The Evolving Journey of Youth Soccer and the Search for Talented Footballers
Originally published in 2016 — Next week we will have our new interview with Shaun Tsakiris and we wanted to let everyone have the chance to read the first interview.
Amidst the green expanse of the beautiful polo fields in Del Mar, California, U.S. Soccer Youth National team and college coaches gathered at the 36th annual Surf Cup Tournament to evaluate the elite youth soccer players whose teams had traveled from all across the country to compete for the honor of being crowned the Best of the Best.
Under the glorious sunny skies of Southern California, more than 500 coaches watched from the sideline to identify talent. One of those coaches was Shaun Tsakiris, the head coach of the U.S. U16 boys National Team.
GAME ON: Here is SoccerToday Diane Scavuzzo’s exclusive interview with Shaun Tsakiris:
Background on Shaun Tsakiris: A former pro who played for our country in the 1999 U20 World Cup alongside Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, and Taylor Twellman, Tsakiris won the 1997 NCAA Division I title while playing for UCLA. Tsakiris was selected by the MLS’ New England Revolution in the 2001 MLS Super Draft and finished off his pro days with USL’s Rochester Rhinos. Hanging up his pro cleats in 2005, the California-born former pro midfielder turned coach stands tall at 5’7″.
Before becoming the U16 National Team coach in January 2016, Tsakiris was the U.S. Soccer Development Academy coach at De Anza Force in Northern California where he earned recognition as the U.S. Soccer Development Academy National Coach of the Year and West Region Coach of the Year. Tsakiris is now the person responsible for the U16 Boys National Team and works closely to develop players for America’s future.
Confident and relaxed, Tsakiris is highly respected and genuinely dedicated to growing the game of soccer in the USA.
Diane Scavuzzo: Thanks for meeting with me for this interview. So, what do you think of the 2016 Surf Cup? How is it for recruiting?
Shaun Tsakiris: It’s clearly one of the best youth soccer tournaments in the country. Behind the DA Showcases, Surf Cup is still one of the best and there are still very good players in this tournament — absolutely.
Diane Scavuzzo: How would you compare the level of play between this year’s Surf Cup and the recent U.S. Soccer Development Academy Playoffs and Showcase at the Toyota Center in Dallas? The Dallas Showcase Summer Event in June featured only teams from the 96 clubs in the Development Academy.
Shaun Tsakiris: The U.S. Soccer Development Academy (DA) has created a pathway and a level that is a little bit higher than what Surf Cup is now these days. While it is clear that the level of play is not as high as it used to be, I think there is always going to be a place for a tournament like Surf Cup.
I think the youth soccer clubs inside the DA are doing a very good job – and so are some of the clubs outside the system. The reality is there are still so many good players all over the country.
Diane Scavuzzo: Have any players at Surf Cup caught your eye?
Shaun Tsakiris: Absolutely. I would be crazy to say that we didn’t. What U.S. Federation and I are looking for are the top players, but there are certainly players here that I have seen — over 15-20 kids — that I think we need to continue to track and find out more about.
If you can identify those types of numbers out of this weekend, I think it’s a win-win for us.
Diane Scavuzzo: Where do you scout players?
Shaun Tsakiris: I go to all the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Showcases and to the important youth tournaments; Surf Cup is obviously a big one, and of course, Dallas Cup.
Diane Scavuzzo: How do you identify elite youth soccer players in a country as big as the USA?
Shaun Tsakiris: It’s all about creating relationships with scouts and coaches throughout the country. U.S. Soccer has a comprehensive scouting system in place with Technical Advisors around the country. Based on the size of the United States, it makes it difficult to fly everywhere to go look for individual players.
My first phone call to identify talent is usually to one of our 9 Technical Advisors.
Diane Scavuzzo: I am curious, do you find soccer coaches are sometimes overly exuberant about their players or are they usually pretty realistic?
Shaun Tsakiris: I think that’s why you create good relationships where you can trust the coaches.
If you can trust coaches in the area, then you can also start to understand that he or she is not going to steer us wrong.
The soccer community is pretty small. Over time you end up building good relationships with people that you trust — and you trust their opinion.
Diane Scavuzzo: You spend a fair amount of time in America’s 8th largest city — San Diego. Do you think there is the need for a third Boys Development Academy?
There are 9 full U12-U17/18 Development Academies in the Southwest area — only two in San Diego, yet there are 12 Academies in LA and 12 in San Diego at the younger U12 age.
Shaun Tsakiris: That’s probably not for me to decide. I would say there is a lot of talent all throughout California.
You always have to be careful that you don’t dilute the talent pool, but I will say that there is a lot of talent at the U16 level in San Diego.
Now, it’s also a matter of whenever you want to add a DA, you have to make sure you add the right one.
I like the direction that the DA is going because they are selective in who they are bringing in. We need more accountability throughout the country and not just in the DA.
Diane Scavuzzo: When you look for players, what are you specifically looking for?
Shaun Tsakiris: We like to use the term, footballers.
Are they footballers? Do they think football? Is the player consumed by soccer all the time?
Do they understand how to play first? It is really clear when you watch matches if they understand how to play first.
Are they strong tactically, do they understand the game? Do they really want to become professional soccer players and understand what it takes? We can always develop athletes – we want to develop footballers.
Diane Scavuzzo: At the U14/U16 level, the players who are competing in the top bracket at Surf Cup are usually skillful. What makes a youth soccer player stand out?
Shaun Tsakiris: I’m looking for a top talent at the U16 level, but I’m also looking at a players’ potential and how they could develop in a few years.
That’s the toughest part of being a National Team U16 coach — not only to identify current talent but to find the players who will develop into the top talent for our Senior Team.
Diane Scavuzzo: If you had a magic wand, is there anything you would change?
Shaun Tsakiris: It’s interesting, I think our youth soccer players aren’t as creative as they used to be.
We’re so structured in training that we’ve lost a little creativity in our players.
I think we’ve created more good players and less special players. I often remind myself not to take the love of the game and the creativity away from my players.
While the Federation has made great strides in coaching education in the past few years, even I have to remember not to over structure.
I think we’ve created more good players and less special players.
It is our responsibility as coaches to help our players develop the creative aspects of the game.
Diane Scavuzzo: Going back to identifying talent, is it easy to see how a 16-year-old player will perform at age 18?
Shaun Tsakiris: No, nothing is easy but you take everything into account.
You take their parents into account and at what age physically they have matured and developed.
We ask questions like, “Is he maxed out physically?”
All players will develop at different rates. We try to take everything into account, but nothing is easy.
Diane Scavuzzo: How would you describe yourself as a coach?
Shaun Tsakiris: When I was playing, I always wanted a coach that would believe in me as a player.
So, a big thing for me is making sure my players understand that I will do anything for them – but, I am also very demanding. It is a balance.
You often hear coaches say, “I want a fun environment.” That’s not necessarily the case for me. I think the fun part is giving the players so much information that they are consumed by loving the sport.
When you create that environment, kids can’t wait to come to training.
When you create the right type of relationship, players want to play for you, and you get the most out of them.
Diane Scavuzzo: Do you tend to find that most of the better quality footballers are in the MLS Academy?
Shaun Tsakiris: It’s certainly heading that way, but there are so many good players in this country that we still don’t have a handle on. But yes, the direction is that most of the top players are heading in the direction of the MLS academies.