24 Under 24: MLS needs mature players at 22, says Pareja

MLSsoccer.com sat down with Colorado Rapids manager Oscar Pareja, formerly a successful academy director at FC Dallas, about young players in MLS, their preparation for the pros and the end goal of youth-development initiatives.

MLSsoccer.com: What are the biggest differences between working with youth and professionals?

Pareja: There are different motivations. The adult player’s motivation is that it is their work. With younger players, the motivation is different. With them, it’s to get to the next level. It’s to advance. The professional player has more of a routine, a set routine that’s designed to help the individual player get better through consistent action.

The young player has to improve in a lot of different areas, so you have to be aware of that, and you have to help the young players be more technical and learn the game. The professional player already has that, and they have to maintain that.

MLSsoccer.com: What’s harder, coaching the young ones or the professionals?

Pareja: Each side has its difficulties. They are two different programs. The young ones have a day-to-day education and they need to cover a bunch of different areas. The older player is more established and mature.

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MLSsoccer.com: Is there something you’d do differently coaching younger players, knowing what you know now at the professional level?

Pareja: My soccer philosophy doesn’t change and my method of teaching doesn’t alter between younger players and professionals. With the young players, you’re more of a father, a big brother. With the older players, you’re more of a colleague, a coach who is equal to them.

MLSsoccer.com: Is there something that generally players need to do more at the youth levels in order to be ready for MLS?

Pareja: They need more repetition so that things become more normal. The young players need to do exercises with more frequency. Players need more repetition so it becomes natural. With professionals, it’s different because there are so many games all the time. They need to take care so they don’t get hurt, and you have to manage that carefully.

MLSsoccer.com: Can you see a day where an MLS team is entirely comprised of youth academy players?

Pareja: One day, yes.

MLSsoccer.com: Here, potentially with the Rapids?

Pareja: We have to construct the infrastructure. But it’d be beautiful to have more young players from the area become professionals. They’re local players and they’re going to defend their shirt more, with as much if not more passion. They have a sense of belonging. ... it’s an important part of soccer [to have a passion playing for your local team].

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MLSsoccer.com: Do you have advice for youngsters for them to get better?

Pareja: With youngsters, we have to work with them at a younger age with a different mentality. A younger player has to mature mentally at a young age, so when they reach the senior level, they’re mentally prepared. Because sometimes, they’re physically and tactically prepared, but the mentality is not there. It's maturity. They need to work from the bottom up to be more professional.

They’re just young guys, kids, no? We have to show them discipline, execution, high expectations. The coaches for youngsters need to have a lot of passion and a lot of compassion for a young player.

We can’t have 23 year old players who are young mentally. ... They need to be ready. You have to be mature enough. You have to peak at that time. There’s no more time. This country has to change that. The youngsters from 17, 18. They're OK. But the players that are 22 and 23, they’re already players at the senior level but they’re just coming from the draft.

MLSsoccer.com: Do you think these players are getting enough opportunity to succeed at the senior level?

Pareja: Yes, they need more opportunity. We need to work to advance them better so they’re well prepared.

Here in Colorado, we’re working a lot with the academy coaches so the players understand what they need so that when the kids get here, they have a chance to play more quickly. We’ve accelerated the program of Tony Cascio. We’ve accelerated the program of Shane O’Neill. Davy Armstrong has improved a lot. Andre Akpan, in the last two months has been very good. Martín Rivero is 22. That’s a player that’s mature, but young.

We need more players like that. Mature at 22. From the draft, we lack that.

Chris Bianchi covers the Colorado Rapids for MLSsoccer.com.