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Q&A: Sacramento United Girls Director Amsalu Fantahun

Note: NorCal Premier Soccer regularly sits down with an influential figure in the youth soccer landscape to pick their brain about a variety of different topics that are relevant in the current soccer environment in the United States. For this edition, we spoke with Sacramento United Girls Director Amsalu Fantahun. Originally from Ethiopia, Fantahun coached for De Anza Force and Santa Clara Sporting before making his way over to Sacramento United. In addition to his coaching duties there, the USSF “B” License holder serves on the technical staff of the Ethiopian Football Federation and has earned a Masters in Sport Science from Addis Ababa University. 

NorCal: How did you fall in love with soccer?

Fantahun: I grew up in Ethiopia so I didn’t have an option. For the kids, it’s a social thing. You go out, form a team, there’s no coach. We’d make a trophy out of wire, like from a fence, we’d tear it apart and make a trophy and then aluminum foil for a cigar so it would look like silver. It would be like, “I bring one, you bring one from your neighborhood and first to 10 goals wins.” Whether it took two hours, three hours, you’d just keep playing until you got that trophy. Sometimes it might end in 10 minutes, in that case, you bring another trophy for a rematch. My whole family played too. My dad played, my two older brothers played. Then I started playing. The Africa Cup of Nations, the World Cup, it’s huge there. People would take off work to watch the Africa Cup of Nations or the World Cup. It’s like when Brazil plays Argentina. In Africa, soccer is No. 1. That’s how it started. Then I played in college a little bit. I was at school for sports science and my first year I got injured, a hip fracture. From there it was very tough to play because we didn’t have hospitals like here so the university gave me a chance to be the assistant coach so that’s how I started coaching. Afterwards, I kept going and was involved with the youth, with the university, and then started a personal training business. I went to Dubai, came back home, then came here and started as a master trainer at 24 Hour Fitness. At the same time, I was coaching in the Bay Area. Finally I decided to focus on the coaching side.

NorCal: What from your background do you try to instill in your players today? There aren’t a lot of coaches here in Northern California that have a similar background as you.

Fantahun: The most important thing is managing the players’ environment. Most kids I see here, it’s mostly coaches and managers driving the environment for the players. In my experience, I want the players to figure out how to create the environment for themselves and to do things for themselves in the game and even in life. Here, we’re kind of spoiled. The dad or the mom drops the kid off, they take care of them, that’s the management part. But the player should be responsible for the management part, they should be responsible for their practice. If a player comes and tells me that their mom didn’t put their equipment in their bag, that’s not what I want to instill. The players should be responsible for their own growth. With self-management, you don’t see it right away, but you see them being independent from you during the game. When there are three players in the middle, you don’t see that the players will talk amongst themselves to decide which player wants to mark the opposition player. What I want is for the captain to lead it right away. That’s what I want to preach. The second thing is that I am into structured training without structuring it too much. I make it game-like and have a topic and after that it’s the kids and the play that’s going to bring all of the coaching points and the plan. For example, if I want to build out of the back, I will design a session where one team builds out of the back and the other defends that and during both sessions, I just coach individuals during the run of play. Maybe I will interrupt the session a few times, but I mostly just go around coaching individuals, which means that they will get the knowledge but it’s more personalized. Now, when I address the group, that will help everyone focus individually on their development. If you speak to each player individually, they will understand you and respect you. That’s my experience that I try to bring from personal training, a one-on-one experience in a group set up. Maybe one day I’ll work on midfielders or one day I’ll work with the forwards. If it’s not challenging enough for them, then I’ll make it more challenging next time and give them that feedback.

NorCal: I know that you’ve been bringing Ethiopian coaches to some of NorCal’s coaching education sessions in the past, but how did you end up on the technical staff of the Ethiopian Men’s National Team?

Fantahun: I started bringing coaches over in 2015 or 2016 and the head coach of the current national team was one of the first to come over – the assistant was also in that group. On the women’s side, the head coach has come here as well. So I started bringing coaches over from Ethiopia but at that time it wasn’t for the association, the association was just supposed to write coaches a recommendation letter to come over. That’s how I chose who would come. Then for the second round, I started working with the federation closely. Sometimes they would recommend certain coaches from maybe the youth national teams to come over. I would help them with that, but then COVID happened and I started my own webinar. I started doing coaching education for Ethiopian Premier League coaches and youth coaches and invited people like (La Liga’s) Gari Fullaondo, Benjamin Ziemer, and Gordon Young. And sometimes I invited coaches to NorCal’s webinars. Six or seven years ago, the Ethiopian Men’s National Team gave me a letter saying that I was their External Technical Director. What’s different now is that they have me as a technical advisor for the full federation. So I started working with the national team’s coaching staff and every Friday I meet with the youth national team’s coaching staff and we discuss certain topics. For example, last week, our U-20s had a game so a coach asked me what to do if another coach had his team play a certain way. So I just guided him by asking him questions so he could think about things differently. That’s how I started getting connected and they invited me to help with the national team. I ended up designing the structure of the national team camps that they host. I went to Cameroon to present my ideas to the president, vice president, and the rest of the federation and they liked them. So now I’m going to observe the whole national team process. I want to connect the youth teams, the U17 team, the U20 team, and the national team, so I sent them a proposal, kind of a report, and they have that now. Then maybe in a month or two I’ll go back to Ethiopia for a week, present my report, and show the teams the structure. So the main purpose of this visit was doing opposition scouting but also to observe so I can write reports about their training camps and I’ll analyze what they’re doing and report back what I feel. The main thing is to design a way for the entire program to run, from the U15s to the 1st team, and then see how the federation progresses in four or five years.

NorCal: What was it like being with a national team at a major international tournament?

Fantahun: To be honest, this was the best time in my life. The people I was with connected me with a lot of technical directors in Africa. For instance, today, Mali’s coach, he’s my friend. We were talking every day. He’s a great person. I met almost all the players for Senegal and most of the coaches and technical staff and El Hadji Diouf, who is now the team manager. We had a great time. We were also staying in the same hotel as Ghana. The whole coaching staff, who are from Serbia, were really respectful. Every time I asked them a question, they would tell me what their plan was. I would observe their games and then when I came back I would ask them for details. I’ve been to a lot of places and watched a lot of games, but this one, for me, was amazing at a different level.

NorCal: Is there anything else that you would like to add.

Fantahun: The talent in Africa is amazing. I’ve been talking to a bunch of technical directors and have asked them, “why does FIFA only have five African teams for the World Cup?” You can see how much talent there is. At the same time, everyone is really nice. There are great soccer communities here. You might be able to see a big part of my project in the next four years. I would like to thank NorCal Premier Soccer and especially Benjamin Ziemer for all of his advice and mentorship, my club, Sacramento United, as well as my son Ethan and my girlfriend, Frances Hopkins, for all the support.