Yet there is a reason to be concerned: U.S. Soccer has failed to keep its youth national team head coaches on board, while failing to hire replacements.
There are five boys U.S. youth national teams without head coaches. Three of the coaches who haven't been replaced left more than half a year ago.
The U-18s, U-17s (which have World Cup qualifying in two months), U-16s, U-15s and U-14s do not have a head coach.
YNT head coach departures:
Clint Peay (U-14/15): February 2019
Shaun Tsakiris (U-16): December 2018
John Hackworth (U-17): July 2018
Omid Namazi (U-18): June 2018
Brad Friedel (U-19): November 2017
You would think that U.S. Soccer, with its $5 million annual budget for its boys youth national team (including the U-23s), should be able to run a fully operational YNT program. Instead, Ramos, who is also the U-20 head coach, does double-duty with the U-18s. And for the last year he has shuffled coaches around to fill vacancies.
In 2018, U-15 coach Dave van den Bergh was re-assigned to the U-19s to fill the Friedel vacancy, and in January headed the U-17s, which Tsakiris had been coaching in Hackworth’s absence for the latter part of 2018. U.S. Soccer failed to land either Tsakiris or Van den Bergh for the U-17 job. Van den Bergh remains in charge of the U-19s.
The latest to leave was Clint Peay, the U-14 coach who also spent time heading the U-15s during the shuffle created by earlier departures. U.S. Soccer lost Peay to an assistant coaching position at North Carolina FC, one of the strongest USL teams.
So, the boys youth national team program finds itself with two head coaches for seven teams.
U.S. Soccer confirmed that one obstacle in maintaining some of its staff has been its requirement of relocating to its headquarters in Chicago, an issue that also narrows the field of new candidates.
Why is that necessary in this era of telecommuting? Besides, national team camps are never in Chicago.
“Having everyone together in a collaborative environment,” says U.S. Soccer spokesman Neil Buethe, “allows us to connect members of our men’s and women’s senior and youth coaching staffs with the other full-time people in the Federation, such as high-performance experts, team managers, talent identification directors, Development Academy leaders, and many others. Aligning our soccer philosophy throughout our national teams, Talent ID, Club Development and other departments is a priority. We made a huge step in this direction when our men’s national staff, including our General Manager [Earnie Stewart] and head coach [Gregg Berhalter] moved to Chicago.
“In terms of our soccer philosophy, that daily connection allows us to develop style of play, player profiles, methodology, curriculum and integrate high performance and analytics in a meaningful way across all of our programs.
“It’s not that we couldn’t have those conversations if we kept the status quo and continued to have everyone separated and living in different areas across the country. But we strongly believe that set-up isn’t as beneficial or productive to having everyone under one roof as often as possible. We all know we need to get better, and the question is how can we accelerate that process. One significant way is to have everyone in the same room.”
That room, however, isn’t filling up with the coaches who are crucial to the YNT program.
What I do not know is whether the salaries and terms offered YNT coaches are sufficient to encourage coaches to uproot themselves and their families. What I do believe is that the move-to-Chicago policy comes at a time when recent history shows the YNT coaches have done quite well without daily visits to Soccer House.
In 2017, the USA won the Concacaf U-20 Championship for the first time ever, and Ramos’ team repeated in 2018. Both teams included a large number of players who climbed the YNT ladder after U.S. Soccer expanded the program to include teams at each age group, with full-time head coaches.
The USA was one of only two nations -- besides England, which won both -- to reach the quarterfinals of the 2017 U-17 World Cup (with Hackworth coaching and Tsakiris assisting) and the 2017 U-20 World Cup.
U.S. youth national team players have been going pro at an unprecedented rate. Especially impressive recently, two members of the 2017 U-17 World Cup squad -- Timothy Weah and Josh Sargent – have already been capped by the full national team, while Taylor Booth has been signed by Bayern Munich and Chris Durkin played 23 MLS games for D.C. United in 2018.
Ramos attributes the YNT program success in this era to the improved environments for American players at the club level, especially the investment of MLS clubs in their academies. But there's no doubt that a well-run YNT program has played an important role.
Youth national team play led to the discovery by foreign clubs of players such as Weston McKennie, who was playing for the U-19s when Schalke 04 scouted him at the Slovakia Cup in 2016. McKennie, like former U.S. U-17 Christian Pulisic, is now getting UEFA Champions League experience.
The U-19 national team was one of the gap-year national teams – only the U-20s and U-17s have World Cups -- created on Ramos’ recommendation that have become crucial for young Americans getting international experience and exposure. Not having a coach for the World Cup-aspiring U-17s is especially troubling, but jeopardizing the programming for the other squads is also detrimental. Frankie Amaya, the No. 1 pick at the 2019 MLS SuperDraft and an 18-year-old star of the USA's 2018 Concacaf U-20 Championship final win over Mexico, reached the U-20s via the U-19s. The 17-year-old Ulysses Llanez's play with the U-18s was a key part of his transition to the U-20s.
U.S. Soccer recently expanded its U-14 program and took steps to bolster its scouting network, after which Tony Lepore, U.S. Soccer’s Director of Boys Talent Identification, spoke of the important role the YNT head coaches play. Another reason for U.S. Soccer to have them in place. Another case for the urgency of filling the positions.
In the wake of U.S. Soccer being heavily criticized for losing Jonathan Gonzalez and Efrain Alvarez to Mexico, the YNT coaches, especially Ramos and Tsakiris, succeeded in keeping players such as Alex Mendez and Llanez in the U.S. jersey. In the recent U-14 West camp, about 50 percent of the 80 kids were Latino -- a reassuring sign for those of us concerned about the YNT program’s appreciation of Hispanic talent.
So far, the USA is winning the tug-of-war with Mexico for FC Dallas’ U-17 Ricardo Pepi. But he recently went down to a mid-season camp in Mexico with FC Dallas, played fantastically, and is again being heavily recruited by El Tri. And now Pepi doesn’t know who his U.S. coach would be.
Who’s responsible for hiring YNT coaches? U.S. Soccer says it’s a collaboration between Nico Romeijn, U.S. Soccer's Chief Sport Development Officer, Asher Mendelsohn, who joined U.S. Soccer last month as Chief Soccer Officer, replacing Ryan Mooney, and Ramos – and they “provide recommendations to [CEO] Dan Flynn for approval.”
But U.S. Soccer’s Organizational Chart shows the Chief Sport Development Officer (Romeijn, the Dutchman who was hired by U.S. Soccer in June 2015 to be its Director of Coaching Education), and Chief Soccer Officer (now Mendelsohn) are in charge of the youth national teams. Ramos, who has been a part of six world championships as a player, head coach of three U-20 World Cups, and assistant coach at the 2014 World Cup, doesn’t appear in the chart.
I would trust Ramos, the Youth Technical Director, to pick the YNT coaches and decide whether they need to live in Chicago or not and have him make those recommendations to Flynn. But U.S. Soccer appears to take a different approach.
It’s a baffling approach that is interrupting some of the most impressive progress we’ve ever seen from the youth national program.