As youth academies have grown and thrived in different corners of the country, their coaches are finally getting the chance to work their way up the coaching ladder, and perhaps has far as an MLS head coaching role.
Luchi Gonzalez became the first academy coach to hit that top rung, going from FC Dallas academy coach to academy director to first team head coach. Shortly thereafter, Freddy Juarez became the first coach to hit every step on his way up the ladder, going from Real Salt Lake's youth academy to its USL squad to now RSL's top coach.
Eventually others will surely follow. But who? Well, Gianni Cimini (Toronto FC), Matthew Lawrey (Atlanta United), Luciano Fusco (San Jose Earthquakes), Dennis Sanchez (Columbus Crew SC) and Victor Pastora (Inter Miami CF) are among our honorable mentions. As for our top five up-and-coming coaches to know, read below.
5) Nate Baker, D.C. United (2nd year)
Title: Under-17 Coach/Director of Scouting
Previous Jobs: Navy (Assistant), Omaha (Assistant)
Playing Career: American University (College), Real Maryland, Harrisburg City Islanders
Still a rising coach in the academy ranks, Baker is in the second season of a stint coaching the D.C. United U-17s and handling the scouting duties for the entire Academy. A sharp soccer mind that is practical with the way he looks to try and play, Baker worked with a handful of D.C.’s recent Homegrown signings, including Moses Nyeman and Kevin Paredes. His coaching career prior to D.C. includes an impressive assistant stint at the Naval Academy, where he helped head coach Dave Brandt turn the program around. There, he worked with Joseph Greenspan, who was the USL Championship Defender of the Year in 2019. Baker also spent time as an assistant coach at Omaha, where he helped the program make it to the NCAA tournament in 2017, the first time in school history.
Also, within the D.C. organization, Ryan Martin’s work with Loudoun United — he took over last season after having been the Academy Director at D.C. — is worth a mention. Martin has a clear and precise playing style, where he looks to play attractive soccer within the confines of a roster the features several amateur players and young Homegrown signings.
4) Jeff DeGroot, Chicago Fire FC (3rd year)
Title: Under-17 Coach
Previous Jobs: University of Chicago (Assistant), Greater Libertyville Soccer Association (Director of Coaching), Loyola-University Chicago (Assistant)
Playing Career: DePaul (College), Dayton Dutch Lions
After a couple of assistant coaching stints at a couple of college programs, DeGroot joined Chicago Fire FC in 2017, and has led one of the top teams in the Development Academy during the 2019-20 season.
The Fire’s Under-17 team fared equally as well in the two Generation adidas Cup qualifying weekends. Deploying an attack-minded style with several standout prospects, DeGroot’s done a great job of ensuring a talented team lives up to its ability. Over the past week, the Fire ended up promoting a trio of academy players from its Under-17 team to Homegrown deals, including Javier Casas, Alex Monis and Brian Gutierrez. Those three are just a small sample of players that have been setup to succeed by DeGroot.
3) Sean McCafferty, New York Red Bulls (1st year)
Title: Academy Director
Previous Jobs: Barca-AZ Residency, Continental FC Delco
Playing Career: Peterborough United, Finn Harps FC, Limavady United
Coming over to the New York Red Bulls Academy last summer, Sean McCafferty helped build the Barcelona Residency Academy in Arizona in the three years prior to that. His player identification success includes Matthew Hoppe, who signed with Schalke in 2019, LA Galaxy defender Julian Araujo and Caden Clark, a rising prospect that joined New York Red Bulls II earlier in the year.
Sean McCafferty helped identify Julian Araujo, above, who signed a Homegrown Player contract with the LA Galaxy in 2019 | USA Today Sports Images
McCafferty’s success at building programs across the board makes him an ideal coaching candidate, although at Red Bulls he will obviously have less wiggle room when it comes to implementing a playing style. Working as the conduit between the first team staff and academy is a critical role, and as he finds success, another team could show interest down the road.
2) Matt Pilkington, NYCFC (7th year)
Title: Under-19 Head Coach
Previous Jobs: D.C. United Academy, Bethesda-Olney SC, Downtown SC
Playing Career: George Washington (College), Richmond Kickers
Few coaches in the country can match Pilkington in terms of the players that he’s moved on to the pro ranks. He coached several current pro players while with Bethesda-Olney, including Jeremy Ebobisse, and was quickly hired by New York City FC to help the academy launch.
The Portland Timbers' Jeremy Ebobisse, above is among the more than half-dozen pro players Matt Pilkington coached while at his time at Bethesda-Olney | USA Today Sports Images
Since then, the team has signed Justin Haak, Tayvon Gray, Joe Scally and James Sands, among others. He’s coached the Under-19 team to back-to-back Development Academy championships, proving that he can win, develop players while coaching a team to attack in a well-drilled, organized manner.
1) Chris Little, Seattle Sounders (4th year)
Title: Tacoma Defiance Head Coach/Academy Director of Coaching
Previous Jobs: UNC Pembroke, NC Youth Soccer Association, Elon University
Playing Career: UNC Pembroke (College), Wilmington Hammerheads
Little has climbed the ladder from the college coaching ranks all the way to the Head Coach gig at Tacoma Defiance, The Seattle Sounders' USL Championship affiliate. Originally from Scotland, he came to the United States to play college soccer at UNC Pembroke. Since then, he’s made his way up the ladder, eventually going from Elon University to a gig with the Sounders Academy.
Since joining the Sounders in 2017, where he coached the Under-17 squad to the 2017-18 DA Championship, coaching 20 Academy players that have been called up to various U.S. youth national teams. Eight players from his U-17 teams have inked deals with the Defiance. At the start of 2019, he was promoted to head coach of the Defiance, where he just started his second season prior to the league’s pause. The experience with the Defiance, and if he can continue to develop players and ideally improve results — at least to an extent — a head coaching role in the league can’t be too far behind.