to goalkeeping, what was it like working with Guzan and Howard, where it was known the starting spot was open for competition. How did that affect your setup and your coaching?

What you want to avoid is anything that is not transparent, especially with two seasoned pros. They’ve been through it all. They’ve seen it all. And you don’t want to approach it with any BS. You want to approach it being extremely open every day. “Hey guys, this is what I’m thinking we’re going to do.” And they’re not afraid to tell you what some of their rhythm is about, and how they like to approach things. You figure out what works there and how to keep them as sharp as possible. You let them know that your job every day is to keep them in that rhythm and that you’re ultimately going to report back to the boss of who has had a better day.

At the end of the day, it’s always the boss’s decision. It’s always the head coach’s decision of who’s going to play. And 99% of the cases that’s just how it works in football. Your job [as the goalkeeper coach] is to keep it extremely professional as you can between the guys who are competing, but also let them know you have their back. You’re not going to mince words. You’re not going to BS them. You’re going to be honest about what’s out in front of them. You give them as much heads up about preparation for the game for the weekend as you can. You help them with the tendencies with the players in front of them, whether [the two goalkeepers are] starting or not starting. Especially when there’s a back and forth and they’re trading games, they both have to be at their peak.

If I look back on the last two years, I feel like between Tim [Howard] and Brad [Guzan], they both had very good moments, more than down moments. I think they were two of the most consistent pieces of the group. And that’s just due to their makeup and how they approach every day.

 

Working with Jurgen, I’m really curious about conversation or coaches meeting with him. You talked about at the end of the day it’s not even your call, it goes back to him. So how would you approach going into that? What’s worth bringing up to Jurgen about the goalkeepers?

Yeah, I think it goes back to what I said earlier. He won’t always have eyes on what I’m doing through our session. So I’ll let him know what we worked on, how it went, how they approached it. You know, the good thing about working with Tim and Brad, as far as attitude-wise, they were very consistent. There was never a fluctuation in attitude and approach. And sometimes with other goalkeepers, guys will rule themselves out just how they approach the situation. But those two guys were always consistent there so we never had to deal with anything about attitude or professional.

The feedback I gave was just about execution. It usually had to do with execution as we approached the game because every opponent you approach, you’re going to be looking for different things from an execution standpoint from your goalkeeper. Whether it’s your distribution, whether it’s your angle play, whether it’s your communication, whether it’s your position or reading certain aspects of the game that are going to open up in front of you. We’ll work on those in training and then my job is to communicate who executed those things better on the day.

There wasn’t always a big difference between the two of them. What would happen at that point is Jurgen would give me his feedback on what he’s seen in the past from opponents, because we duplicated opponents a lot. We saw the same guys quite often through CONCACAF. So he had a good idea and understanding of who we were playing and what they typically brought. We’d look at certain strikers’ tendencies. Sometimes it would come down to which keeper we thought would match up with the opponent better, or with the defenders we were going to be starting. And sometimes it just came down to, “Last time we played these guys, Brad was really good against them and he’s in a good moment right now. Let's go with him.” Or the same thing with Tim. “Last time we played these guys, Tim was the man. We know that they’re probably going to hesitate a little more with Tim when they come to goal on certain players, let’s go with him.” So there were a lot of factors, I don’t think it was ever down to one thing.

 

With the US team, we’re obviously going to have a different makeup than Mexico or any other country. They’re going to have a different requirement for their goalkeeper. Is there one thing that stands out that the US needs from their goalkeeper?

You know, we’ve always had guys who, in terms of presence and leadership, have always made that a large part of their game. I think our best national team goalkeepers have all stood out in the club environments as leaders, as team captains, as carrying the group from an presence standpoint. They’re usually an emotional leader of the team. The only way you get to a captaincy point of leadership is consistency. Consistency really does lead to trust which leads to efficiency. It leads to you being put to the forefront of the group. A coach trusts you, your players trust you, the next thing you know you’re put in a leadership position. I think that’s one of the biggest parts.

I think [US goalkeepers are] proficient with our feet, none overly exception. We have had guys who were exceptional but on the most part we’re on par. We’re consistent. Our handling is usually very good. Athletically we do well on crosses. We command areas. We do things like that. But I think we have a good presence about us. There’s always a vocalness. There’s always a sense of organization and leadership. You always see US goalkeepers come through with bigger plays. But a lot of times you’ll just see staying power and consistency. And guys locking down a position club-wise. Kind of staying in the moment, being trusted by foreign coaches to be the team captain on foreign teams.

 

Switching to the college side, I’m curious about the differences in training sessions for the national team versus a college program. Are there certain aspects you focus on more or less with each side?

Yeah, I think the thing for me, one of the biggest pieces I stress when working with the younger keepers - meaning, 17, 18, 19 year old, that U20 World Cup cycle range - is that we always talk technical proficiency. I go in a little bit of a different lane with that stuff. I look at the stylistic part of it and helping guys understand what works best for them stylistically, but what’s still efficient technically. Because one of the things I took away from my own career was, and in having played alongside a guy like Tim [Howard] for a little while when I first got started in the professional ranks, you got to have a sense of your own style. How you handle balls, little bit of how you move, little bit of your footwork stylistically, little bit of how to prep your body into training or into exercise. You’ve got to trust in that and believe in that but also know where the technical part of that has to line up in order to secure the ball, stave off injury, and in order to put yourself in position to make the next play.

So it doesn’t really come down to repetition of certain types of exercises so much, because there are thousands of ways to do certain drills and get similar results, but it really comes down to the young men that I coach understanding who they are at that stage of their development, who they are at 18, and what works for them and what doesn’t. A lot of that comes from watching goalkeepers that are better than them and training with goalkeepers that are better than them. You rarely are going to get that on your own. At to a certain point, you have to start getting around pros who are older than you and better than you. You have to take a little piece out of their game. I think all of our games are a combination of guys who came before us that we pulled little pieces out of, and then within that, your own style starts to come through and you figure out what works for you and you go from there.

So that’s really what I focus on. If I have a 18, 19 year old kid like, for instance, a Zack Steffen who was our keeper at the last U20 World Cup cycle and who did a great job. You know, he had some really, really strong athletic traits to him. He had some posturing that he would take in certain exercises and in parts of the game that I really liked and wanted him to hold on to. Then in other areas, I would say, “Okay, you have to be aware, your footwork needs to be adjusted in this situation. Your hands have to be adjusted if you’re going to be making this play.” And we’d go from there. I think as he got into game after game after game at that level, and was around Ethan Horvath and they competed against each other and he was training with a professionally team at the time, I think he was just getting better, figuring out what works for him.

And then on top of that, like we talked about earlier, “Hey, you have to be understanding that you’re in a leadership position. You’re in a position of influence. You have to embrace that as a keeper, especially as an American keeper. It’s expected of you." The vocalness, the presence, looking, feeling, and being prepared throughout a game. Those kind of things with the position come with our identity.

 

 Photo by Alex Livesey

Photo by Alex Livesey

It’s funny you mention Zack Steffen because I remember watching him through that 2015 World Cup run with all those penalty saves and.. I don’t want to say apathetic, but it was very odd how he would make a great play and it was almost like it wasn’t that big of a deal to him. He had such an interesting composure and he was very calm back there. You expected this big reaction and he just stayed pretty calm the entire time.

Yeah, you know, that comes from two things. One, demeanor, in terms of who you are as a player but also recognizing the moment and knowing that the more you show that sort of stoic confidence, I think it resonates farther, than anything. And then the second thing is preparation. You don’t always have that “holy shit I just made a great play” look about you when you’ve prepared to make that play. And what I mean by that is, every one of the penalty kick takers that Zack saw during the U20 World Cup cycle, we had studied together. And it’s never an exact science but we had a prediction of where everybody was going to go. We studied all their kicks going back three or four years. We made calculated assumptions, calculated guesses on which way we thought they would go. He would look over for the signal if he didn’t remember which way, we’d give it to him and he’d make the final decision. So when the guys went the way we thought he was going to go, and we had prepared, it’s like, “alright there you go.” That’s why we prepared. He did it, let’s move on.

 

Changing gears a little bit, I’m curious with being at Army and working with players that have more a military focus. Does that show itself in any way or is it still soccer at the end of the day?

Yeah, you know that’s an interesting question. As you can imagine I get that a lot. I know being around soccer players and recruiting soccer players and being fortunate enough to coach youth team national players, the mentality of the guys that I get at West Point... I shouldn’t say “the guys that I get” because I recruit every single player that comes in. I don’t sit around and wait for kids who are military descendants to call me and say “I want to go to school” and I just say “Okay come on in.” *laughs* It doesn’t really work like that. I recruit at West Point the same way when I recruited at the University of Maryland.

So their mentality isn’t necessarily different but over the course of their college career at West Point they grow and they develop. Their character strengthens and they are different when they graduate. But they’re not necessary different when they get there. They are very normal, you know, guys. They’re normal soccer players. They’re hungry to play the sport. They’re academically astute enough to get in and they're open to the idea that there’s more to the potential college experience than just what they thought was out there. So the idea of going to the academy is something they’re open to but it’s not something they’ve prepared their whole lives for, or *laughs* even thought about until they got a phone call or email from me or my staff.

When we get them in, our job is to get them to understand that the work that you've done as a young soccer player in America and getting to the point to be recruitable, playing in academy teams or state cup teams or whatever it is, that hard work and that leadership that you've shown, is what’s going to get your through this place on a daily basis, not just once a week. And that’s the difference. You can’t just turn it on and turn it off, like at other schools. And that’s no knock on other environments, that’s just the reality that at West Point. You show up with that same grit and hunger in the classroom, and in the dorms, and in the lunchroom, and on the soccer field and not just show up with it on the soccer field like you would do at other places. And if you do that every day, imagine how much you change over six to twelve months.

So when the general public meets our kids after they’ve been in school for a year or six months, they go, “Wow that’s a special kid.” And I go, “Yeah, they are special, but don’t think they came in that way.” They came in just open and interested and hungry, but they left chiseled and they left stronger, in terms of the value system, the moral systems, the character building, the leadership development. They left with that. They don’t always come in with it though. So my job is to reinforce and teach that on the field, off the field, and in the locker room. So that everything is congruent and nothing is mutually exclusive. So when they walk over to the military side of campus or to the academic side of campus, it’s consistent.

 

Joe Greenspan graduated from the Naval Academy in 2015 and was met with a polarizing response about going professional. Some were very supportive of him becoming a pro while others thought he should finish his service to the military first. Obviously it’s a heated issue and I’ve heard cases on both ends for it. What’s your take on it?

Yeah, you know, my experience with being at West Point for seven years of coaching and being a part of the environment there and seeing kids from all the [military] academies and how they give back to the country and to us, is just awesome. I think the one kid out of thousands and thousands that reaches an elite level through sport while doing the right things with the academy - militarily and academically - that one kid out of thousands that has a chance [to play professionally] should be met with the same sort of enthusiasm and support that we do for everybody else. Because what we’re looking for is the elite to come and rise to the top, at all the academies.

We want the best kids to go on and do great things. And if doing a great thing is representing your academy, representing your family, representing your country for a couple of years on the “field of friendly strifes” as they call them, then I think we should celebrate that. Because they’re not getting away with something. They’re not taking or stealing or foregoing a commitment they signed up for. They went to school and they busted their butts to be the best they could be in all the areas that they were asked to be great. And they succeeded in graduating and getting commissioned and being one of the best they could be athletically. So we should take the opportunity to celebrate that and we should support that. Because we know it’s short lived. We know it’s a couple years. For me, I think it does nothing but strengthen the ability of the academies to bring in even better people.

So Joseph Greenspan was a junior, I believe it was 2013, when the Naval Academy and Army went toe-to-toe. We were number one and two in the Patriot League. My goalkeeper, Winston Boldt was named second team All-American, and Joseph Greenspan was named third team All-American. I don’t know when Navy’s last All-American was but for us, that was our first All-American in forty years.* So those two guys really set the standard. Winston Boldt was something like a 3.6 or 3.7 average cadet and he was also the number two cadet in the Corp of Cadets at West Point. So for someone to say that this kid shouldn’t be able to pursue any disciple that he chose, for me, is ludicrous. He kicked the butts of the other, you know, 4,398 cadets. *laughs* He ascended to the number two position as the Deputy Commander. He became the first All-American in forty years and he had an A average.

Going into graduation, his senior year, [Boldt] was invited to the MLS combine, and he ended up turning it down. He said “You know what, I’ve decided it’s not the path for me” And that’s great. I was supportive of him. Obviously I was disappointed on some level he didn’t go for it a little bit, but that was his path. Right now he is a First Lieutenant in the Army and he’s kicking butt and I think he’s got a pretty long runway in front of him for what he wants to do. Joseph Greenspan decided to go ahead and play and was able to get drafted and he’s making a career out of it. I could be happier for him and that’s what he chose. But both guys put themselves in those positions by the work they did. They didn’t fall into it, so to to speak. They earned it.

For it to even be a debate, for me, is interesting because we’re talking about one out of thousands of kids. We’re not talking about ten or twenty kids, we’re talking about one out of thousands every couple years that really has an opportunity. There are only a couple of Navy football players. There are only a couple of Army football players that really ever have a chance to do that, every year or two. It’s not this great plethora of kids who are doing that. And even when they do do that, it’s usually pretty short lived to a certain extent. Careers are short in the professional ranks and all it does is attract better kids to our academies, athletically and in all areas.

* Navy's last All-American before Greesnpan was Brian Steckroth, who was named Second Team All-American in 2001. Before that,  Bruce Montgomery (Honorable Mention) and Thomas Panik (Second Team) received All-American honors in 1975. Greenspan would also become a First Team All-American in 2014