Last week, U.S. Soccer announced that Mikey Varas would be the next head coach of the U-20 national team and it revived a team that has been dormant since January 2020 since the one and only camp of a cycle that was canceled because of COVID.
It’s an important hire for the U.S. Soccer as the U-20 national team has served as a crucial part of the men’s side of the program over the past decade. Tab Ramos was the most recent coach to lead teams for an entire two-year cycle and his last three teams all advanced to the U-20 World Cup quarterfinal while having helped prepare many top young American players for a future career on the senior national team.
On the current national team roster Tyler Adams, Mark McKenzie, Chris Richards, Paul Arriola, Tim Weah, DeAndre Yedlin, and Kellyn Acosta are all players who also played in a U-20 World Cup for the United States.
The current U-20 job is even more important for U.S. Soccer as next summer the team will attempt to qualify for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics Games. Reaching for the latter would end the program’s Olympic drought dating back to 2008.
It is easy to see why U.S. Soccer turned to Varas. The California native of Chilean descent was most recently an assistant coach to Luchi Gonzalez at FC Dallas. Prior to that, he was a youth coach at FC Dallas. Before he joined FC Dallas, he had jobs with Sacramento Republic and De Anza Force, top youth clubs in Northern California.
Shaun Tsakiris was previously a full-time U.S. youth national team coach and when he was beginning to build a U-16 squad to lay the groundwork for the 2019 U-17 World Cup team, he invited Varas to serve as his assistant coach for a couple domestic camps.
The two knew each other from the San Francisco Bay Area, having coached together at the De Anza Force.
“Every Wednesday we'd get together in the ‘office’ -- there wasn't even an office at the time, we'd find a location -- with Luciana Fusco who's now at the San Jose Earthquakes. We'd chat football and have a couple of whiteboards,” Tsakiris said. “And we would come in with different concepts or ideas on a regular basis and just kind of dissect them. That's how our relationship started. We see the game in a similar way, but challenge each other and our thoughts about the game.”
Now, youth national team coaches typically aren’t involved much in player development. Instead, development happens at the club level because players are only with their national teams for limited stretches as opposed to the full-time basis they are at their clubs.
Instead, youth national team coaches are more focused on player identification and selecting lineups, formations, and tactical approaches which fit the best players.
For Tsakiris, this is a strength of Varas and he specifically recalls him being instrumental in getting Ricardo Pepi involved in the U.S. youth national team program.
“He got into my ear and said: ‘Hey, we've got a special talent here. Give him some time he's going to be a special player.” Tsakiris said of Varas recommending Pepi get called up. “And that was at the early, early stages of Ricardo's introduction. And so that was basically me trusting Mike and say, you know what? I trust his eye. I trust the relationship that I have with Mike. He knows the type of player we want with the national team. I'm going to go with him on that. Eventually we had that conversation with Ricardo and his family and said: ‘We'd like to give you an opportunity at the Nike Friendlies.’ And the rest is history. I would love to say that that was me. The reality is that I'm going to give 90% of that credit to Mikey. He recognized the potential.”
Later Varas would move onto FC Dallas and that club has become one of the top youth developmental organizations in the country. In addition to Pepi other top professionals such as Weston McKennie, Reggie Cannon, Bryan Reynolds, Jesus Ferreira, Tanner Tessmann, and Brandon Servania, Paxton Pomykal have all passed through the club’s academy and have earned caps with the full U.S. national team.
When FC Dallas arrived in San Jose on Friday night ahead of Sunday’s season finale against the Earthquakes, players were made aware that Varas was hired as the U-20 head coach. Varas had a strong relationship with many of the team’s players and left the organization in September when Gonzalez was fired. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive.
“I am excited for him,” Jesus Ferreira said of Varas. “He was a great coach. When he was here at Dallas, he would always show me little clips, five or six, after each game we had. That would always help me see what I was doing right and what I was doing wrong ... it really improved my game. That is positive for young guys to increase their level. You don't want to get older and then think you were doing things right, and later learn it was wrong the whole time. That's a very positive thing he brings to the table. Having him as the U-20 national team head coach, where pretty much everyone is at a professional level now, it helps with that feedback.”
Pepi, 18, is age-eligible for the U-20 team although his participation is unlikely due to his commitment with the senior team – although the U-20 qualifying tournament is after senior World Cup qualification. His sentiment echoed Ferreira’s belief that it was a very solid hire for the federation.
“Regarding Mikey, he was my coach at the youth [level at Dallas] then I had him with the first team,” Pepi said. “He's a great coach. I feel like he is going to have a good career as the U-20 coach. He's going to bring good things to the federation.”
The first task for Varas is a tough one. After the announcement of his hire, he travelled with the U-20 team to Mexico for the Revelations Cup with three tough games against Brazil on Wednesday, Nov. 10, Colombia on Saturday, Nov. 13, and then conclude the tournament against hosts Mexico on Tuesday, Nov. 16.
Varas was not part of selecting this roster but it includes many top players of the 2003 and 2004 birth years – many of whom have already broken through at the first-team level. Moving forward, Varas will then have a hand in narrowing and shaping the player pool ahead of the qualifying tournament next summer.
“I'm just super happy for him because he deserves the opportunity,” Tsakiris said. “He's worked his tail off to be extremely knowledgeable. And he's taken chances that have paid off, like going to Sac Republic and working with Ben Ziemer, another one who we connect with, challenging each other and our thoughts about the game. ... I've always valued his commitment to improving. He's truly a huge student of the game. No matter where we've ended up, we've always continued dialogue. I respect his soccer brain immensely.”
The jury is definitely out on this higher!!!
I still want to know who picked this team???
This is a 501 c 3, we have a right to know who is accountable.