The first cycle of U-16s coached by Tsakiris included future U.S. U-20 World Cup players Timothy Weah, Justin Rennicks, Mark McKenzie, Brady Scott, Konrad De la Fuente and Ulysses Llanez, who reached the quarterfinals last summer with Coach Tab Ramos' team in Poland. Tsakiris coached Alex Mendez at a 2015 U-15 camp and while U-17 assistant coach. When Hackworth left in middle of 2018, Tsakiris served as head coach of the U-17s. At the end of 2018, U.S. Soccer offered Tsakiris a four-year contract to become U.S. U-17 national team head coach but the terms offered, which included relocation to Chicago, were unfeasible for the California-based father of three. In February, Tsakiris and Shawn Blakeman became directors of Northern California club Los Gatos United.
SOCCER AMERICA: Ulysses Llanez, who's been scoring for Wolfsburg U-19s, and Alex Mendez, who signed for Ajax Amsterdam from SC Freiburg, are getting off to promising starts in Europe. How equipped do you think they are to make it in Europe?
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: The piece that we often overlook is the mental piece. What's a player's upbringing like? Not necessarily their household, but their daily grind. Do they get after it? Do they compete, or do they cut corners? [Then Galaxy academy coach] Brian Kleiban created an environment where these guys competed daily. I always knew when I brought in Galaxy players they were going to have a little bit of a chip on their shoulder in a positive way. These guys are winners and when you're selecting a team you want them on your side.
They're competitive and confident. Regardless of the stage, regardless of the opponent, Uly is going to run at you, and Mendez is going want the ball in difficult spots. And that's the mental side. That's why I think Brian did a really good job with them.
SA: You frequently had Llanez with your U-16s. What was it like coaching him?
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: I was very careful. How many players do we have like that in country who have his confidence in running at players? I wanted to give him structure only to the extent that we could isolate him and give him the ball, and certainly never take away his strengths. We wanted to highlight his strengths and we wanted the rest of the team to recognize what our strengths are as a team. What's it like coaching guys like that? Don't hold them back. Encourage them to continue going at players.
SA: I imagine that appreciating the Latin style of play is important in coaching players such as Llanez and Mendez?
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: I grew up playing with a lot of Hispanic kids at Juventus [in Redwood City, California], so I feel that I understand the Hispanic culture more than maybe my appearance would indicate.
SA: How did you learn to speak Spanish?
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: From playing with Hispanic players. Also, my father was Greek, but my mother emigrated from the Portuguese Azores islands as a teen. So I grew up speaking Portuguese, which makes learning Spanish easier. My stepfather, who's been around since I was 5, is from the Basque Country in Spain.
Tsakiris' playing career included winning the 1997 NCAA Division I title with UCLA. He was part of the youth national team program from U-15s to U-20s, with which he played in the 1999 U-20 World Cup. His U-20 teammates included Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Taylor Twellman and Carlos Bocanegra. They played against future stars such as Spain's Xavi and England's Ashley Cole, beating England, 1-0, before losing, 3-2, to eventual champion Spain in the round of 16. Tsakiris, who was drafted by the New England Revolution, went straight into coaching after the end of a professional playing career with the USL's Rochester Rhinos. His favorite players growing up were Diego Maradona and Fernando Redondo, and much of his childhood was spent playing neighborhood pickup soccer with his older brothers, Mike and Tiki.
SA: How does your childhood soccer experience influence your coaching philosophy?
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: We were soccer junkies. We'd ride our bikes to go play and come home when the streetlights turned on. I didn't fall in love with the sport because someone told me when and where to pass the ball.
People often throw out these phrases about "curriculum" and "periodization." I agree with all of it -- within reason. Structure is great. But part of your curriculum needs to be "free." Part of your curriculum needs to be a 6-v-6 tournament for the next three days. Part of your curriculum needs to have the words freedom, enjoyment, creativity, free play.
I was never told how to play. OK, we can't do that in this day and age, but we've become so coach-dominant I don't know if the kids are loving the sport. Of course, I'm speaking in general terms, but sometimes I wonder whether kids are playing because they're parents dropped them off for a 4 o'clock training. And if they didn't get driven to practice, would they play soccer that day?
SA: Talking about players enjoying themselves reminds me of professional players I've interviewed praising coaches they've had, at the highest levels, for making it fun ...
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: Of course. Players at all levels need to enjoy themselves. People might say, oh he's making millions of dollars. But the career will be short-lived if he's not enjoying himself.
In our player development model at Los Gatos United, fun is in every stage, in every age group. In 4v4s, fun; 7v7, fun; 9v9 fun; 11v11 fun.
The other day I got this question: When does it stop becoming fun and become more competitive? I said: It's always competitive and we need to reprogram our players so that the competition piece is fun. It should always be fun, and if it isn't, take three steps back. You have to enjoy doing this as a coach and that transfers to the players. If they're not having fun, there's a ceiling.
SA: On John Pranjic's 3FOUR3 podcast you gave an example about kids getting too accustomed to structure ...
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: During the summer, I convinced my son to get a some buddies -- 11- 12- 13-year-olds -- together for pickup soccer. They're going to play 5v5 or 6v6. I'm wondering why they hadn't started playing, and it was because they couldn't decide what formation to use. I think it's kids thinking too much about what they're supposed to do. Put a smile on your face. Run at someone. Try three scissors, try a stepover. Have this freedom and creativity with the ball and the joy of playing.
SA: Besides encouraging creativity, playing without adult instruction is also important for decision-making, right? If we tell young players what to do all the time when they're young then perhaps their decision-making skills won't be developed?
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: No question. And what about leadership ability? We need players to communicate. Why don't we have enough true center backs who are good at communicating? Because we as coaches talk too much at training.
At practice, we as coaches have taken the decisions out of all of it. The ball goes out and the kids look at you the coach like you're the ref to find out who gets the ball.
Think about when you and I are competing at age 12 and there's no coach there. The ball goes out of bounds. It's our ball. No, no, no, Mike, it's our ball. And we kind of go at it. And now maybe we tackle each other a little harder. And the game has just risen.
In addition to being U-16 head coach, Shaun Tsakiris served as assistant to U-17 head coach John Hackworth during the last U-17 cycle of the Bradenton Residency era, which culminated with the USA's quarterfinal finish at the 2017 U-17 World Cup. Tsakiris also served as head coach of the U-17s when Hackworth was as assistant coach with the U-23s. Tsakiris took over in 2018 when Hackworth departed to coach Louisville City. Tsakiris' tenure at U.S. Soccer ended after he coached the USA in the 2018 Nike Friendlies, where the USA beat Turkey and tied Brazil and Portugal. Dave van den Bergh coached the U-17s at the beginning of 2019. Swiss coach Raphael Wicky was hired in March.
SA: When you and Shawn Blakeman assess coaches for Los Gatos United, what impresses you and what doesn't?
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: We want coaches who are enthusiastic, eager to keep learning, and who strive to connect with players, whether it's the No. 10 playmaker or a kid who's battling for playing time. And it gets back to creating practices that are competitive and enjoyable. We don't think a coach who's monotone and boring on the field is going to get the most out of the players even if he has an A license.
We remind our coaches that the first thing a player is going to be asked when they get picked up from training is: How was practice? Did you enjoy yourself? If the answer isn't positive, we did something wrong.
Even if the coach says, but tactically we did this and that, and man, we're gonna beat the Nomads this weekend. No, no, no. If they didn't enjoy it, we did a disservice.
And don't mistake having fun with not getting at it, with not competing, with not learning. You spin it in a way where they cannot wait to get at it, they cannot wait to compete, they cannot wait to learn.SA: How do feel you about the player development progress in general in the USA?
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: We have made major strides, no question. We’ve seen a massive increase in the commitment of resources by clubs. There are now links between first teams, second teams and youth teams -- a lot more so than there were five years ago. Can it be better? Shame on us if we say no.
SA: What are some examples of the challenges and concerns?
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: It’s no secret that geography, the size of our country, is a huge challenge. Getting all the top players competing in one league is a great idea, but we need to balance that with how to best use resources. How much travel makes sense, at what ages, and when resources used for travel could be better spent on other areas of player development.
A common vision and understanding to work toward a common goal of developing top players is important. But we also don’t want to become stale, or vanilla, where everybody uses the same formation, the same structure and the same mentality. We should trust clubs to know how to develop players in their community, and to know what their players’ needs are and what their families' needs are.
SA: Almost all of the players who will compete for the USA at the U-17 World Cup on Coach Raphael Wicky's team are players you coached during the buildup to the qualifying campaign. What will it be like for you to watch them from afar when the U-17 World Cup kicks off in October?
SHAUN TSAKIRIS: Of course, you want continued success with the team. When Raphael Wicky got hired, I reached out to him to wish him well. And that needs to be the mentality of whole country.
I look at it like I had hand in, hopefully, their success, and now it's Rafa's turn. I've always said I'm proud of the work that we've done, whether it was five years ago with the '99s, and then working with Hack [John Hackworth] with the 2000s, and having my hand in the 01s, and being the head coach of the 01s and the 02s. I wish nothing but success for the U-17s. We want them to represent the crest the right way and to have success in the tournament.(Photos courtesy of Los Gatos United)