For the past eight years, Michelle French has split duty between the United States Soccer youth national teams and local select club Eastside FC, which features many of the area’s top players.
Beginning on Friday her mission will become singular: take the United States Women’s U20 team to the World Cup in Canada.
French was named the head coach of the U.S. Women’s U20 side last week after spending nearly a decade working with the program as a youth coaching assistant and will travel with her squad to Spain on Friday. Her task is to build an experienced staff, identify the nation’s best under-20 players and turn them into a cohesive unit capable of taking on the world’s best.
“It’s an honor and a responsibility,” French said. “You never know when you’re going to have that opportunity so when you get it, you have to grab hold of it.”
While the upcoming opportunity is certainly a prestigious one, French said leaving an Eastside FC program that helped build her coaching philosophy will be difficult. Unlike the squads she coached at the club level, her U20 squad will feature collegiate-aged women with much more experience on and off the field than the teenagers she worked with perviously.
“The best part of coaching club soccer was the friendships and relationships with the parents and families,” she said. “Winning a game or a tournament is great, but I will always remember and cherish the relationships.”
One of French and Eastside FC’s most accomplished players is Issaquah High School forward Audrey Thomas, a junior who has won back-to-back 4A KingCo Player of the Year honors. Thomas and “Frenchie”, as she is affectionately known, met eight years ago when Thomas guest-played for a team consisting of older girls and has worked with her closely in the seasons since.
“I have met very few people who are as passionate about the game and the development of her players as Frenchie is,” Thomas said. “She understands us and can relate to us, so when you combine that with her drive and passion when she is being serious, you get a coach that girls want to listen to and that they respect tremendously.”
French takes the reins of a U-20 team that won the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup in 2012 over Germany and will look to defend its title in Canada in August of 2014. The national pride that comes with putting on the country’s colors will be nothing new to French, who spent 10 years in the national program and is one of the most decorated players in the game. But the chance to do so as a head coach is sure to carry a different level of emotion as the leader of the country and game’s next generation.
Thomas doesn’t think that will be an issue for the coach either.
“She has played at the highest level under some of the best coaches in the world,” she said. “She has learned a ton and anyone who plays for her knows this and is so excited to learn what she has to share.”