Wicky optimistic to be part of American soccer's growth with the U-17 team
April 30, 2019
THE UNITED STATES U-17 national team will open its CONCACAF Championship tournament on Thursday against Canada. It will kickoff a tournament that will also serve as the region’s World Cup qualifying and for the U.S. team’s new coach Raphael Wicky, it will be the start his goal to help American soccer.
Wicky, 41, took the job recently in March and has had just one minicamp with the team to prepare for this tournament. As a player he represented Switzerland at the European Championships in 1996 and 2004 as well as at the 2006 World Cup. He concluded his playing career with Chivas USA during the 2008 MLS season.
But Wicky also has enjoyed stellar success as a coach in Switzerland. He started his coaching career running youth teams at FC Thun and Servette. He then moved to FC Basel where he coached the U-18 team followed by the U-21 team. In 2017, he was promoted as the head coach of FC Basel’s first team which he would also qualify for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League before being eliminated by Manchester City.
But Wicky has always kept an eye on returning to the United States to coach and recently married an American over the winter. Now the Leuggern native will begin this new phase of his career as the United States U-17 national team coach.
ASN spoke exclusively with Wicky from Bradenton, Florida on Tuesday morning as the team prepares for its CONCACAF opener against Canada on Thursday.
Brian Sciaretta for ASN: Congratulations on your recent hire as the U.S. U-17 national team coach. Obviously with getting hired in March, you don't have a lot of time for this World Cup qualifying tournament. How is the team looking at this stage and how prepared is it for the tournament ahead?
Raphael Wicky: Thank you. I am very happy to be here and have this job. It's not a lot of time but I knew that coming in. It's a challenge but we all love challenges. It's a nice challenge. We had this mini-camp earlier in the month which was good for me and the staff to see the group and to know the group in person - not only from video. I got a lot of confirmation from what I saw from the footage of the previous games which I was watching.
It's a really good group the with really good energy and really good team spirit - besides all the technical and tactical qualities of which they have besides the talent. This is one of the topics which is very, very important. The group likes being together. In the end, that makes a really good team. I was really pleased when I saw that live earlier in April.
ASN: You had a lot of success in Europe at a high level. What made you want to come to the United States at this point in your career.
Wicky: There were different reasons. Yes, I had a nice career in Europe and I had a lot of youth years where I was learning the job. I am still learning the job. As a coach you are learning all the time. I was following the U.S. market for over 10 years since I was at Chivas USA. I came back and forth [to the USA] I was following it on websites and on television. I had a lot of friends who I played with there who are coaching now or are involved in the game in the states. It was always in my mind one day to come to the United States. Then I had really good talks with people from the U.S. federation.
I think it is really an exciting time to come into this market and the federation. It's an exciting time with all the changes - with Earnie Stewart and Gregg coming in, with the World Cup in 2026. All of that is exciting and it's exciting to be part of the development of it. I think with the league and soccer in general since I was here grew a lot. It's much, much stronger. All of that makes this market very interesting for me. I am really happy to be here to learn as a coach and to grow, but also to make this country even better. There is so much talent and there is so much potential for this country for soccer. All of that is really exciting.
ASN: I know you were recently at GA Cup. I know Seattle won it with some impressive wins. What did you take away from that tournament and who stood out for you.
Wicky: It was really good for me to see that the level of the tournament was really good. There were really good teams from all over the world - from South America, from Europe, from the United States. I wasn't surprised that the United States did well. The result is one point but we shouldn't always only judge the result because sometimes you lose and have a good game and sometimes you win and you don't play well. That is just soccer and it's not predictable. But the way the teams played, the styles, the different philosophies, the work ethic, that was really good to see at the GA Cup.
The academies of the United States did really, really well against the top teams in Europe. That shows as well that soccer in this country is on the rise. It has grown much more and the quality gets better every year. The academies have grown and are much more professional than 10 years ago. It is good to see, it is promising and very good to see.
ASN: What style do you want to play with this group and what can we look for at the CONCACAF tournament this month? What are the team's strengths.
Wicky: I have a short time obviously with the team but I am very happy with the work the team has done at the minicamp and now in the five days here. When I saw the Nike friendlies and some other games, it's about the team. I want to see what I saw in the other head coaches. It's working as a team and being together on the field.
There is a lot of individual talent but individual talent is not going to win you a competition. What we want to see is that the team works hard for each other in every moment and that they're brave and that they never give up. Besides the other tactical things we are working on, it's mainly that you're proud of being a part of a U.S. national team and playing four your country. I don't think it makes sense to go into tactics because we are working on things and it's too specific. It's mainly that this group is proud and ready to work together.
ASN: One of the most talked about players coming into this tournament for the United States is Ricardo Pepi who signed for North Texas in the USL and has four goals in his first two games. He seems to be a big part of this team's offense and was also a big story because of his ability to play for Mexico. What have you seen from him so far and what can we expect from him in the weeks ahead.
Wicky: I only saw Ricardo in footage first and then I met him at the minicamp as well like a lot of the other players. I am very happy to have him in this team. I think with him and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, we have really good strikers. They're different and aren't the same kind of strikers. Ricardo is a No. 9 who is really clinical in the box. He's a finisher but he also has a certain size which brings a good aerial game.
There is room for progress but at his age [he turned 16 in January], he has a good aerial game as well. I feel he is quite mature on the field. His decision making is actually quite mature for such a young kid. I am happy he is here and I think he is happy to be here - that is what I feel. I am sure he is going to be very important for this team in this competition and further on as well.
ASN: What did that one season at Chivas USA mean for you? You've stayed in close contact with a lot of your former players like Jesse Marsch Alecko Eskandarian, and Jim Curtin - with a number of players on that team now having solid coaching jobs. What did you take away from that experience?
Wicky: That's true. I was only there for a year and three months and I couldn't even play that much since I was often injured. But we had a really good team at that time. They are good guys and that is what I mentioned earlier. The personalities in the team and the bonding were very important next to the individual talent. We had that as well 10 years ago.
We got along well and I kept in touch with a few of them over the years. Whenever I came back to the states and LA, we met up. It's good. At the time we didn't know that we were all going to become coaches. I don't think many of us planned that 10 years ago. But that's what happened and that is probably a reason why right now we're all still somehow in touch.
ASN: Soccer in the United States took a pretty big hit two years ago when the team failed to qualify for the World Cup. There were a lot of questions asked about whether or not the United States is developing the right kind of players for the top level of the international stage. But you seem to be rather optimistic especially after working with some top players in Europe. Is that fair to say?
Wicky: Yes I am. I am. It's a very big country and a lot of people. There are a lot of talented players. When I compare that with 10 years ago, or the league or MLS clubs 10 years ago - how the clubs have grown, the facilities, the academies, it is night and day from then.
That means the people involved have learned, they invested, the grew, the feeling I get from everyone here is that they still want to learn. In coaching and in sports, the most important thing is that if you think you know everything and that you don't have to grow anymore, then you're wrong. I get the impression here that everyone wants to learn. It's already a good level but they still want to improve but I think that is exciting but also very important.
The World Cup was a step back but Italy didn't qualify, the Netherlands did not qualify for the World Cup and that sometimes happens. These are huge soccer countries. In soccer, the best team doesn't always win. You can have the best statistics, the best possession, you can win more 1v1s, have more shots, but in the end you might lose. That is soccer. That makes the game unpredictable and it makes it beautiful. With the World Cup, I don't think you need to question everything. I think you need to question some things. But it doesn't mean everything is bad.
ASN: You said earlier that this is a big country. But if this team qualifies and you want to go and scout more players because you have not had much time with this group yet, how much of a challenge is it to scout in a country this big? In a country of 330 million people that is also big geographically, how hard is it to go and find the 21 best players of this age group? It seems like a unique challenge compared with many European countries.
Wicky: Yes. It's completely different obviously. The federation has a big talent ID department. The scouting department is well organized and they know a lot of the players throughout this country. I think in all of the really big countries - in South America or Europe - it's not easy to find every single talent in the whole country. But we're very well organized with what we have. Everyone here wants to improve every day. I think in five years there will also be improvements in that facet. But it is a challenge but challenges are interesting and we all like challenges.
ASN: When you took the job, U.S. Soccer said they were impressed with your knowledge of the player pool. What was that process like getting to know the pool?
Wicky: With the U-17 player pool, I started looking at as soon as I was in talks with the federation. But I knew the league. I've been following it since I played here. I watched MLS games and their players. It wasn't something completely new to me. When I had talks, I obviously knew about the national team and I knew the U-17 pool, the MLS teams, and some of the young players in the academies I was aware of. I think it is something a lot of soccer coaches do when you follow different leagues and I was coaching youth so you always look where good and interesting players coming from.