Red Bull Academy Director Sean McCafferty optimistic for club's next generation
The New York Red Bulls have been one of the best teams in the league at promoting players from within its system. ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke with Red Bull Academy Director Sean McCafferty about the state of the team's youth development since he was hired in August.
BY Brian Sciaretta PostedMORRISTOWN, N.J. - The New York Red Bulls have a history of playing young players and sending them on to Europe, the national teams, or even both. In recent years, many of these players have come up through the Red Bulls Academy. While the academies at FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake, and the Philadelphia Union have earned a lot of attention in recent years, new Red Bull Academy Director Sean McCafferty is optimistic in what he sees at the youth ranks of his club.
January 20, 2020
January 20, 2020
Over the past decade, the New York Red Bulls have qualified for the post season 10 straight times and have won three Supporters Shields. At the forefront of that success has been local players who have been developed by the club: Tyler Adams, Matt Miazga, Sean Davis, Alex Muyl and many others.
But for most of 2019, the Red Bulls Academy Director job was vacant. That changed when the club hired Derry, Ireland native Sean McCafferty to the position. He had previously served the same role with FC Barcelona's Barca Residency Academy in Casa Grande, Arizona. It was there he worked with players such as Julian Araujo and Matthew Hoppe of the current United States U-20 team.
ASN spoke with McCafferty at length about his first five months on the job and where he sees the Red Bull Academy going.
ASN: How was the position when you inherited it? There hadn’t been an Academy Director in quite some time.
McCafferty: Obviously coming in there was a bit of a void within the Academy Director position. I knew the club wanted to do their due diligence. The interview process was a long process but I was humbled and excited to get the offer. After coming in, everything has surpassed my expectations. All the people at the club from the first team all the way down to the Academy have been top class. My real objective going in there and my focus was for a lot of observing – the staff, the players – to determine the depth and the talent that we have.
During that process, look to implement the Red Bull philosophy. That is what I will be judged on – are we playing the Red Bulls style? Are we progressing the players from the Academy ranks to the second and first teams? Although I’ve only been in the position for just over five months, it’s surpassed my expectations and I’ve been very pleased with the growth we’ve made – both from an individual development standpoint with the players and also from a team standpoint which are grasping the Red Bull system.
ASN: How tough is it to get young players to buy into the Red Bull system compared with other systems? What has been your experience in teaching it to young players?
McCafferty: I think players are excited by it. It takes certain types of players. The work ethic is non-negotiable. Against the ball, you have to be able to press. The mentality when you don’t have the ball is that you have to win it back quickly. When we win it back, we want to try to exploit the opponent and score quickly. I think it’s a very exciting philosophy and way of playing. It’s entertaining. For us, we can get the players to buy in if we tell them the “whys.” If we do these things, this is why we will be successful. If we can win the ball back, we will get more goal scoring chances – things of that nature. That ties into our training. Every night in training, is intense. The intensity in which we train has to be the intensity in which we play. Those are non-negotiables for us.
And one of the objectives for us is to help our players improve in their play with the ball. We really focus on trying to make sure that it can’t be 100mph all the time. They have to understand that in the game there are different situations. They have to understand when to change the tempo and when we have to play negative in order to move forward. We really try to take it deeper with the players both individually, in training, and with videos so they can see it. This generation of players are great video learners and we help them see the moments where they can improve and moments where they are doing really well – so there is clarity.
ASN: The Red Bull Academy has produced players that are with the first team right now and some players who are at very high levels in Europe. How much does their success help you convince the players to join the Academy and buy into what you are teaching? Does pointing to tangible success stories help you? If so, how much?
McCafferty: Absolutely. When you look at Red Bull, we are very unique in our pathway. You have almost a domestic pathway and then you have Tyler Adams who is playing Champions League football. He’s sort of the “poster boy” in how we see it – coming through our Academy, playing for our second team in USL. It’s sort of the perfect pathway. But it’s not always the way. Some players go to college and then sign for us. We sign them as homegrowns in various ways. For us, the goal certainly is to identify and develop those level of players. That’s what we’re moving towards.
ASN: When you assess that players you currently have in the club, how optimistic are you that you have the caliber of players who can succeed at the first team level? Obviously Tyler Adams is a very high bar, but what do you see from a broad perspective the level of players within the Academy?
McCafferty: I’m very optimistic. We’ve done a really good job at the youth levels in developing young players. We see some very good players coming up and at the youngest Academy level, the U-12 team, we have some really exciting prospects – and then all the way through. Ultimately, our job is to develop individuals for the first team. The team concept is certainly important but as I say, teams don’t make debuts at Red Bull Arena, players do. So we have to really focus on those top talents and put them in situations where they are challenged.
We had a 13 year-old who was training with our U-19s, for example. We have to put him in situations where he’s very uncomfortable and he has to find different solutions to problems than he would if he was playing age appropriate, he could find solutions physically – and develop bad habits. We’re really trying to push the individuals and top prospects so we can accelerate their development. So, we’re really excited.
There is a bit of trimming in the rosters when I got in here because we had too many players and too many players not playing enough minutes. So we’re working with the surrounding clubs to help place some players to player. But I want our rosters to be smaller because all of our top talents need to play and they need to play lots of minutes. We can’t be taking minutes away from those players. We really want to improve the training environment and the gameday environment by shrinking these rosters down. And we really also want to focus on having our younger players playing-up to where they are uncomfortable.
ASN: Do you have any specific benchmarks that quantify success for you and the Red Bull Academy? Are there set numbers of Academy graduates you want to see on the first and second teams? Is selling players to foreign clubs on your radar?
McCafferty: I think in the Academy, we try to focus on things we can control – and that is to develop players for our second and first team. After that, it’s beyond our control. There are too many variables beyond that. We may think somebody’s a top talent, he’s playing for our first team, and that a European team should come in, but they have to want to do that. But if a player is playing for John Wolyniec on the second team or under Chris Armas and the first team, then that is success.
When you come to the Academy building, you see the posters of players – Tyler Adams, Sean Davis, Kyle Duncan, Alex Muyl, Matt Miazga – all these players who have come through the Academy and played for the first team, that is what we view as success. That’s what we want our Academy kids to aspire to be… who is next?
ASN: Throughout the league, so many of the homegrown signings have been getting younger and younger. What is the decision making process at the Red Bulls like to sign players of these young ages?
McCafferty: I definitely don’t get to tell the first team what to do. John Tolkin, a young kid at 17, just signed a contract. If he’s good enough, he’s old enough. That is how I look at it. For us, we try to make the best decisions. If we think it’s beneficial for a player to go to college, for a year or even four, then we’ll make that decision on a case by case basis.
In an ideal world, we’re developing at a level where our sporting director and first team manager will be saying: ‘we don’t want this guy to leave our system. Let’s get him in right now or we’ll playing him with our second team and get him valuable minutes.’ It’s definitely trending in that direction. It won’t be signing everybody, just because. They have to be good enough and it has to be the right decision for the player.
ASN: With some of the newer teams in MLS spending tons of money on expensive players, does that minimalize the role of academies in the league? We saw FC Dallas make the playoffs last year playing a ton of Academy kids but is that a model where you can win silverware in this league? Can it be a winning formula for the Red Bulls?
McCafferty: It’s different for each club. The Red Bulls have a clear identity of who we are. We are a club that likes to develop, sign, and play our young players. If you look worldwide, a lot of the clubs that have had success and longevity have an academy and a program identity that outlives everyone. There is no one person that comes in and changes that identity. The club philosophy and the club identity is bigger than anybody – which I love.
I think it’s the only sustainable way to keep that identity because those players come through the system understanding that philosophy and the way we want to play. Then you have to sign, identify, buy, trade the types of players to compliment that. It’s almost year by year, there are so many variables with injuries, or players moving on to Europe, that affect the wins and losses columns. But I do feel that at Red Bull, we are a more forward thinking and innovative club – we know the things we have in place are for not just for now, but for the future. Our identity is of the upmost importance.
ASN: How much does the Academy interact with the first team? Do players train with the first team often or play with them?
McCafferty: One of the things that attracted me to the club was how connected it is. We’re all at the same facility. We all train at the same place. We got some flexible school schedules with the U-19 so we train together in the afternoon. We’ve almost professionalized that age group, if you like. I met with the second team coach yesterday to identify our players that will go to the USL preseason. We talk with our first team manager about some guys who might be eligible to go with the first team to their preseason.
John Tolkin went last year to the preseason and it was a great opportunity and he showed he can play at that level. We’ll continue to have that relationship. Chris has been fantastic and I’ll probably head to preseason so see how they’re doing things. It’s very connected and close-knit. That is part of our identity and our culture.