CHICAGO (March 8, 2019) – The U.S. Soccer Federation has appointed Raphael Wicky as the new head coach of the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team.
The former Swiss international brings 27 years of experience as a player and coach in Germany, Spain, Switzerland and the United States. Wicky most recently coached FC Basel to the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 in 2018. He holds a UEFA Pro License and his appointment as head coach at Basel, one of Switzerland’s most successful clubs, came after climbing the ladder as head coach in the club’s youth system at the U-18, U-19 and U-21 levels.
Prior to Basel, Wicky worked in the youth ranks for another of Switzerland’s most-successful clubs, Servette FC, at the U-14, U-15 and U-16 levels. He also spent time as an assistant with the Swiss Under-20 Men’s National Team as well as FC Thun’s U-21 side.
“We are very pleased with the hiring of Raphael, not only because of his impressive player background, but also as a youth and professional coach,” said Nico Romejin, U.S. Soccer Chief Sport Development Officer. “He impressed us with his knowledge of the player pool and his commitment to contribute to the overall Youth National Teams program to develop our next generation of National Team players.”
His playing career featured a 12-year run with the Swiss National Team, during which the midfielder earned 75 caps, highlighted by appearances at the 2006 FIFA World Cup as well as the 1996 and 2004 UEFA European Championships. Wicky spent 11 of his 17 years as a professional with Bundesliga clubs Werder Bremen and Hamburg and finished his career with former Major League Soccer outfit Chivas USA.
“It’s an exciting moment to join U.S. Soccer,” Wicky said. “As a coach, it excites me to be a part of the process and working to help players grow. I’ve been following U.S. Soccer for more than 10 years now, and with the growth of the sport in the United States, I’m really excited to come in and help develop the program.”
Wicky will hold his initial training camp with the U-17 MNT during the first week of April in preparation for May’s Concacaf U-17 Championship, where he will aim to lead the USA to qualification for a record 17th World Cup at the age level. The tournament is set for May 1-16 in Bradenton, Fla. and the USA will take on Canada, Barbados and Guatemala in the group stage.
The 41-year-old transitioned into coaching shortly after his playing career. His first head coaching job came at Servette FC before moving to one of Europe’s top youth systems at FC Basel, leading the U-18, U-19 and U-21 sides to success before taking the helm of the first team in 2017. Wicky guided the senior squad to the UEFA Champions League Round of 16, taking down some of Europe’s biggest clubs in the process. He also worked to develop players that would earn lucrative transfers to Europe’s top leagues like Tomas Vaclik, Manuel Akanji and Mohamed Elyounoussi.
As a player, Wicky began his career in his native Switzerland, winning three straight Swiss Cups in a four-year run with FC Sion. From there, Wicky launched a long Bundesliga career with Werder Bremen and Hamburg. He became a stalwart for both squads, making over 200 combined appearances for the two clubs.
Wicky made his first appearance for Switzerland in 1996 and at age 19, was the second youngest player on the squad for the nation’s first-ever appearance at the UEFA European Championship that same year in England. A fixture in the midfield, he went on to make 75 appearances, helping Switzerland back to the 2004 European Championships in Portugal before starting all four matches at the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany.
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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.Read more
Years in the making, the 2018 YNT Men's Summit Camp in Lakewood Ranch, Florida gave U.S. Youth Technical Director Tab Ramos and the rest of the YNT coaches and staff the opportunity to bring all their players together in a single camp for the first time in program history. Ramos sat down with ussoccer.com to give an overview of the camp and an outlook for the near future of the Men's YNTs.
ussoccer.com: The YNT Men’s Summit Camp finally has come to fruition. What has this event been like for you?
Tab Ramos: “It's been really exciting to finally be at a point at U.S. Soccer where we have already been integrated enough over the last couple of years, in particular the last two cycles, that we can actually do this. The camp itself, it's a great experience for the players, it's a great way for us to send one message to all of our best players at one time and it's incredibly valuable to be able to team-build as a whole organization rather than just one team at a time.”
ussoccer.com: What was the thought process behind the YNT Summit Camp?
TR: “The summit has been something that we've been discussing for the last couple of years. It was just a matter of finding the right time to get started and we really felt like the beginning of the new cycle is the right time to do it. So, it's something that we hopefully can improve upon, but at the same time, something that we're likely to do every two years.”
ussoccer.com: How has this opportunity been unique among other YNT camps and events?
TR: “The summit has been different than anything I've been a part of with seeing the magnitude of the type of work that had to be done just to put it together. Our administrative staff, our support staff, they had to come here earlier to set everything up. I know that they've been under a lot of stress and it's been a lot of work for them. At the end of the day for us, for the coaches, for the players, we have the easy part. We come and we play the games and we teach the players and we do everything that's required to make the players better and to help the players get better, but the setup of an operation like this is really difficult and our organization has done an amazing job.”
ussoccer.com: The Summit began with a team integration meeting. Who were the speakers? What was the message?
TR: “Our integration meeting, in front of all the players and all our staff, served as a presentation where they would be able to walk out and know really what we're about. Not just our Youth National Teams department, but our whole Federation. I think most people were not aware of how big we are and all the departments that we have.
“I think we gave a good feel for what our Sporting Development division is about and not just the Youth National Teams, but in particular the two other departments that we work very closely with, one being the High-Performance department and the other being the Talent Identification department. We had the opportunity to integrate some of those speakers. James Bunce, our Director of High-Performance, was here speaking to everyone, as was Tony Lepore from the Talent Identification department. We also had Michael Kammarman from the senior National Team come out and talk about social media because obviously we have all young players here and the social media aspect is very, very important and something they have to be very aware of that they can use to their advantage. It's been a complete look at who we are, what we do and how we do it.”
ussoccer.com: What was accomplished with the meeting?
TR: “This was about: here's the coaches and here are all the players and this is like a big locker room. We wanted it to feel that way because what we had at the integration meeting, it really was almost like preparation before a game. It was just a big locker room. I think the discussion on style of play put us all on the same page.
“It was easy to show all of our coaches, support staff and our players how we have gotten to the point now where our U-15s, our U-17s, our U-20s, they're all playing in the same way, what that looks like and also what we're looking for. What do we want the qualities of the players to be like? What are we expecting from the players game in and game out? What are some of the qualities that are really important for us and for you to be selected as a National Team player? I think all the players that walked out of there should, at this point, be at a moment where they realize and they know what it's like to be on the National Team and what's important about being on the National Team.”
ussoccer.com: As the Technical Director and U-20 MNT head coach, what is your message to players about being a National Team player?
TR: “One of the things that I always mention to the players is the fact that we recognize, as National Team coaches, the effort that they make by being here. At the end of the day, these are teenagers that we have here and this is a big sacrifice for them. We all know that it's an honor to play for the National Team and that's really important, but in the end, they're giving up a lot and they're making a big sacrifice. They don't see their friends, they don't see their family. I'm sure their friends are having a lot of fun back at home while they're here working hard every single day. And we want to make sure that they get recognized for that sacrifice. At the same time, we want to make sure that we show them that wearing the crest carries a lot of responsibility. Part of that responsibility stays with you when you leave here. The fact that our camp is only eight or nine days long, it doesn't end there for a National Team player. A National Team player is a National Team player 24/7, all year-round and we have to make sure that we get that message across. It's an honor to wear the crest and that carries a tradition of players who have worn their shoes before and who have put our National Team at this level and now it's all of our jobs together to carry this to the next level.”
ussoccer.com: One of the focal points of U.S. Soccer’s Sporting Development initiatives is the Youth National Teams program. What is happening behind the scenes with the YNTs that people don't see?
TR: “Behind the scenes there's so much going on. Our teams are preparing in so many different ways because each team has a different type of preparation. You have our U-17 National Team beginning a cycle of preparation for the next World Cup in 2019, you have the U-20 National Team that's basically preparing for the U-20 World Cup in 2019 and you have other teams that serve in a number of different ways. Some of them serve to help our 17s and 20s to make the pool bigger and some of them are developing the next team that's going to move up two years from now to become that particular age group. In the background, we have coaches working on not only our style of play, they're working on video, they're working on position-specific training, they're working on speaking with the players about what it's like to be a National Team player. There's a number of things, from nutrition to High Performance to the way Talent Identification works. All those things are happening every single day behind the scenes.”
ussoccer.com: Reflecting on the build-up to this current 2019 World Cup cycle, what groundwork has been set for future success?
TR: “One of the important things about this cycle that we're starting is that this cycle has to be willing to push the envelope. It's really difficult because we have an Under-20 National Team that's defending, CONCACAF champion for the first time ever and we need to figure out how we carry that responsibility into World Cup qualifying since it's never been done before. We have both the Under-20 National Team and Under-17 National Team having been quarterfinalists at their last World Cups and if we're looking to improve, you're looking at going into Semifinals of the World Cup or going to the final. There's a lot of expectation here.
“There's a lot of high expectation here and at the same time we realize that what's important is that we continue to produce players for our senior National Team. That's our number one priority. I think that's been done over the last couple of cycles. From DeAndre Yedlin to Christian Pulisic to Tyler Adams to Matt Miazga to Cameron Carter-Vickers to Paul Arriola, we have a lot of guys who have participated in youth World Cups who are now helping our senior National Team. That will continue to be our main goal.”
ussoccer.com: What do you hope the YNT program achieves in this cycle?
TR: “The goal continues to be to get better, to go a step further than the last time and to do things that have never been done before. We've been able to do that over the last couple of cycles and we hope that we can continue to do that into the future.”
ussoccer.com: During the integration meeting, U-17 Men's National Team head coach John Hackworth talked about a belief that our Youth National Teams can win at the highest levels, specifically U-17 and U-20 World Cups. You've been helping lead that charge as well, how have you seen the program’s level change over the years?
TR: “The level of our players is constantly improving. Look at the last couple of cycles we've had. In the U-20 group for example, we went to the World Cup and we were quarterfinalists without having guys like Christian Pulisic play their own age group, without having Weston McKennie playing his own age group, without having access to a player like Nick Taitague to come help the team, with the injury of Gideon Zelalem ten minutes into the first game of the World Cup. You're missing big pieces and you can still perform on the world stage. I think that's huge and something that I don't think we could have done before.”Read more