Commentary

Raphael Wicky on the USA's U-17 World Cup quest, his playing career, and his coaching evolution

Former Swiss national team midfielder Raphael Wicky, who coached youth academy teams at FC Thun, Servette, FC Basel, was named U.S. U-17 boys national team coach in March. On Thursday, the USA begins its quest to qualify for the 2019 U-17 World Cup with a Concacaf U-17 Championship Group F game against Canada.

SOCCER AMERICA: What was your initial introduction to soccer as a child?

RAPHAEL WICKY: That was a long time ago. I started playing soccer in a club when I was 6 years old in my hometown in Switzerland. My parents told me that as a kid, and I’ve seen pictures, that I was always running around with a soccer ball.

In Switzerland, soccer is the No. 1 sport, and then we have ice hockey, but I wasn’t very good at that, and then we have skiing in the winter. We don’t have all the basketball, the baseball, American football that you guys have here. My passion was sport in general, but soccer from the very beginning.

SA: What soccer did you follow as a young fan?

RAPHAEL WICKY: I was born in 1977. In the early 1980s, there was no internet. You followed your local teams. In the early 1980s in Switzerland where I grew up, you didn’t have 500 TV channels. So we followed the Swiss national team players and the players from the local professional team.

SA: You debuted for FC Sion at age 16 and for Switzerland a couple days before your 19th birthday. Can you shed any light on how it happened so quickly?

RAPHAEL WICKY: When I was 13, I was scouted by the professional team, Sion, which was 30 minutes from my hometown. I joined Sion’s academy when I was 13. I always played with the older teams, so that made me realize that somehow there was some talent.

Everything went very fast. I was 15 when I was invited to my first training with the professionals, with my idols, the players I followed, the ones who were playing for the national team I cheered for. When I was 16, I was part of the first team’s roster already. Everything went very quickly, without really planning, or any pressure.

It just happened. When you’re actually in it, you don’t really think, “Why am I so young and training with them?” You just do it.

SA: Later, when you reflected on your early move into pro soccer, what did you think then?

RAPHAEL WICKY: Once you get older, or once I stopped playing, and went into youth soccer coaching, I then starting realizing, wow, I must have been either physically very mature already, or mentally very mature to be in the professional environment already at 15.

I think one thing that was my strength was that I was very focused when I was that young. I was not challenged with all the things a 15-, 16-year-old can be challenged with, like life outside of soccer, going out, going to parties, trying different things. When I think back, I was very disciplined. That was a reason I was professional very young.

Raphael Wicky, at age 17, won the 1995 Swiss Cup with Sion, with which he won two more Swiss Cups and a league title. He also won a German Cup with Werder Bremen in 1999. He had a stint with Atletico Madrid in 2001 before joining Hamburg SV (2002-07). Wicky, who retired after playing for Chivas USA in the 2008 MLS season, appeared for Switzerland at the 2006 World Cup and 1996 and 2004 European Championships.

SA: Did debuting early as a pro help you now as a coach?

RAPHAEL WICKY: It helps that I have been through myself what all of them go through now. Obviously, it helps to think back how it was. I have had that experience, so that helps me to understand what they go through. There are a lot of other factors, obviously, that you need to know in order to become a coach.

SA: Did you start preparing or planning for a coaching career while still playing?

RAPHAEL WICKY: I didn’t have this plan. It was only after retiring at Chivas USA when I went back to Switzerland – I was quite young, 31, 32 – that I started looking into it and becoming an assistant coach. I liked it. It was nice giving my experience to the younger players and helping them in their development.

I was a holding midfielder, central midfielder. So, my strength was that on the field I was already probably thinking like a coach. I was always looking out for the others from my position in the center of the field. That was probably a sign that I could become a coach.

I was always thinking strategically and tactically, but I wasn’t telling myself at 27, 28, I’m going to for sure be a coach.

SA: Your coaching role models?

RAPHAEL WICKY: Obviously, you try to take from every coach. From some coaches, you remember really good things. From other coaches, you think, OK, this is something I don’t want to do with my players because each of us has different values and needs to find a way how you want to coach. You evaluate all your coaches. What was good then. What can you use now. Of course, that helped a lot. I had a lot of coaches in my 15 years of professional career. I’m sure each of them gave me something, unconsciously as well.

Raphael Wicky coached FC Basel during the 2017-18 season, in which it reached the round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League.

SA: Did you have to make an adjustment from being in the professional adult soccer environment (as a player) to coaching youth? What did you find valuable or learn about connecting with young players?

RAPHAEL WICKY: My seven years in youth coaching were very important for my development as a coach and helped me a lot, and then going into the head coaching job for FC Basel at the top level.

When I first went into coaching in 2009-10 and I took over the U-14s, I had no clue, even though I went through it as a player. But from the view of a coach, you had no clue what it requires for a 14-year-old. What differences there are for 14-year-olds. There are 14-year-olds who are as tall as I am, and there are 14-year-olds who are late developers. So there are things to learning that are not technical or tactical, but learning about how a youth system actually works.

The result is one thing at the youth level. But it shouldn't always be judged by results. At 14, 15, 16 – and I think it goes up to 17 and 18, the bodies change and the smaller guy can now be faster than the bigger guy or win a header against a taller guy, because he now has muscles and can jump.

When I arrived as [head coach] of the professional first team, a lot of the players I coached where there and I knew what they went through and I know what a young player needs to do in order to become professional.

I coached every category, 14s, 15s, 16s, 18s, 21s, which helps a lot. These things helped me a lot to understand youth soccer. Obviously, I'm still learning everyday and picking up new things and getting better.

SA: How close did the quality of the U.S. U-17 player pool come to meeting your expectations? Anything that surprised you, or particularly impressed you?

RAPHAEL WICKY: I obviously saw footage of them before, but I didn’t know them personally. When I met them and saw them in early April and now again, it’s just a really great group. They have a really good team spirit. It’s a great team. Besides the talent we have, a team needs a team spirit. They like being together. They like working for each other. They like hanging out with each other.

It might not be possible for all 20 guys on a team to be friends. At the end of the day, it’s a competition and there’s a guy on your team who wants your spot. But generally they’re good with each other.

They have a really good energy together. They bring their energy to the field together, and that’s something I was very very pleased with. I got this feedback before meeting the pool of players. But I got complete confirmation when I met the team in early April.

SA: Any remarkable observations you have about American players?

RAPHAEL WICKY: I'm very pleased. They want to learn, they want to be together. They want to work hard. It’s DNA of the USA mentality as well. Work hard, never give up, be brave.

They have that in them. This group, you really don’t need to motivate that much. They’re motivated. They want to work everyday.

That is something I felt 10 years ago when I played at Chivas USA. I told that to a lot of European friends. I was impressed with the work ethic, the work mentality. Players never complained. The players always wanted to work. Sometimes -- I’m categorizing and it doesn’t apply to everyone in Europe -- but when I played in the big teams, it was not always like that. Obviously you can’t categorize everyone, but the experience I had as a player here was there’s always competition and they always want to work, always want to win. That’s a really nice mentality to have.

SA: How did you become familiar with American youth soccer?

RAPHAEL WICKY: In the last 10, 11 years, I stayed in touch with a lot of my former teammates from Chivas. I came back to L.A. twice a year. I know people who work in youth soccer. I followed all of that. I saw how the whole system grew. How all the teams have academies, the Development Academy, the building of facilities. I always followed all of that for the last 10, 11 years.

SA: From attending the Generation adidas Cup, what were your impressions about how the U.S. teams performed and the level of young American talent?

RAPHAEL WICKY: The level was not unexpected, because I’m not surprised about the level here. I followed it and I know there is a lot of talent and potential here. That was the confirmation from the GA Cup. The level was really nice and really good. There were a lot of teams from South America and Europe and I saw the U.S. teams compete not only mentally and physically at a high level, but they weren’t tactically outplayed by the big European and South American teams. It shows again there is a lot of potential and good work done in this country, but there is also a will to still progress in this country, which is very important. Everybody wants to learn more, like we all do.

FURTHER READING: Six MLS homegrown signees in U.S. squad for U-17 World Cup qualifying

SA: What do you think this cycle of U-17s needs to accomplish to be deemed a success?

RAPHAEL WICKY: We always go into a competition to win the competition. That also gives the team a challenge. But we all know that soccer is a sport where the best team sometimes doesn't win on a given day, even if they have more shots, more possession, win more one-on-ones -- because maybe the other goalkeeper is amazing and they score on a corner kick or a counterattack. ... We as well want to continue developing, which they will by playing in competitions like this. Of course, the short-term goal is to qualify for the U-17 World Cup.

SA: What kind of soccer can we expect to see from your team?

RAPHAEL WICKY: We want to try, of course, to be dominant on the ball and off the ball. But first of all I want to see a team who works together in all phases of the game. When I was watching footage of this team, I saw that they work really hard and they have a lot of energy. That’s a strength of this team. A very positive point. Besides all the individual quality we have – because we have really good players – I want to see the that the team works together and puts everything into the game, whatever happens, whatever the score is, against whatever team it is.

In early April we worked on some of the basic concepts, tactical concepts, offensively and defensively, and as well for the last four or five days we have continued working on that.

To be honest, I have had the team just for eight, nine training sessions. With the full team, it’s been one session, with Gianluca Busio and Danny Leyva arriving. It’s a process. But I’m very confident that the team will do well.

4 comments about "Raphael Wicky on the USA's U-17 World Cup quest, his playing career, and his coaching evolution".
  1. beautiful game, April 30, 2019 at 7:25 p.m.

    Not one question to R.W. about what he first looks for in a youth player.

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, April 30, 2019 at 9:29 p.m.

    The interview doesn't have questions asked but not answered. From what appears in the interview, this new coach is extremely careful to be politically correct. With USSF, that is necessary.

  3. Right Winger, May 1, 2019 at 12:03 p.m.

    I wish this coach the best but I really feel this team will struggle not in the beginning but when they get to WC and its not going to be the fault of the coach but the fault of several factors one being US Soccer.  Coming into a a very important tournament and you could say without a coach.  This coach hasn't had to make decisions on players because #1 he doesn't know the talent and he said many decisions were made on watching films.  He had to rely on decisions made by others .  Filims tell some things but game participation tells the whole story.  As I said before its not who is on this team it is who is not.  So much emphasis put on the young players playing MLS.  Great to be on MLS at a young age but if you are not playing regularly it is a handicap.  You have several kids who havent played competitively much if not at all.  You have players across the ocean with clubs but haven't played regularyl where you have kids in the same situation who play regularly every week in much more competitive situations than players do here who were bypassed.  If you work in a system that is political you have to be politically correct I guess.  He said they work really hard and have lots of energy.  All of our national teams have lots of energy, work hard, run like crazy but the rest is up for grabs when it comes to international competition.

  4. uffe gustafsson, May 1, 2019 at 8:56 p.m.

    I think some of you missed the point of the interview, I think it mostly was to introduce him to our soccer community and learn who is and where he came from.
    let him be the coach and figure out his team and later start asking your questions.

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