New York Red Bulls Academy 2020 Season Preview – Part One

Recently Under-19 and Under-15 coaches Samuel Castellanos and Jonathan Rhodes sat down with Red Bull Hub to discuss the upcoming season. The conversation was wide ranging, covering multiple topics from the future of the Under-19 team to bio-banding and what a week for a Red Bull Academy player looks like. The first part of this season preview will focus on the conversations with the coaches while the second part will focus on the composition of the teams starting at the Under-15s and going up.

A Different Approach for the Under-19s

When the US Soccer Development Academy officially closed its doors late this spring, the youth soccer landscape changed drastically. Gone was the federation ran elite development league and in its place came MLS to create a new system. Under MLS the focus has shifted to the U15 and U17 levels. This has become the targeted age group for development. One of the reasons for this is that many MLS teams do not intend to field an U19 team at all with top players being pushed up to USL. Recently Minnesota United sporting director Manny Lagos hinted at a potential U23 league coming for MLS teams.

Red Bulls are taking a different approach. Like many of the MLS teams with USL programs, Red Bull intend to send U19 players to that level. Currently they have 10 players on the U19 roster which are training and playing with the USL team. This is allowing younger players such as Darsein Gabriel and Curtis Ofori, who are U17s, to get an opportunity with the older age group and prepare them to make the jump to USL.

“It just gives a little bit of a player pathway for the younger guys to push up. A couple guys, like Curtis Ofori, he’s a under-17 player, but it just allows us to give us that space to now play him at an under-19 age group and then you know if he does well. Same thing the following season, he can be in with John [Wolyniec] and get his minutes that way.”

Samuel Castellanos on players jumping from Under-15s to Under-19s.

Going forward, the U19s are adopting a hybrid approach. With the roster being comprised of a mix of players who are on that college pathway with younger players who may be more on a USL or homegrown pathway similar to John Tolkin. With many of the college players going to programs in the ACC Big 10, who have a long history of players succeeding in the professional ranks, it was important to continue to develop them and prepare them for that level, making talented soccer players in the process.

As far as competition is concerned, the U19s won’t be in as formal of a league as in years past due to so many MLS teams not fielding a team. Instead they will take more of a barnstorming approach; they will still play against local rivals such as PDA and MLS teams that do field a team, however, they will also look to play games versus lower division and semi professional teams.

“We’re looking to play teams like the New York Cosmos, like Motown FC, West Chester United in Pennsylvania. So it’s gonna be a bit of a hybrid season, we’ll play the local teams like PDA and Cedar Stars, but also want challenging games. You know, like playing a Motown, who’s played in the Open Cup, who’s beat our U23s, and see how, how we play against teams like that.”

Samuel Castellanos on teams the U-19’s will look to play with out a regular league structure

Management Approach Focused on the Individual

For Samuel Castellanos coaching the U19s is a big balancing act. With players potentially 4 years apart in age, Castellanos has to manage players who are all at different stages of their development as players and people. At Red Bulls they acknowledge that younger players moving up will have some growing pains. However, they remind the kids, especially the younger ones, to be humble and keep the bigger picture at mind focusing on communicating plans to both parent and players so that all are on the same page.

It just makes those younger guys have to have to grow up a little bit quicker. And it’s a process for those guys. And it’s a good process because they have to make that same jump. When they go into a first team environment, just like [John] Tolkin, all of a sudden he’s training every day with a guy like Kaku, who’s a top professional, and all of a sudden I got to make that jump. So I think they’re kind of seeing it a little bit earlier, which can help that transition when they get to the pros.”

Samuel Castellanos on making the step up from Under-15 to Under-19.

Another key element to the managing such a diverse group of players is focusing on the individuals development more than the teams results. While sending a full U19 team to the first team is a nice idea, it’s not a realistic expectation. So while team concepts are still drilled, be it how they build with the ball or different pressing concepts and cues tactics, formations are driven in large part by the individual players strengths each season than a club specific expectation to play a 4-3-3, for example.

“You start to kind of hone in on the individual a little bit more than the team concept, which at times when you hear is a little bit odd. But when you look all around the world, they’re focusing a lot on the individual because at the end of the day, I’m not sending a full team to John or to Chris.”

Samuel Castellanos on focusing on individual development versus building a winning team.

The individual development starts with every player on the team having an IDP. An IDP stands for individual development plan and the first training session of every week is designed to focus on those players and getting a lot of reps focusing on specific items. Over the course of a week usually 2 days are spent strictly on the individual.

“Our Mondays are totally individual days, we call them the IDP days where all these kids have individual development plans and I’ll base a session around that and getting a ton of repetitions on one-v-one defending two-v-two defending and your attackers are getting reps on goal. Your goalkeepers are getting tons of reps, shots and your defenders are dealing with guys coming at them in different scenarios. Then a Tuesday is more of a bigger setting, where it’s more functional, building out of the back, and more of a team concept. Then our Thursdays is very small sided,, two-v-two, three-v-three, four-v- four, so you kind of get that mid range. Fridays, we repeat again. If it’s a game on Saturday, you’ll take maybe the first 45 minutes to kind of prep for the game with restarts and things like that, and then we go back into individual work, working on clearances, on finishing, on crossing.”

Samuel Castellanos describing a week of training for Red Bull Academy

Kevin Thelwell’s Impact on the Academy

Kevin Thelwell, the new New York Red Bulls Head of Sport, comes from an academy background. So while the focus may be on his impact on the first team he oversees everything from the academy on up. Despite his arrival being delayed leading to very little evidence on his affect to the on field philosophy his impact has been felt. Thelwell had a hand in the large number of U19s moving up to train and play with the USL team which has had a knock on effect with U15s and U17s moving up age levels. From a coaching education standpoint Thelwell rich connections in the UK has enabled academy coaches to network and learn from top coaches and directors over there.

“Yeah, there was a couple of web seminars that we did. And he has some great contacts in the UK. So we got to sit down with the Liverpool academy director and a couple of other top people in the game in the UK. So that was excellent for us.”

Jonathan Rhodes, Under-15s coach, on coaching education opportunities under Kevin Thelwell.

Introduction to Part Two

Part two will focus on the individual rosters as well as looking at how Red Bull are taking advantage of bio-banding and the importance of the U15s in the professional pathway.

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