An accomplished player and coach at the game’s highest levels, former Swiss international and FC Basel head coach Raphael Wicky will now take the reins of the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team. Wicky sat down with ussoccer.com to discuss his excitement to join the Federation, his experience coaching youth at almost every level in Switzerland and more.
You’ve had a very successful coaching career thus far. What excites you most about taking on this new position with U.S. Soccer?
Well, first, I think it's a great challenge and it's a great moment to come into this market. I believe that there is enormous potential for soccer in the U.S. I've been following U.S. Soccer for more than 10 years now very closely since I played at Chivas USA and I've gotten to know the league. It's an exciting moment to come to U.S. Soccer, with the new MNT head coach Gregg Berhalter, with Earnie Stewart as a new GM. As a coach, it excites me to be a part of the process and working to help players grow.
The great meetings I had with leaders at U.S. Soccer is one of the main reasons I decided to join the Federation. I had a very good feeling about the people here, that I could work together with them. When you take on a new job, it's important who you're going to work with and I had a great feeling when I came to Chicago meeting everyone at Soccer House.
It’s an exciting moment to join U.S. Soccer with the changes they’re making and the growth of the sport in the United States. I’m really excited to come in there and help develop the program, while also learning a lot from a lot of people who are very good at what they do because I’m still a young coach. The growth goes both ways.
What were your conversations with MNT head coach Gregg Berhalter like?
From the beginning of our conversation, we immediately started talking about tactics, about ideas, about principles, about how we see the game and I think we share similar ideas of soccer. I wasn't really surprised because I followed his team playing in Columbus over the last few years, so I saw the soccer he plays, I saw how he wants to build up from the back and I like that style because I share similar visions. Talking to him was very interesting to confirm that we had similar visions, that gave me a very good feeling as well. The idea of all National Team coaches working together developing the program is just very exciting to me. It's always good to share ideas with other coaches, and that's especially exciting for me personally because I'm sure I can learn a lot from all the coaches who will work here. I'm sure we will be able to develop a lot of young players who then will one day arrive all the way to the top to the senior Men's National Team.
You’ll be working out of Soccer House in Chicago. What’s the value of being under the same roof as the rest of the Federation?
It’s very exciting for me to come in to have not only all the National Team coaches together, but also all the specialists, all the experts in their fields. To have everyone together and to be able to share experiences, to develop new things, to develop players, to talk about soccer-specific things and to talk about other things where I'm not a specialist will be very valuable. It's good to have these exchanges, these conversations on a daily basis.
When coaching a Youth National Team, there’s always a balance to strike between getting results and player development. What’s your philosophy on that balance?
It’s always a big discussion in youth soccer. When players are 13, 14, 15, sometimes even 16, there’s a huge difference in physical development. That's my experience in Switzerland, coaching Under-14s and several other age groups. You have guys that are the same age but they don't look the same age. One guy looks like he's three or four years older. So, if you only want to win games at that age, then let’s only play with the fast ones and the tall ones and the strong ones. They probably win games against physically-less developed players at that age. But when they arrive into a category of 17, 18, and 19-year-olds, where the guys who were smaller when they were 14 have probably developed and are also fast and strong, then you may not win all the games anymore.
Most important to me is the winning mentality. We all want to win, and all the players need to have the winning mentality to win in soccer at the highest level. We want to give them this winning mentality. The clubs where they play, they want to give them the winning mentality. Every time you step on the field, every time you do something you want to have that mentality.
You’ve coached at almost every youth level in Europe. How has that range of experience prepared you for this position?
The experience that I've had in the last ten years of coaching, from the Under-14 to the Under-21s and then with the pros, have been amazing. With the U-17s here, I know what waits for me. I have coached this age group. I know what these players go through at this age. There are still things which I will learn, but it obviously helps to have coached at that highest level. Even at the highest level, I think my experiences with youth helped me to understand the whole process of a player, where he goes from age 13 to become a professional.
You’ve reached some of the sport’s highest levels as both a player and a coach. How will those experiences help you to inspire young players hoping to reach similar heights?
I know where they want to go - I have been there. I’ve gone through the exact same thing that they’re now going through. That experience helps me when I talk to them, when I try to teach them on and off the field. I have lived everything that they’re going through, and I think that helps a lot. When I talk to them, when I evaluate them, when I try to teach them, when I try to help them become a better player, I think it helps me a lot. Of course, it also helps if they see that you have coached Champions League just a year ago, it’s nice that I’ve done that, but I think the most important thing is that I know what’s needed to arrive there.
As a coach in Switzerland, you’ve seen each step of the player development pathway, from U-14 to the professional ranks. What are the unique challenges of this U-17 age group?
It’s a very interesting age group where the players have a very good level technically and tactically. There are a lot of players already at that age that are on the border of the first team, some already play on the first teams in Europe or the U.S. Some are maybe on the jump between maybe the second team to the first team. It’s a very interesting level as a coach to train because you can do the same thing you have done with the pros - I’m sure because I have done that. The other side is there’s still a long way to go, there’s a hard way to go. There’s still a lot of them playing at the youth level. The mental pressure, the competition in a team will be much stronger once they take the next step, once they’re not playing with only 16-year-olds or the same age group, once they really go into a professional team playing with players that are 18 to 35 years old, there’s a long way to go. It’s a hard business. It’s a dream, it’s amazing to be a professional athlete, but it’s very tough once you reach that level. There’s a lot of competition and not a lot of mistakes allowed. So it’s exciting for them and it’s exciting for me as a coach to train. There’s a long way to go, there’s hard work asked, there’s discipline needed, there’s luck, there’s a lot of things they still need, but they’re on a good track.
During the interview process, U.S. Soccer Sport Development leaders were impressed with your knowledge of the player pool. What excites you about this group?
I haven’t met them personally yet, but I have seen a lot of footage, I have seen videos and I’ve seen their results from recent years. I also really trust the people at U.S. Soccer and they all have told me it’s a very promising group. Some of these guys are already on MLS rosters, some have minutes already, some are abroad at big clubs in Europe, so I think there’s a lot of talent. I’m excited that there’s a lot of talent. It’s a good group, but you won’t reach your goals or win anything only with talent. Our goal is to go the U-17 World Cup, so we need to be a team and accomplish things together as a team. That’s an exciting challenge.
Qualifying is approaching quickly. What are your first steps as U-17 MNT head coach?
The first step is to get to know the players better. I’ve been watching a lot of video, a lot of different games, then I’ll be able to meet them at the beginning of April at our first training camp. Then it’s to set common goals and to start working together. It’s short, it’s challenging, but I’m looking forward to the challenge. I think the goal of a National Team coach is to get everyone on the same page. They’re all playing for different clubs, in different systems with different principles, so when they come to the National Team you have to make sure that everybody is going in the same direction. I’m in communication daily with people from U.S. Soccer, and every day I get more information and more contacts with clubs.
How are you looking to fill out the rest of your staff?
For me it's clear, because when the team gets a new head coach and we don't have a lot of days to prepare it's important that there are some people on the staff who already know the player pool. I have spoken to Nico (Romejin, Chief Sport Development Officer) and Jared (Micklos, Youth National Teams Director) and there will be good people with me who have a lot of experience, who have good qualities and who know the player pool well.