Senior international managers looking for 'consistency' by also leading U-20 teams
With development the priority, senior national team coaches are increasingly likely to get involved at the youth ranks.
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First, a look at a trend from the ongoing Concacaf mens’ U-20 qualification tournament:
The faces running around on the field at the Concacaf U-20 Qualification tournament in the Dominican Republic may not be familiar. Understandably so.
The top 16 ranked teams were given a bye into the final round of the tournament in summer 2022, leaving teams like Curacao, the Dominican Republic and Bermuda as the powerhouses in the competition.
On the touchline, however, you will find more familiar faces.
Puerto Rico manager Dave Sarachan, Grenada manager Michael Findlay and Bermuda manager Kyle Lightbourne (serving as an assistant) are among senior team bosses who also are involved with youth teams in the setup.
“Consistency” is the word that keeps coming up as managers look to imprint lessons they hope will lead to success in the 2026 World Cup cycle and beyond onto young players.
“I thought it was important this group of U-20 players be introduced early to our methodology, to our mindset, the way we work, what the game model is for Grenada, their responsibilities on and off the field, to build consistency so hopefully some of them that are identified through this process can join the senior team in the days to come,” Findlay said via phone from the Dominican Republic.
Sarachan, whose Puerto Rico team had to forfeit the first match after not fulfilling Covid-19 protocol but bounced back with a win in Monday’s group match with Bermuda, also is eager about how spending time with the young players and helping with a path to professionalism can launch more players on to successful professional careers.
“I was actually pretty anxious to (coach the youth team) for the purposes that, in Puerto Rico, the hope is to develop players to play at a high level and eventually to play for a senior team,” he said via Zoom. “The U-20 tournament provides another opportunity for me as the senior coach to keep continuity for some of the philosophy and methodology we’ve started with the senior team and filter down to some of these younger players coming through.”
Belize manager Dale Pelayo Sr. is another senior team boss leading the U-20s in the Dominican Republic. Some former senior managers, including Anguilla’s Nigel Connor and the British Virgin Islands’ Tinnie Percival, also are coaching at the U-20 tournament as is current Saint Martin forward Yannick Bellechasse.
The trend of senior managers leading both squads looks likely to expand, with coaches wanting to spend time helping their brightest prospects grow and eventually become senior team regulars. There also may be the realization that some players starring at the youth level already are ready to be in World Cup qualification, Nations League or other senior-level competitions.
“It just makes complete sense,” said Jacques Passy, the Mexican manager who also led the U-23 team when he managed the Dominican Republic senior team. “I think there is a worldwide movement in which players are reaching their mature stage earlier on.
“When I started coaching 20 something years ago … there was a myth around football in which everyone said the mature age of a player was between 28-32. That was the peak of a player. The reality is that’s hardly so right now.”
Passy pointed to a team like the United States, sitting second in the final round of World Cup qualification with a first-choice roster that includes U-23 players like Ricardo Pepi, Giovani Reyna, Weston McKennie, and “You see that your best U-23 team is probably very close to your best senior team.”
Even if the youth ranks don’t have as many standout stars, it can be extremely helpful implementing the style of play and setting players up for return trips to youth national teams.
“Obviously teams change all the time and some of these players may not transition, but the hope is that when we come out of it we’ve identified players in Puerto Rico who have a future hopefully beyond the U-20s next summer,” Sarachan said.
The Puerto Rico team is intriguing, though it’s playing from behind after the protocol issues. The roster includes players based at Club América in Mexico, Kaiserslautern in Germany and Oriente Petrolero in Bolivia in addition to the typical mix of players based in the mainland U.S.
Among that group is Wilfredo Rivera, the Orlando City player who already is a regular for the Puerto Rico senior team with a half-dozen caps. Inter Miami teenager Edison Azcona, a Dominican Republic international, Grenada’s Benjamin Etienne and other full internationals also are participating in the U-20 tournament after getting time in World Cup qualification and other top matches.
It can be a lot for one coach and his staff to balance, but Findlay said he his assistants are able to set both teams up for success.
“When we were talking through the process of senior team activities, I was also doing my due diligence on what the future was because this is a long-term plan for Grenada,” said Findlay, a Canada native who utilizes an all-Grenadian staff. “We’re at the bottom of the cycle at this point in time after we were eliminated from World Cup qualifying and the end of the 2021 Gold Cup.
“Our vision is about Nations League A, next Gold Cup and obviously World Cup qualifying for 2026. This is where we felt the influence of the senior staff we had was essential.”
Don’t be surprised if even more managers are among those ‘playing down’ in future youth tournaments, as up-and-coming nations continue to find a benefit in having one staff do it all.