Shaun Tsakiris on coaching the USA's top young talent, and the perils of too much structure

During his tenure as a U.S. youth national team coach through the end of 2018, Shaun Tsakiris coached many of the promising young Americans who are now breaking into the pro game. In 2015, while still coaching at Northern California's De Anza Force, he co-coached the U.S. U-16 boys with Luchi Gonzalez. Tsakiris was hired full-time by U.S. Soccer in January 2016 to serve as U-16 head coach and assistant to U-17 coach John Hackworth for the Josh Sargent-led team that played in the 2017 U-17 World Cup in India.

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)
12 comments about "Shaun Tsakiris on coaching the USA's top young talent, and the perils of too much structure".
  1. Jeanine Valadez, August 27, 2019 at 6:57 p.m.

    One of the best coaches I've ever seen. He coached my kid at DA Force Academy and my kid loved him...tough, fair, fun. Also, Tsakiris appreciates skill and intuition and does not fall victim to the American ideal of big muscle, huge size and super speed at the expense of efficacy.

  2. Bob Ashpole, August 27, 2019 at 8:42 p.m.

    This coach makes so much sense. Too bad USSF insists on coaches living near the bosses instead of where the soccer is.

  3. uffe gustafsson, August 27, 2019 at 9:47 p.m.

    When I read this I see the same all writing.
    not that I disagree with him, think he have all the right things.
    but how about the club coach that does most of the work until a coach like him sees a good player.
    think we got a disconnect from a club coach to the national coaches. Rarely have I seen a club coach doing what he preaches. Only a hand full over the 15 years I been involved in youth coaching.
    most of it been winning over development.
    and I think that’s true for most clubs/teams.
    so the good old speech of development is just a tired old speech. I witnessed it so many times from our club to watching opposition clubs.
    its always win win baby and to hell with developing players. You got the big girl that can out run the defense that’s how we play because we will win.

  4. frank schoon replied, August 28, 2019 at 11 a.m.

    Uffe, I so much agree with on what you state.....

  5. Ben Myers replied, August 28, 2019 at 11:53 a.m.

    Yes, to what you said, uffe.  Yes to tsakiris, too.  An old friend of mine always said to his kids after any soccer event: "Did you have fun today?"  Soccer has to be fun, or the kids will move on to something else.  And a pox on any coach at any level who values winning over player development.  The game is the best teacher.  Let them play and figure it out for themselves.

  6. frank schoon, August 28, 2019 at 9:52 a.m.

    There were some interesting comments made by Shaun showing me has the right Ideas on soccer that I often expound on, but that is only because he has himself experienced the pickup or street soccer stage to some extend in his youth days. Notice, as a kid he states that he rode his bike to go out and play and would come back home when it's dark. He played because he loved the game which is one of the important medium in learning the game. As he infers he played with mixed ages.  How many kids today, ride their bikes somewhere to meet and play soccer.....This is the problem in American player development today, which is we lack a soccer culture that needs to be nurtured.
     Shaun understands how important it is for less extraneous structure, in the form of coaching, which is one of the anethemas to developing players who must first go through the "pickup soccer stage . All through his statements, Shaun ,implies ,infers or indirectly states, how important it is for the youth to learn through independent thinking and doing, in an environment of less structure  , organization and coaching. Although he mentioned telling his son to go play pickup with different age kids, I wish he would have accented MIXED AGES with more profoundness, for to me, that is one of the important elements for youth to learn the game. Playing with older kids is really what it is all about for that is a major LEARNING input for they will learn all the newer aspects of the game. 
    Shaun's,emphasis on taking the ball and run at the player which you see so little of today is what you learn in pickup soccer that predominates in the initial stages. No one tells you when to pass, as Shaun states, or when or when not to dribble evoked by some licensed coach.

  7. frank schoon, August 28, 2019 at 10:29 a.m.

    Shaun states ,"we have to encourage CREATIVITY". Then one has to ask WHY do we have to even encourage CREATIVITY, or rather WHAT caused us to have to encourage something so natural that you see anywhere when watching kids play soccer in Brazil, Argentina, etc.  Next question is, what is wrong with our coaches or rather our whole developing system that we have  encourage our players to be creative....obviously there is something wrong with our training procedures at all levels. And ofcourse the most important element that is lacking in our player development is the elephant in the room, PICKUP soccer. Players who never went through the Pickup soccer stage will never be fully developed. 
    Here is another problem and that is too MANY youth coaches were former defenders and obviously their look at the game is not one of CREATIVITY, but one of containment, organization, structure which leads to say a DA program should former defenders as youth coaches, only in much later stage.  Ernst Happel, considered by Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer as one of the greatest coaches , stated "what possibly can you learn from a defender who spends his life chasing the heels of attackers".
    How often do you hear from the sideline  to the kids, "one-touch" , "pass it ,get rid of it", "you dribble too much", "ball hog". Ball hog has a bad connotation to so many coaches, but to me as a coach, I would take a ball hog anyday over a team player. As a matter of fact I rather have 11 ball hogs on the field than 11 team players.. It is the Ball Hogs who will be the creative players later on as they get older ,unless they get deneutered by some nitwit coach with a license who thinks he knows the game.  Ball hogs are players who are CONFIDENT with the ball ,who are not afraid but only lack the off the ball insights which they will learn later on. All great players were ball hogs when they were young. Ball hogs also have the ability to become leaders on the field ,for they are not afraid of the opponent due to having great ball dexterity. They show a presence with the ball.
    Shaun mentioned that centerbacks need to show leadership. Well you don't find centerbacks with leadership unless they have a presence on the ball...a la Beckenbauer. And where do you find centerbacks with leadership quality and have a presence with the ball?

  8. frank schoon, August 28, 2019 at 10:58 a.m.

    You find good centerbacks who were not former defenders. Ajax in their glory years when Cruyff played had a centerback that was a former centerforward, and the outside backs were former wingers, their libero was a former attacking/defending midfielder. Beckenbauer was a great libero who was a former winger, in other a good 1v1 player, Puyol, Alba of Barcelona were former wingers. The Barcelona "dream team" that included Guardiola when Cruyff coached employed wingers as outside backs and Ronald an attacking midfielder as a sweeper with Guardiola in front of him. In other words all these players who played defensively were able to handle a ball frustrating the attacking opponents. 
    Shaun mentioned the kids didn't know what formation to play when playing pickup soccer. That in itself should tell you how much influenced these coaches as far as structure goes have on the youth.  I don't remember ever talking about formations when playing street soccer. Kids just go out and play ,follow the flow where the ball is or chase it. Lets say in a professional game, the leftback who has the ball is not going to think or worry about the formation of his team but who is open or who is supporting him. That is what  pick up soccer is all about, not formations but can I beat my opponent 1v1 or who is open and  what particular skill pass can I give to reach him.
    Coaches should not worry about playing teams with equal sides. Play 5v4 or 3v4 for that teaches the players on the lesser to think more and strategize , this is all part of the developing/thinking ,playing. Cruyff's favorite small sided games is to play 6v6, goalie and 5 field players, for this allows for triangles, moving into open space,etc,. He views 4v4 as waste of time for it tends not so much to produce the important game elements but lots of squareness as compared to 6v6.

  9. Jose Lopez, August 28, 2019 at 12:43 p.m.

    Well stated, Shaun, but then, I’m not surprised!  Enjoyment and freedom of expression and thought are key ingredients in the development of any high level performance!  Arriba y adelante!

  10. Jose Lopez, August 28, 2019 at 12:43 p.m.

    Well stated, Shaun, but then, I’m not surprised!  Enjoyment and freedom of expression and thought are key ingredients in the development of any high level performance!  Arriba y adelante!

  11. uffe gustafsson, August 28, 2019 at 8:54 p.m.

    Frank here is the problem.
    parents want their kids to be on a club/ team that win games and are high up on the league chart.
    if you are a coach that truly believes in development he /she would play all players at similar minutes.
    since some players develop at a later stage then other as in late bloomers. But unfortunately that coach would not attract what u call great players.
    they most likely move to a club that have winning records. So it’s in the coach best interest to show winning record as the barometer to attain players.
    now is there coaches that can balance that, yes.
    i have worked years w such a coach that’s why I stayed with him. But that’s not always the norm.
    street soccer in urban areas are not really that easy,
    finding a place is first obstacle and unfortunately we no longer living in a small town that have enough kids in the mediate area to get together, think in reality it’s a thing in the past. To many sports that split kids into different things. Yes I grew up w only soccer in my village and it was natural to play at school lunch hour as well after school if we did have practice 

  12. Goal Goal, August 28, 2019 at 10:29 p.m.

    Gentlemen and ladies don’t always believe what you read.

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