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How Sean McCafferty is making youth development even younger for the Red Bulls

Academy director speaks with OaM as fall season kicks off

Sean McCafferty is the point man in a youth revolution happening in New York.
Photo by John Perdicaro

September brings with it many things. The start of the school year, the end of summer pumpkin spice lattes, and beer as far as the eye can see. However, for those of us stuck seeking an escape from autumn bliss in painstaking soccer observation, it brings the start of the academy league season.

For Sean McCafferty, who will be entering his third season as director of the New York Red Bulls Academy, it’s a perfect time to speak from his front row seat to a youth development overhaul happening in New York. As players such as Caden Clark and John Tolkin begin what McCafferty hopes will be the next and biggest wave of young talent polished by the club, the former Barcelona Arizona coach has been troubleshooting up and down the club’s development pipeline.

From Red Bulls II down to the pre-academy, McCafferty along with Ryan Brooks and the rest of the staff have made great strides even with a pandemic-sized hurdle to reshape and build the infrastructure of the academy with the goal of being the best in the country and give the first team the same development reputation held by sibling clubs in Europe and Brazil. These strides include changes to training time, education partners, homestay programs and much more at numerous levels of the club, as we found out when we spoke to McCafferty earlier this month.

Change of strategy in USL

This season has seen McCafferty take a bigger role in professional-level reserve team New York Red Bulls II from a strategic standpoint, overseeing the integration of a number of young academy players and graduates featuring heavily for the team in USL Championship senior play. Of course the results this year have not always been kind to this younger, leaner Red Bulls II. It is also clear some things didn’t go exactly as they planned with pandemic protocols limiting first team movement and visa issues hampering drafted players who were expected to contribute. But with those issues has come some tremendous opportunities for young players and many have stepped up and placed themselves for first team opportunities.

“I’ll say things maybe haven’t gone as planned, but because of that some younger players have gotten exposure that maybe they wouldn’t have gotten before,” said McCafferty. “Again, for the most part we’ve been extremely happy with how they performed, but it’s still very young and they’re making some naive mistakes and conceding goals where if your a bit more balanced, you’re probably not conceding as many from set pieces corners, you know. It’s things of that nature.”

Balance is the key word from McCafferty - it goes for roster construction and it goes for goals. For Red Bulls II the goal is not all or nothing development and it’s not all or nothing winning. That is the purpose of New York Red Bull II currently and something they found when a consistent fixture in the playoffs.

“We do not like the way things are going from a result standpoint, even though they’ve been in most of the games and played well, maybe without the reward. It’s great exposure, it’s great for their development. But winning is also great for their development. So, I’m never ever going to say it’s just about development winning doesn’t matter because it does.”

“So as we go into next year absolutely we want to build a better balance. We’re doing a lot of our due diligence right now to the players who could potentially have come in from the draft, potentially players we maybe even sign as homegrown so we’re looking to be a bit more balanced going into next year and one of our KPIs will be to make playoffs, simple as that. So not only utilizing this year to get some of the young guys, minutes but who are the ones that can play next year they’re going to help us, you know, win, as well as obviously develop pros for the first team.”

Reorganizing the academy

One of the biggest changes for the academy is the removal of the U-19 team. This has been a trend across MLS academies and the Red Bulls were one of the last to continue fielding a U-19 team. For Red Bulls they determined the value just wasn’t there, with top players at that age already being funneled to the USL team.

“We kept it around probably longer than most MLS clubs and we really wanted to see if the value was there and ultimately the analysis was that a lot of the top talents are on the second team anyway. So for us, we’d like to kind of focus our energy on that second team and then also the 17s and make that as strong as possible for the pro pathway age groups U-15 and U-17”

Obviously without a U-19 side you run the risk of pushing away a late bloomer too soon, but McCafferty insisted that the staff have a plan for that.

“There’s always that risk but we have to do our due diligence, we just have to make sure that there’s a contingency plan and it could be attending more of their next club training, watching a bit more their games and you know I think Red Bull two training is still a place where we’ll, we’ll give players more time. Right now three overage players can play in the 17s for the majority of the game so you know players such as Nicolas Rabiu, Austin Brummet, JC Cortez can still play some games with 17s We’ll call it a security blanket for some of the players who you’re maybe you’re not sure of.”

What’s next?

The next big project for the Red Bulls is expanding on the homestay and education programs from players from outside the Tri State region such as prototype Caden Clark. The early returns from the homestay program has seen success with players like Seattle native Austin Brummett getting good minutes for Red Bulls II. However, for McCafferty to make the Red Bulls the best, residency is the next step. Not only does it serve out of state players but allows a higher level of care put towards local players as well as young international players like Cristian Cásseres or Wikelman Carmona.

“(Red Bulls head of sport) Kevin Thelwell will always ask ‘what does great look like?’ and, for me based on my experiences, it’s a residency program for those high school ages and maybe even, you can involve Red Bulls II to potentially even do that with some of the young players. So, you know, having the ability to immerse players in your environment and what you’re looking for. Control more with their diet, nutrition, some of the workouts and the additional contact time you can get with them. And then obviously the academic side and you know we can combine all that together. I think you’ve got something that could be you know truly, truly best in class in North America.”