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United Soccer Coaches Convention Special: Catching Up With Sammy Castellanos

Philadelphia native talked about his work with the New York Red Bulls Academy in a presentation for the digital convention this week

Matt Ralph

FC Delco Hall of Famer and former Philadelphia Kixx player Sammy Castellanos provided a virtual audience of American soccer coaches a snapshot of the player-centric coaching model used by the New York Red Bull Academy on the opening night of the United Soccer Coaches Convention.

Castellanos, the current U-19 Academy coach, along with Academy Director and former FC Delco Technical Director Sean McCafferty, presented “Accelerating the Individual Development of Top Talents,” which detailed specific examples of how that philosophy has fostered growth among the young players in the Red Bull system.

Much like our Philadelphia Union Academy, the Red Bulls have had their share of success stories, with recent graduate Tyler Adams moving on to Red Bull Leipzig and the emergence of promising stars like Caden Clark, both of whom Castellanos has worked with in recent years since arriving at the club in 2017.

Sammy and his older brother David, a current assistant coach at Drexel University and former Kixx player as well, both grew up in Philadelphia and following their pro careers, played for brief periods in the United Soccer League of PA with Vereinigung Erzgebirge and UGH respectively while continuing to influence the youth game through in our area at the club and college levels.

After a successful college career at Rutgers and South Florida, Sammy Castellanos signed with the Kixx in 2008, then pursued his coaching career with stops at Philadelphia University, South Florida, NC State and the Clearwater Chargers in Tampa, acquiring his advanced licenses along the way before his move to New York from FC Delco. Castellanos now has his USSF “A” and is currently in the process of acquiring his Elite Formation Football Coaching License.

The Red Bull Academy’s four-phased process focuses on goal setting, an individualized developmental plan with a fundamental focus, reflection, and a training/match application. But at the heart of that system is the attention on the individual player, something that may sound theoretically simple but is practically complex, yet the Red Bulls have figured out a working plan for accelerating that growth and quantify results.

“The game has been changing, modernizing, and this generation is more visual,” Castellanos said during a phone interview after the session when asked about the origins of the academy’s current strategy. “We don’t want to get caught in the ‘this is how I grew up’ style of coaching and instead wanted to take more of an open-minded approach.”

With kids’ short attention spans and growing proficiency with technology, Castellanos and his colleagues have turned what could be viewed as a shortcoming into an advantage. “We want to hit their button the same way we were inspired by an older coach showing us a move on the field. Players today are more intelligent and tech savvy, so we want to take advantage of that visually.”

Their approach blends many proven training methods on and off the field technically, tactically, physically, and psychologically but with one major difference, the person making the plan. Using modern-day enhancements, each player creates goals that can be specifically measured, whether through video analysis or reflection and re-assessed based on performance outcomes. So essentially what the Red Bulls are trying to accomplish is not a one-size-fits-all model but rather the opposite.

“The question we ask ourselves about the new generation is how do we adapt, inspire, and motivate them?,” Castellanos said.

A plan this like this did not happen overnight. Castellanos said it took more than a year and half to develop before implementing this past year.

“We were always messing around with it, trying to determine how we differentiate from other academies, but we wanted to show the coaches that it’s not a gimmick,” he said. “We’re actually living it, delving into youth development. It was important for Sean and I to get that point across.”

The individual plan for each player is kept simple and is limited to a few targetable goals, which could be anything from playing minutes, reaching levels within the club or outside, or a technical or tactical improvement that can be checked off as the player advances forward in his learning. Each goal is specific to an individual’s needs and desires, and there is a limit to the number of goals to narrow the focus and avoid watering down the process. And again, this plan is not created by the coach. That’s the driving force behind the IDP.

“It’s super important,” Castellanos said of the player’s input. “At ten, eleven, twelve years old, the players are being told how to do things. At seventeen, things start to loosen up. They take on that player-centric role. The younger kids, we want them to be accountable. We want to push them but also guide them. With the older groups, we focus more on the nitty gritty. We want to show them that you can do something with the toolbox you built, whether it’s college or professional.”

The process begins by the coaches asking the players “What do you want?” Those goals are then structured with the help of the coaches and the club’s unlimited resources so the player can achieve his goal. The player details his own progress on a chart while the coaches like Castellanos serve as a mentor during the reflection phase of the process, using his experience to guide the player forward instead of preaching or pushing one direction over another.

“When they’re close to the USL or signing a pro contract, you see how they take it on their own and it becomes more of ‘This is what I want’ and ‘Can you help me?’ scenario,” he said. “It also becomes more of them pushing me, whether it’s watching more video, doing extra reps, and it becomes their program.”

For many coaches, mastery of a skill or scenario may check the boxes in training but not when it crosses over into a game. Another unique facet of the Red Bull’s individualized development plan is the way in which players can analyze their goals through a training-match application.

Backed by data and video evidence from training sessions and games, players receive instant feedback on performance goals and can even seek out examples of their goals from comparable model players, whether it be from within the system or around the world. The coaches are then able to create a situation within a practice session comparable to that game situation, and players can evaluate the level of success based on what the game video portrays. In the presentation, Castellanos and McCafferty gave several examples of targeted goals carrying over from training to the game situations, which was evidence that the player’s goal was successful.

But he also noted that despite their success, they’re not training their players with the expectation of becoming world class. Some will make it to the first team, but many will explore other avenues, and the plan is to prepare them to become good people as well as multi- functional players.

“We have kids going to Princeton, Stanford, UVA, and when you see young guys achieve at high levels, it’s the cherry on top,” he said. “It lets us know that we’re on to something. But we can’t be complacent.”

As the competition in MLS begins to rely more heavily on development and recruitment, there is an increased pressure on the academies to produce quality players. And Castellanos uses his hometown club as an example.

“Look at Philly. We always feel like we’re trying to play catch-up, even if we’re having success, that’s still our mentality, finding ways to be creative and differentiate,” he said. “We have one of the most competitive areas for academies between New York City FC, who’ve won the last two titles, Red Bull, Philly, and DC. Kids have a choice.”

But there’s also a level of cooperation among the nearby clubs that is raising the bar on player development. “We’re learning how do we work together? That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Castellanos pointed out to the established relationships with his contemporaries at other clubs and how they often collaborate in showcases, tournaments, and games. “If you take a step back, it’s great for the Northeast Region.”

Castellanos said there are other examples of the club unifying its approach to development so that there’s an established vision of the Red Bull player from top to bottom. For example, the USL staff is also part of the U-19s to help bridge the gap between the two teams, and sometimes Castellanos may spend several weeks with a lower-level team. “Players have a familiar face when they come up. They’ve already been coached by these coaches, so there’s no fear when they move up. They’re just moving up with more talented players. It helps us maintain a sense of familiarity.”

After a recent period coaching the under twelve team, Castellanos regained a larger perspective of the maturation stages, which only benefited his approach with his own players. “It’s motivating for me. When I go back to the nineteens, and they’re too cool for school, it helps me bridge the gap as well. Sometimes going back to that grassroots level reminds me why I got into coaching.”

Even as recent as this week, as the teams returned to training, the focus on individualized training has become a daily habit. Castellanos referred to USL coach John Wolyniec sharing a computer screen with a player on the bench during training. They’ve also had several smaller meetings this week with specific position players to go over offensive themes. But nothing over thirty minutes and always player-driven with conversations based off video support, so players speak up more often and provide feedback. And after the first year of implementing their new individualized plan, Castellanos has seen his players progress, and it has given him a greater sense of assurance about his role within the club.

“I want to guide you because when you reach the high levels, you can either do it or you can’t do it. We’re letting them know that it’s their responsibility to get where they want to be or need to be. Always playing for a high standard.”