ASN Exclusive

Varas discusses status of the U.S. U-20 team ahead of this summer's critical qualifying tournament

Last November, Mikey Varas was hired as the head coach of the U.S. U-20 team and it presented a huge challenge and opportunity to qualify for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics in a single tournament this summer. Last week, the team wrapped up its second camp of the cycle and Varas spoke at length with ASN's Brian Sciaretta afterward to discuss how he sees the team at this stage.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 11, 2022
5:05 AM

THE UNITED STATES U-20 national team concluded its second camp of the current cycle on February 2 and it marked the latest step of preparation ahead of this summer’s critical tournament that will serve as qualifying for both the 2023 U-20 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics.

Next up for the U.S. U-20 team will be a March camp – likely a tournament abroad with Argentina being a possibility. Following that, there might be a pre-camp ahead of the summer tournament at a location still to be determined.

U.S. U-20 head coach Mikey Varas was hired just one day before the team left for its initial camp in November and this week, he spoke with ASN’s Brian Sciaretta for his first interview on the state of the team after the January/February camp where the team played the New York Red Bulls to a 0-0 draw and defeated FC Dallas 1-0.

BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: Congratulations on being appointed the U-20 head coach. What drew you to that job? Were you surprised to get it? Discuss the opportunity as you see it

VARAS: Anytime you have the opportunity to work for your country -it's an honor. When I was let go and I started putting feelers out there and I had heard the U-20 job was open. In all honesty, I thought I was probably a long shot for the job, but it's such a great opportunity and a beautiful place to work. I said, I'm going to put my name in no matter what, and I'll be prepared.

I had a couple of interviews, and it just so happens that we're very aligned with the federation in terms of youth development, in terms of character, in terms of values. They hired me a couple of days before, and frankly, it was actually a really great experience being hired that fast because you didn't have to be nervous or think anything - just right into the fire. I don't mind doing that. I enjoy the pressure of those kind of moments, and I know you end up learning more from it. I'm really grateful that it happened the way it did.

ASN: You were surrounded by a very positive system for youth development at FC Dallas. During your time there as a youth coach and then under Luchi Gonzalez as a first team assistant, you worked with a lot of top young American players. What did that experience do for you?

VARAS: Development is about people and process. The most important are the people. One of FC Dallas' biggest strengths is the people that are there. I'm not talking just about leadership, I'm talking about coaches who work in the youth club but show up to the academy trainings because they just want to be a part of it. Coaches who are around so that they can film the academy trainings and they're not paid extra for that. They just do it because they love the club and it drives their everyday life. FC Dallas is full of people who love their club, love their community, love the kids that they coach and they take personal pride from the club doing well.

The other big people component, in my opinion, is talent. You're only as good as the players that you get to coach. Are they talented? Are they motivated? How badly do they want to succeed? At the end day, we get a lot of credit for it, but it's always been my philosophy to tell players that they don't have to thank me at the end of the road because I was just a small, little push or pull at certain stages. They're the ones who have to go through the hardest part of the journey. FC Dallas has that good mixture there of good people who care about the club and a rich talent pool. That's been driving the club's success quite a bit.

Then from a process orientation, I would say the club is still growing in that and they're doing a good job. The fields, facilities, making sure there's a school program - it's a pretty good position compared to most clubs in the United States. My feeling is that FC Dallas has graduated to now compete internationally. You'll see with these recent sales and these recent investments that the club will probably take its next steps in terms of process as well. And I think FC Dallas is only going to get stronger

ASN: You've had two camps now. Discuss that first camp and then also discuss the most recent camp. What was the difference in the approach? How significant were the improvements?

VARAS: Absolutely. The first camp, I look at it as a competition camp. We got there. We had a training on Monday with half the group. Then we had training on Tuesday with the whole group. Then we played Brazil on the third day. Brazil is Brazil. Brazil is always going to be one of the best teams in the world. Then we played every two days after that.

The number one objective was to instill a team culture, instill an identity in terms of how we want to treat each other, what our ambitions? Because you can do that without being on the field a ton. That's video, that's meetings, that's engaging the players.


The second big objective was to evaluate the pool, the group and evaluate the whole process - where are we at and where do we need to be at the end of this? What a great opportunity Révélations Cup was for that because you're thrown into heavy competition right away.

The third one was to try to lay a couple of building blocks of the style of play, and we really had to do that through one training... But it was done a lot through feedback after games… The US [senior team] played Mexico during that camp and in my opinion, played the best game I've ever seen a U.S. team play in terms of intensity in a 2-0 win against Mexico and played them off the park. We used that game as a learning moment - this is our identity as the US. We want to be brave, we want to be relentless, we want to press, we want to have more of the ball. It doesn't matter who we play against. It was a lot of messaging.

This last camp was what I would consider a learning camp. We told the players right away: “this is a totally different kind of camp. We're going to overload you with information and we're going to train really hard. You might be a little sore during the games, but don't worry about it.”

At this camp, our objectives were to take the next step with the team culture because at the end of the day, we believe that's the number one thing, especially for a national team, because you don't get weekly contact with them. So, the more of a team identity you can create, and each time guys come in, they gel a little quicker, the better advantage you're going to have.

Then two, we wanted to make big steps in terms of style of play, very specific things in terms of how we wanted to attack, and what we wanted that to look like. The third thing was we wanted to provide them with tools, individual tools for when they go back to their clubs. They have some tools to work with between camps that can help us gain some ground as well.

ASN: Were you pleased with the results form the second camp and where you are at now? I know you drew the Red Bulls and beat FC Dallas. Those are good results, especially keeping two clean sheets.

VARAS: Results aside, even going into the Red Bull game, we knew the camp was a success because you can feel the energy of the group - when they're walking around the hotel, when they're talking about the game. When you ask them: hey, are you clear about how we want to play? You can see in their eyes that they were excited to implement what we trained and they felt confident about it. Of course, it doesn't always work out like this in life, but it was also nice to have the affirmation from the games against two good professional teams and say: “OK, we were able to implement it.” It was against two different professional teams, two of which presented two different types of games. And the boys adapted really well to it.

ASN: Looking ahead, you don't have a lot of time before this summer's big double qualification tournament for the Olympics and the U-20 World Cup. How do you feel about this team's ability to be fully prepared for that tournament in terms of the culture and style of play? Do you think you've already identified your core that you really want for that tournament? Would you say that you are were you want to be at this stage of the cycle?

VARAS: I think the short answer to the first part is that I don't think we're ever going to feel completely ready because you don't get the players week in, week out. There's always going to be that bit in your head where you say: I wish we had them for one more camp. What we know is that we are going to use every second we have with the boys to optimize the time we have with them and we're not going to leave a single stone unturned. Then in between camps, we are going to be watching that and seeing where they are with their clubs.

There are some guys who may not be in the picture, but who might take off with their MLS clubs during this season and can play their way into the group. There are definitely core players, but there's a bigger pool.

Something that we learned from this last camp was that we have quite a bit of competition within the group. Our final message to the boys was what happens between camps is really important. What you're doing at your clubs?

This job, to me, it is always about team building and identification going hand in hand. It's never: "oh, we're settled, these are our guys and now all we have to do is get them to play together." That's why the team culture and style of play, we're keeping things simple. I've never said I'm a one of those coaches who invent the new way of playing, a new style of playing. The teams will play well, but we're not going to make things so complicated that if a player comes in new, they have to learn an entire playbook. What they need to do is learn how to interact within certain spaces among their teammates.

ASN: Two players who are eligible for this U-20 team have made huge moves in January and it ties to the topic of getting players released. That has become trickier at the U-20 level. Kevin Peredes is now at Wolfsburg and is with their first team. Ricardo Pepi, who you have worked with quite a bit, is playing with the full national team and is with Augsburg. Have you thought or discussed the possibility of having either player be involved? The qualification tournament will take place in the summer, during their offseason and the U.S. national team will probably be finished with World Cup qualifying.

VARAS: I've already started building a relationship with Kevin - through phone calls, through texts. I went to the December men's national team camp for a few days to sit down and talk with him. With Kevin, we count on him being a major part of our group - a core player.

Kevin is excited to be part of the cycle. He wants to be at the camps, but it's not always in his control. It's not always in our control. We have to respect that. Kevin is going through a transitional moment. Our next step will be to start creating a relationship with Wolfsburg so that they understand our needs and they understand what our timeline is - and we are also able to understand theirs. We can work together for the benefit of both. I think it's in their best interest if Kevin plays in a U-20 World Cup and does really well, and it's in our best interest that he does well with Wolfsburg's first team. We'll be looking to coordinate that.

With Pepi, he is with the men's national team right now, and they are 100 percent the priority. Mission number one is to qualify for the World Cup. It has not even crossed my mind to say if he will be a part of our group or not. I know Pepi from my time at Dallas as his U-16 coach. I'm happy for his progress and his development...If later down the line an opportunity presents itself, I would be open for discussion, but I'm definitely not expecting it.

ASN: It is a strong starting place for a cycle with a lot of players already earning significant first team minutes. But like with any youth team, a pool of just two birth years could leave a team thin in certain areas and strong in others. At first glance, the team looks strong on the wings with Kevin Paredes and Cade Cowell but on the flip sides there aren't too many central defenders getting regular minutes yet with their clubs. What areas of the team are you happy about and is there anything that concerns you?

VARAS: In Mexico over three games, we conceded seven goals. Then in this last camp against two pro teams, we conceded zero. The central defense was an area where we wanted to grow in our depth. We brought in a good amount of new guys and players that weren't in Mexico and maybe not in the equation heading into this last camp and they performed very well. Now at center back, we believe that we have a good depth and we actually have tough decisions to make, which is a good place to be as a coach.

That was a really strong message to the boys -  make our job harder, make our decisions harder and that's all you guys can control. Will any of them break through into the first team?

I would say areas of strength - we like our outside backs. We like our No. 8 pool, it is really deep and it's going to be really hard to define who are the guys who actually make the qualifiers. There will be good players that are left out… We like our wingers and our No. 10's. The only area that we're looking to strengthen more is our No. 9 position. There hasn’t been a No. 9 who has put a stamp on the position.

ASN: You called in three 2005-born players at the last camp: Kristian Fletcher, Obed Vargas, and Esmir Bajraktarevic. They are all very young for this pool and are actually eligible for next cycle . It appears to be a pretty good birth year. How did they hold up at the last camp and are you confident looking for key players that young this early in the cycle?

VARAS: Our philosophy is that we want to put the best players on the field. Age should not be something that stops a player. The fact that they can play in the next U-20 World Cup cycle is not a reason to leave them off the current U-20 World Cup cycle… All three of those boys did really well.

Kristian [Fletcher] played out of position. He is naturally a winger, but he played as a No. 9 for us and is coming from a little bit more of an offseason, so he's not in his best form. But he is obviously a top talent that we're very excited for. My final message to him was that the window is open for him here because it is a position of need. So, he can demonstrate that he can do it at a high level. He shouldn't be thinking just about the next U-20 World Cup cycle.


Esmir came in because we needed wing depth. And Esmir did awesome. He even played right back for 30 minutes against the Red Bulls, an '05 left-footer. Our assistant coach asked him: you're going to play right back, how do you feel about that? And his response verbatim was: I just want to play. He went in there and played that way - it really impressed. Esmir probably has the toughest competition because the winger pool is pretty deep in the '03 and '04 age group. But Esmir is a player we're really excited about for the future.

Obed [Vargas] did really well at the camp, and I would say Obed was one of the biggest surprises at the camp. I have given Obed the challenge to play his way into this group. He is a really strong player and it's a tough position. But he did a really, really well. He's a top talent,

ASN: I want to ask you about Philadelphia Union because you've been drawing from them heavily. You had four guys in this last camp Philadelphia and you've had Paxten Aaronson, Quinn Sullivan and Jack McGlynn in both camps. It seems like those three are becoming part of your core. Has anything struck you about that organization in its development? They're both playing and winning with kids at the first team level.

VARAS: You also have to add Patrick Bouhi.  Even though Patrick is not with them anymore he played three or four years with the Philadelphia Union Academy. I saw [Philadelphia's technical director] Ernst Tanner on the way out of the FC Dallas game. I told him I'm always impressed with the Philadelphia Union players because I think the club does a good job identifying talent and they do an excellent job of creating players who are creative but also have a work ethic, that willingness to be just a grinder.

It's not easy to have creative players who also want to put in the work. When you see Paxten's brother and how it translates to Europe, their model is very good. Creative, skillful players who also work really, really hard, run more than everybody else, are willing to be physical, do all the dirty work, but also have the ability on the ball. They're doing a great job.

ASN: You mentioned a few surprises. Is it still to early to talk about who have been the surprises and who is the core?

VARAS: All the boys know the next six weeks with their club and then hopefully we get an international trip in March. That's going to be a big indicator of the core group. After that, it's what you do at your club again. It's a little bit early for me to pinpoint just a few guys, but there is definitely candidates for who are going to step into that role.

It was interesting at the end of the camp. It was such a positive camp. We all left knowing, this was a camp of 26 and we were missing some guys. The next camp is 20 guys. So, go home and make a case for yourself by what you do at your club.

ASN: This tournament is this summer is huge. It is qualifying for the U-20 World Cup and the Olmypics. U.S. Soccer has come up short three cycles in a row of qualifying for the Olympics. Discuss the maturity you are looking for from players to play in games that are one-game knockouts to determine qualifying. Also, how much is qualifying for the Olympics and ending the drought a source of motivation for you and the team?

VARAS: With this great challenge is a lot of responsibility, and we are looking for people who embrace that moment of pressure and look at it with fearlessness - they say let's go, we're going to do this. You hit on a major part of our evaluation process of who is able to handle pressure? At the international level and at the first division level, it becomes comes down to: okay, you may practice well, but what happens when you're in front of a full stadium?

That's why we're excited for another international trip, because it will bring an element of having to travel, going to a foreign country, playing a top competition and knowing that the results will matter. The results might be scrutinized a little bit more. We're looking for guys who want to do that… We're going to learn about a lot of players during this trip.

ASN: Finally, regarding chemistry. These players haven't played much together before this cycle started because COVID shut down youth national teams for over 18 months. Have you noticed a lack of chemistry with these players not having been with a different youth team leading up to it? Also, have you worked with Gregg Berhalter to ensure a style of play is uniformed between the U-20 level and the senior so that the chemistry will typically be better at the start of youth cycles or when players get called up to the full team?

VARAS: Obviously, the pandemic disrupted all programing for the youth national teams and you can see that in the beginning. But these players, with their talent level, they adapt quickly. It's up to us as coaches to make sure that we stimulate them in the right way once we have them in camp to get them on an accelerated path to gelling. As you said, it's definitely a challenge. But based on the last camp that we just had, the players excelled at taking advantage of every moment.

It does make you reflect back and say: it's too bad they weren't able to play for the last two years together because of how much you see the players take advantage of a 10-day camp and you think they probably would have had 11 of those camps the last two years. It would have been great for their personal development. But that's something that's out of our control. We're just now concentrating on making sure we get them gelling as much as possible, identifying the right players, putting them together and providing them a structure that allows them to excel as a team.

I've been building a relationship with Gregg. He has a big pressure at the moment because they need to qualify for the World Cup. He's doing a great job. He's someone that I admire as a coach, as a person.

When you talk about alignment, I would say we're very, very aligned in the style of play. When you look at the overarching style of play, which is the idea of how we're going to play, whether we do it from a certain tactical perspective is based on how we put the players on the field - do you press in a 4-3-3, or do you press in a 4-4-2? That all depends on the player pool and playing to the players' strengths. But the idea of how to play, the style of play, which is the overarching the most important idea of wanting to have the ball, wanting to attack vertically, wanting to be a high press team, taking advantage of transition moments to counter quickly. Those ideas are completely aligned.

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