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Paving the pathway: an interview with former Red Bulls U-23 general manager Juan Sebastian Romero

OaM chats with one of the most important figures in the emergence of the club’s youth development scheme

SOCCER: JUL 22 International Champions Cup - Red Bulls v Chelsea Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When you ask a Red Bull New York fan their thoughts (they will definitely have some) on what they think of the club’s youth development pipeline, it can sometimes be unclear which entity they’re even discussing. Over the last decade, a previously slim and top-heavy RBNY organization has blossomed into one of American soccer’s few true clubs, a multi-layered operation coordinating teams in MLS and USL as well local and national youth competitions under similar organizational principles.

But often less heralded is the progress that happens with the club’s short season U-23 team that consists largely of college players on their summer breaks. Competing in USL League Two after previously winning a national title in the National Premier Soccer League in 2014, the Red Bull U-23s have not only been a competitive success at the semi-pro level but have been a crucial building block in the technical strategy that RBNY’s recent success in MLS was built on.

At the center of the U-23’s rise is Juan Sebastian Romero, a longtime RBNY front office staffer who served as general manager of the U-23 team from 2014 to 2019, guiding the team through a raising of standards, change of league, and emergence as one of American pro soccer’s most respected finishing schools.

OaM caught up with Juan this week to expand on his experiences in the boiler room of the Red Bull youth movement:

How did you become involved with Red Bull and the U-23 team? Had you been involved with the organization previously at academy level?

I joined Red Bull in 2010 after being hired by (then-RBNY general manager) Erik Solér to be a team administrator. I worked under the technical director Ricardo Campos coordinating day-to-day budgeting and operations for the first team and individual players. The U-23 team had been set up just before I came on board but was mostly operated as a branch of the academy.

In 2014 a decision was made (under then-chief sporting executive Andy Roxburgh) for the U-23 program to move directly under first team supervision - basically we were going to get more serious and actually make the U-23s part of a developmental pathway to the first team. I had always wanted to be involved in managing rosters and a squad of my own, so when more of the U-23 work started coming our way I went to Ricardo and asked him if I could manage it day-to-day and it all kinda started from there.

What was your role with the U-23 team and what did it entail?

I was the general manager for the team. I made sure we were compliant with the league on all matters, oversaw budget and logistics, and directed recruiting. I also essentially worked as an assistant coach as I was studying for coaching badges at the time.

The head coach of the team was Simon Nee - who I cannot say enough good things about. Simon had already been working with the academy and when I came on board with the U-23s I realized he and I were aware of a lot of the same development issues and had the same goals for wanting to make the U-23s a relevant program that people wanted to be a part of.

Broadly speaking, what were the technical priorities for the U-23s? Was it more focused toward skills development or more towards winning and being a showcase for players looking to go professional?

Winning was much less important than changing the mentality around players in the club’s development pipeline and making them know that there were opportunities and platforms for them here. It was the first step to keeping our homegrown talent in house - more from leaving professional development altogether as opposed to going to other teams. It was about showing the good players the academy was starting to develop and their parents that there was a real pathway to the first team.

When I joined the organization 2010, the club and the league was a much different place than it is now - not in any good or bad way, just different. It was the Beckhams and Henrys and big names rather than depth and youth and that’s sort of how it had to be back then. But once the big shift with (former Red Bulls MLS head coach) Jesse Marsch started happening and the USL-MLS partnership came about, we realized that we were not the only ones who saw this shift coming - we were just the first to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

So yes, going undefeated and winning a title in the first year under this format was a byproduct, it was not the objective when we started on day one.

New York Red Bulls Vs Atlanta United FC
RBNY homegrown midfielder and former U-23 player Sean Davis
Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

What were the differences between NPSL and PDL (now known as USL League Two) that persuaded you to make the switch?

The long and short of it is that once we won the NPSL title in 2014, we wanted better competition. No knock on the NPSL which is a great league that provides needed infrastructure all over the country, but we just saw a more standardized level of roster depth and professionalism across all PDL clubs that would challenge us to keep improving. It required some higher budgeting than RBNY had previously allotted and I had to do some convincing - but luckily the PDL wanted the Red Bull brand in the league enough to give us some breathing room.

You mentioned your hand in assembling the team...what was the recruitment process for a team like the U-23s that is a more unofficial part of the club’s pipeline? Are there designated scouts or is it more a matter of networking and relationships with college programs?

The short formula was to track and invite our homegrowns. Especially those who had been involved in what was then the MLS Reserve League (before teams were entered in USL) bring them back for summer to track their progress and start pushing the idea that they were an important ingredient in the mix for the club and the future plans on what would compose the first team roster in years to come. By pure chance, this also lined up with a very good group of players in college at the time and what would eventually be the big shift when Jesse and his crew came into the club, the establishment of Red Bulls II and all of the other factors that rounded to be the full picture of making the academy a real pipeline where young players saw a path to the first team.

As things progressed, it became a lot easier to recruit players to spend the summer with us when they saw that they could get out of school or their part-time job and suit up that night to play against Chelsea, for instance. We were all about emphasizing how important young players were to the club and that we always lean towards both keeping young players on rosters as well as giving them priority over other prospects when push comes to shove.

Syracuse v Georgetown soccer
RBNY winger Alex Muyl during his days at Georgetown University
Chuck Myers/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

I’m sure a lot of our readers will be aware of some of the big homegrown names in club history, but are there specific players from this era with the U-23s whose stories stand out to you?

I mean the big name as far as guys who have made it through to be a significant first team player is Sean Davis but there are tons of guys who might have fallen through the cracks and never gotten a sniff at the first team otherwise - Brian White, Alex Muyl, Steven Echevarria. Chris Lema is a perfect example of a guy where the U-23s and new development pipeline gave him the opportunity to battle and learn at each level that didn’t really exist for a guy like him before and now he’s in the full MLS team.

You moved into a different sector of the soccer business recently, would you mind telling us a little about that?

I left Red Bull last year and have crossed over to the player representation side as an independent agent. Given my background and personal goals for growth within the field, it was something always on my mind and the most sensible step at this moment. I’m honestly carrying over some of the same principles from the U-23s into this: I’m betting on American players from all sorts of backgrounds and take a human approach to lead them through the levels of the professional game. I think the college game, flawed as it is, still produces talented players who should keep going at the professional level if they have the skills to. They just need to find the right environments with the right goals in mind and I like to think I know where those places are.

New York Red Bulls v Chicago Fire: MLS
Former RBNY U-23 standout Brian White
Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images