(Photo by Stephanie Romero courtesy of the LA Galaxy)
SOCCER AMERICA: How have you seen the trio of Efrain Alvarez, Alex Mendez, Ulysses Llanez develop through the years?
MIKE MUNOZ: It just shows you how interesting player development is and how players come onto the scene. Efra was always, undoubtedly, the most talented player. His vision, his IQ, his technique, you just saw at an early age that his guy had the tools to be a top, top player.
Alex Mendez for me was a later developer; while he had the vision, technique, IQ and all that, I always felt it was going to take him longer to adapt. The first year he came into our high school as a U-16 player, he barely played all season. He was the kind of guy that because he went through such a difficult year, he was mentally strong enough to get through it and kept working harder and harder than everyone. When he finally got his chance, that's when his development really took off. He had to go through the hardships as a young age, which a lot of players don't experience until they become pros. That was a huge advantage.
Uly always had individual, one vs. one capabilities that made him different from everyone else. He's a game-changer and he's fearless. He doesn't care if he's taking on MLS guys, USL guys. When he gets the ball there's only one thing on his mind: he wants to beat you.
SA: In a move similar to Jonathan Gonzalez’s in January, Alvarez switched national teams in 2016, from the USA's U-15s to Mexico's U-15s. Given MLS’s close relationship to U.S. Soccer, do you think MLS academies have a role to play in steering players toward one national team program or another?
MIKE MUNOZ: It's a good question. We do. We definitely have a role to play with U.S. Soccer. We want our top players to be with U.S. Soccer, but every coach is different in terms of what they like, what they see, what they want.
With U.S. Soccer, Efra was dropped from the camp for whatever reason. I don't know if there was a collective decision from U.S. Soccer. ... Unfortunately when he was dropped, Mexico came knocking at the door and has been there ever since. It had nothing to do with the Galaxy saying hey, don't go to the U.S., go to Mexico. Of course not. We want what's best for our player, and unfortunately U.S. Soccer decided he wasn't the right guy at 14 years old, maybe because he was small, or maybe because he wasn't as athletic. I don't know. Those are questions you'll have to ask U.S. Soccer. It was definitely a decision by U.S. Soccer to not bring him back in, which opened the door to Mexico.
SA: You say it was clear from an early age that Alvarez had the tools to be a top player down the road, yet he was dropped from a U.S. Soccer camp?
MIKE MUNOZ: It's what's the identity of your team. What's the style of play, how do these players fit into what you want to accomplish. Everybody has different ideas for this. Maybe his style is a little bit more suited to Mexico. I don't know know. That comes down to player identification where everyone's on the same page like, "Hey, these are the profiles of the players we want, now go find them for me."
Efrain Alvarez signed with Galaxy II in August of 2017 after starring for the Brian Kleiban-coached 2016-17 Galaxy's U-18s while still eligible for the U-14s.
SA: Did U.S. Soccer reach out to the Galaxy while he was a part of the national team program or after he was cut?
MIKE MUNOZ: Yeah, there was communication while he was a part of the program. After he didn't get called back in and went to Mexico, there was a lot of speculation on whether the Galaxy pushed him to Mexico and was kind of a slap to the face of U.S. Soccer, which once again, is not true. Mexico was very aggressive to come after Efra, to come to his house, to invite him into a camp. We stay out of it, we want what's best for the player.
To give you another example, Uly also was called into Mexico for the U-16s. We stayed out of it, asked him if he was sure if he wanted to take the risk seeing that he was in a good situation with U.S. Soccer, but he wanted to open up his horizons. He went to Mexico for a few camps, and it wasn't for him. He struggled a bit with the language, maybe the play is different, so he's back, happy, with U.S. Soccer.
SA: You mentioned Mexico's aggressive scouting tactics. Is that in contrast with U.S. Soccer or are the two federations similar in that regard?
MIKE MUNOZ: Mexico's tactics have to be different because we're in U.S. Soccer's backyard. Mexico has one scout in southern California that we know of. So it's difficult for Mexico to be in constant communication, to be at all of our games. That's somewhere where U.S. Soccer sometimes takes for granted a little bit because there's really no threat from the outside, so when a player comes in like Efra, Mexico was aggressive. They made house calls, house visits, they sent their coaching staff from Mexico to come in and talk to him. Efra is Mexican as well, his parents were born and raised in Mexico. He's fluent in Spanish, so there's a comfort level there as well.
SA: And what about how U.S. Soccer courts players? Are they still looking at Efra for a possible switch back to the U.S. fold?
MIKE MUNOZ: You know, I'll say it again, one coach may not have wanted him, but other coaches do. I don't want to say U.S. Soccer in general, I'm talking about individuals. I think that if you talked to [U.S. U-17 national team coach] John Hackworth, the U-17s he would love to have Efra back. But I can't answer that for someone else.
SA: How much contact is there between U.S. Soccer and coveted youth national team players like Llanez and Mendez?
MIKE MUNOZ: Constant communication. There are a lot of conversations we have, like with Tab Ramos for the U-20 camps. It's good we're on the same page because we have a busy calendar, they have a busy schedule, so we need to work together often to get to what's best for the player.
SA: Mendez and Llanez were apart of Tab Ramos’ U-20 trip to Spain in May, while Alvarez trained with the Mexican U-17s this spring. How do you see national team trips helping in terms of player development?
MIKE MUNOZ: The national team is obviously a huge honor for any player. The big advantage national teams offer is international experience, and that's something that clubs can provide, but can't provide enough. Any time that these guys get the opportunities with national teams, of course we let them go. We have a great relationship with U.S. Soccer and the Mexican federation. So it's good for the player, for the club, it's a win-win for everybody.
SA: What international experience does a player get that the academy cannot?
MIKE MUNOZ: If I'm being honest, our academy games on the weekend against local clubs are not good enough. Our guys aren't being challenged. We have to play our guys up just for it to be a competitive game. The academy system has gotten a whole lot better, but at the end of the day, our players are only going to be as good as the level that they're competing at. International competition is really crucial. We've really improved on taking our top teams to Mexico, Qatar, and other countries to get these top level games which are integral to the players' development.
SA Confidential (July 21, 2017): Galaxy Academy coach Brian Kleiban
SA: You mentioned Llanez's fearlessness. How do you coach that sort of fearlessness into players?
MIKE MUNOZ: A lot of it is innate and within the players themselves. With a player like Uly, you have to find the right balance between testing him against better players, top guys who are just as athletic as him. So now Uly has to come up with different solutions to problems. When he plays against kids his own age, he doesn't have to that, because he knows he can just beat these guys. We want to put him in situations where he struggles against older players, but we don't want him to lose that confidence to play with his age every now and then, to make sure he's a difference-maker.
SA: What's been a key to the Galaxy's academy success?
MIKE MUNOZ: We've been working hard for the past few years to be sure we're finding the best players in the greater Los Angeles area. We're in the third year now of our high school. Gone are the days where the academy kid would show up, for an hour and a half, four nights a week, where a coach barely gets to work with them. Now we have them here for eight hours a day at Stub Hub Center, training with the first team, with the second team, in a professional environment, in a competitive, challenging environment where we can monitor their education, nutrition, their psyche. We've raised the bar when it comes to player development and that's why in my opinion, our academy kids are more prepared for the next step than ever before.
SA: Los Dos' record so far this season is 2-6-4 (win-loss-tie). Is developing young players the primary goal, over results, in USL play?
MIKE MUNOZ: It's an evolution that's taken place over the last few years. When the second team started, it was important to win and it was a much more veteran experience. Over the past number of years, that's been chipped away and now players are coming straight out of the academy it's about finding that balance between finding a winning culture -- we are the Galaxy, we always want to win, and that culture is crucial -- and player development. We might not always be at the end result we want, but it's the big picture that matters. It's a very, very difficult balance to strike.
(Photo by Stephanie Romero courtesy of the LA Galaxy)
SA: What changes have you seen during since arriving at the Galaxy in 2013?
MIKE MUNOZ: Everything starts at the top. When I started with the Galaxy, Bruce Arena was the head coach and the GM. There was one way: his way. That has obviously changed with new GMs and new head coaches. From it being one guy in charge, it's more of a club/organization that has multiple decision-makers at the table now instead of just one. It's more inclusive, which is a good thing. It's been to the benefit of the Galaxy and it's where I think modern-day organizations are heading.
Gone are the days of the Sir Alex Ferguson types where one guy oversees the entire club. Don't get me wrong, there are still good examples, like Peter Vermes at Sporting KC. When I started with the Galaxy, we had three teams. Now we have nine, 10 teams going all the way down to 2008s. Just the academy alone is a massive component within the club structure. A lot has changed, you have the second team now, and it's really hard for one person to oversee all of that. It's more of a team heading in the same direction together. And this is where many MLS teams are heading, I think.
SA: What was your arc as a player, from growing up to the end of your career?
MIKE MUNOZ: My dad was my coach growing up until 12 or 13. I joined the club soccer world and was able to get a scholarship to Cal. I got drafted by Chivas USA and was with them for a couple years. While Chivas was also a difficult experience, I got to play under a bunch of top managers even though the organization wasn't very good. A lot of times you learn a whole lot more in a difficult environment than in other ones. I played with the USL San Francisco Victory after that, which to be honest, was a disaster. It was poorly run, unprofessional in all aspects from facilities to everyday environment. It was a tough, tough experience.
SA: How did you get into coaching then?
MIKE MUNOZ: At Chivas I was fortunate to play under Bob Bradley for a season and a half. Bob really changed the way I saw the game and as soon as I was under him I knew I wanted to be a coach. I wasn't a big-time player, I knew my career was limited. When I started playing for Bob I started getting my licenses; I was that guy in the locker room that would write down every training session that Bob did, all of his team talks, I had my little notebook. As soon as I was done playing, I made sure to have my A license so I was ready to jump right into coaching.
SA: What was it about Bob that made you realize instantly that you wanted to be a coach?
MIKE MUNOZ: Cerebral. The way he thinks, the way it's always about solving problems on the field, it's always about creating numbers up situations. His passion, the way he speaks to his guys; he treated us like men, like humans, but also knew how to push the right buttons to make sure he got the most out of us as well.