Stejskal: Meet the SKC youth coach who mentored World Cup's biggest stars

Michael Ribeiro - Sporting Kansas City coach

There’s still a long way left to go in Russia, but Belgium have looked like one of the best teams at the 2018 World Cup heading into their Group G decider against England on Thursday.

They’ve already clinched a spot in the Round of 16 thanks to their 3-0 win against Panama in the opener and their 5-2 romp over Tunisia on Saturday, a pair of dominant performances that have many predicting big things for the Red Devils once the knockout round begins.

And while LAFC defender Laurent Ciman was one of the final cuts from their 23-man final roster, Belgium still have a significant MLS connection – just not where you might expect.

Sporting Kansas City technical coach Michel Ribeiro worked with several players on Belgium’s roster during his 14-year run as technical coach at Belgian club Genk, helping develop stars Kevin De Bruyne, Thibault Courtois and Yannick Carrasco. He was one of the few constants in those players' youth careers as they moved through the ranks and began their pro careers, working with every player at every level of the club – from the U-9s to the first-team – for the duration of his time at Genk.

A former pro player in Belgium and Holland, Ribeiro moved last July to Kansas City, where he’s enjoying watching his former charges do big things on the sport’s biggest stage.

“It’s a pleasure to see them in Russia. There are seven, eight players at the World Cup at the moment that I was lucky enough to train, and not only guys for Belgium,” Ribeiro told earlier this week. “Also, Sergej Milinkovic-Savic from Serbia, Kalidou Koulibaly and Kara Mbodj from Senegal and Wilfred Ndidi from Nigeria. To train those guys in the past, it’s fun to see them play at the highest level.”

Ribeiro said he remains in contact with several of his former players currently at the World Cup, including De Bruyne, Carrasco, Courtois and Milinkovic-Savic, who has recently been linked to a huge summer move to Real Madrid. He even tweeted a message of congratulations to Ndidi on Thursday, praising him for his play one day after Nigeria went out to Argentina in heartbreaking fashion.

June 27, 2018

He’s enjoying the World Cup, but Ribeiro is now firmly focused on his new club. He was first contacted by SKC in the spring of 2016, when academy director Jon Parry made an approach after seeing him coach at Genk while on a European tour via MLS’ partnership with the French Football Federation. SKC had wanted to add a technical coach to their staff for some time, primarily to help their academy players build a strong technical foundation, but also to work with their first-team. They inquired then about bringing him to Kansas City, but the timing wasn’t right.

SKC kept at it, though, eventually signing Ribeiro as the first technical coach in an MLS academy ahead of several big European clubs last spring. Ribeiro said several factors played into his decision to leave his native Belgium and join SKC, but that the club’s pathway from the academy to the pros stood out as something that couldn’t be matched by big European teams, who often buy their top talent instead of developing it themselves.

“I’ve always been curious to see if it was possible to do the same thing I did at Genk in another country,” he said. “Everybody was surprised that I go to the United States because I had a few big, big teams in Europe that were interested in me, but the pathway from the academy was never there. I needed a job or a project that is similar to the things I did in Genk, and that was to help kids make it to the first team and I saw that at Sporting KC.”

Like he did at Genk, Ribeiro works with every team at SKC, from the U-11s in their training program through their full academy sides all the way up to the MLS squad. His focus is purely on the technical side of the game. He begins every session with a drill to promote individual mastery on the ball – how to receive it, how to dribble – and usually later moves to intricate passing movements. He likes what he’s seen from academy players around the US, including a few select top guns at SKC.

“I think the people in the United States don’t even realize how much talent we have in the United States,” he said “But we in Kansas City, I think we have a few very good players. I will not mention the names because it will not be good for the kids to maybe think they are the new De Bruyne or whatever, but there are a few kids we have in the academy of Sporting KC that I think are building a big future ahead.”