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The unique program that’s helped the New York Red Bulls academy pipeline flow again

Individual Development Program director Sammy Castellanos speaks with OaM about how the Red Bulls have accelerated the development of youth players in recent years

Sammy Castellanos is the head of the skills development program that’s helped every level of the Red Bulls academy advance in recent years.
Photo by Matt Ralph

On a cold rainy Monday afternoon in East Hanover, Sammy Castellanos sits down in the coaching office where it all started to discuss the engine of recent success for the New York Red Bulls academy — the Individual Development Program.

From the first breath the passion for the project is clear from the Philly native who cut his teeth coaching in the greater Tampa area and later at Orlando City. Initially joining the Red Bulls Academy as head coach for the U19s, when that age group was eliminated during a restructuring two years ago, Castellanos was invited to head up a new skills development clinic that would have ripple effects of the entire academy structure. The first iteration of the program was based on the broad idea of accelerating development between age groups. The program originally was built into the team training sessions as Castellanos describes.

“Can we spend a block of time in the session, working on the individual talent that we had? Once we started doing that and seeing some of the success that we had with some of the players, I think that’s when we kind of said alright, this needs to be like a major project and can we turn this into its own entity.”

The initial structure saw early success in the growth of players like Daniel Edelman and Jake Lacava and made it clear to the Castellanos and the rest of the staff that they were on to something. That success combined with knowledge Castellanos gained as part of the Elite Formations Course MLS offers in combination with the French Federation allowed him to push the idea to the next level.

“So I was lucky enough to be a part of that class, the EFCL 4. But in that course one of the modules was based on the individual development of your top talent. So that kind of reiterated the idea and then since we were engulfed in it for one of the modules. I pretty much came back and I was like, Hey, we can implement the stuff that I was learning and we need XYZ to do this. And that’s when Sean (McCafferty, Academy Director) and Ryan (Brooks, Academy Business Operations Director) were like ‘okay, let’s really put our foot on the gas and see what we can get out of this.’ And then once Red Bull kind of saw what we wanted, they’re like okay, full investment in it and it’s something innovative and a little bit different from what most of the clubs are doing in and around the league.”

IDP structure

This year the IDP program is taking on a new structure as more players are involved. According to Castellanos they are “living it” as they build it. The players come in four times a week for an extra session on top team training at night with Wednesday being an offday. The IDP program is not just about soccer — there’s an education plan, physical plan and an evolving mental piece. On the education side most players do their schooling through Scholar Athlete Leadership Academy a fully accredited private school that provides tutors who come out to the academy to work with the kids. Some players get released from school early, which academy operations director Ryan Brooks works out with the individual player’s district.

The week breaks down into a gym day Monday where players work with the athletic training strictly on physical conditioning. Then Tuesday and Thursdays are on the field with Friday being whatever the player needs. This means they can be in the gym or do something on the field or review film but it’s fully up to the player with guidance from the coaches.

“So we kind of give them three areas that they can work on. And then in those three areas, those guys will have pretty much like a 45 minute block to do what they need to do work wise on that Friday.”

“Some of the guys are spot on like ‘hey, I want to go out and and do some finishing like inside the PK spot’ that stuff is fine. It’s not taxing you to do things like that and get like 30 reps in, come back in and there’s no problem. We do try to educate them on every part of the process but I think since we’re just over a month in they’re still kind of green on what it all is. But eventually, hopefully in six months, it’s kind of a well oiled machine and they’re like, okay, on Friday, I’m gonna know what I’m doing and we can kind of just facilitate it and just kind of take a step back because we want it to be very player-driven.”

When asked about the details of the on-field session, Castellanos jumped out of his seat and went right to a white board in the room to draw up a mock session. As soon as Castellanos was at the board the detail and effort put into this program that incorporates players from U-14 to U-17 was evident. Four coaches and one video analyst work without about twelve to fourteen kids with the goal of no larger than a four-to-one athlete-to-coach ratio.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at New York Red Bulls
Daniel Edelman is the crown jewel of the IDP program thus far.
Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

During a session they will break up the group by position with each group with a coach working on a specific thing such as a midfielder switching the field. At each station they will have iPads filming reps, allowing coaches to go over each of the reps with the players and really refine the technique. This lasts the first 20 minutes and then the coaches merge the two focus areas into a larger group session that works encompasses everything.

Castellanos compared the work they do with film to what you see in the NBA or NFL where specific moments are broken down or how an NBA shooting coach will film and analyze each shot a player takes. They also take a very data-driven approach which allows them to back up the work and the eye test with data. Daniel Edelman is a product of this, says Castellanos.

“That’s what we did with Edelman right — I backed it up with straight data. It wasn’t my view, it was like: hey, he’s putting up the same numbers as Sean Davis. Sean Davis is your captain. I think Edelman is ready to make the jump right now — he may have some issues physically but the data’s saying that he’s ready to be there. And they took that, they put him up and it was actually it was spot-on.”

Taking a step back

For Castellanos taking on this project was a selfless act that required him to take a step into a background and out of a head coaching role with a team. It’s a role that might not always get the most credit, as usually the credit for successful development is given to head coaches at the various levels. But for Castellanos, this project allowed him to add to his toolbox.

“At the end of the day, it was more of taking a step back. And we went over this on the course, One year you might be the head coach. Another year, you might be an assistant coach, right? You’re on your journey.”

“So I think this was something that I took and I was just like, You know what, I think this will be good for my toolbox because not not not a lot of coaches will have this in their toolbox that I can offer. So there’s something of value that not everyone has in their repertoire for a franchise, you know, so I think that’s why I’m kind of like let’s get this going and be successful.”

“There’s going to be players that come out of the IDP program that do big things. And even though whoever the head coach that they’re on will get the credit, I think the people behind the scenes that really know what’s going on and what programs are within and things like that are going to know the work that’s going on. I think that’s where my value comes in.”

At the end of the day for Castellanos it’s all about the kids and doing right by them. When he sees their success and they come back and thank him or they watch a game and remember a session it’s that recognition that is most important.

“Every coach at this level has a level of confidence, a level of recognition but to take a step back does take a lot but at the end of the day I always look at it as we’re here because the kids are here. The best thing was when Yaya (Dantouma Toure, a former Red Bulls academy player now playing professionally with Colorado Rapids) scored against Red Bull. The next day he FaceTimed me, that to me is what it’s about he FaceTimed me and said, ‘you were the one guy wanted to see when I came back to Jersey.’”

“That’s way better than me getting recognition on an article or on Sunday. Former players will come back and talk to the players and help out. I think more so it’s building the culture a little bit more rather than just ‘hey, hey, I’m the one that did it.’ No — it’s like we all did it.”