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A Conversation With New England Revolution Technical Director Curt Onalfo
Onalfo talks about developing a pro player pathway, the growth of the Academy, Individual Development Plans, and feeling at home in New England.
On Aug. 8, 2022, we provided an in-depth look at the New England Revolution Academy. Approximately one year later, the Revs were one of three MLS clubs represented at the U-15, U-17, and U-19 levels at the MLS NEXT Cup. A highlight from the trip to Dallas, TX was the U-19s winning their second consecutive championship.
We caught up with Revolution Technical Director Curt Onalfo on Jun. 29, 2023 to get an update on the club’s Academy and pro pathway. Below is a transcript of the conversation.
The Blazing Musket (TBM): To start off, I think when you, Bruce [Arena], and current Director of Youth Development Rob [Becerra] came in, it was clear that you were really trying to prioritize strengthening the Academy. This year, you had that really successful run at MLS NEXT Cup. It was highlighted by the U-19 win. Obviously, a lot goes into the success, but I'm wondering if you can pinpoint one or two specific changes that have happened that led to the success.
Curt Onalfo [CO]: So Bruce and I have been here four years, right? So when we came in, priority number one was to get the first team right. So that was a big focus of ours. And then year two, obviously, we're always trying to get the first team better, and we're working on that, but we didn't have a pro pathway. We didn't have a second team. So year two, we launched Revs II, and that created our pro pathway, right?
So in year three, obviously our first team was doing incredible, and that's when we had our best season ever. We looked at, me in particular, looked at the Academy, and really looked closely under the hood. I mean, we'd been making enhancements since we got in, but it was time to really make that better, and that's when we hired Rob. So that was the first significant thing that we did. Rob was my assistant coach in LA. We did the same thing with the L.A. Galaxy. We pioneered the second team and really created a true pro pathway, the first one ever in the United States, and Rob was my assistant coach there.
So Rob knows exactly what I'm looking for. Obviously, Bruce and I are very well connected, so it's very similar to what Bruce is looking for as well. And that was a really significant step for us. And what we talked about was we wanted to bring more energy, better coaching, just be better in every aspect, better with recruiting and everything else.
So with that, you don't just have a magic wand to do that. It takes resources, which the Krafts and Brian Bilello have been behind 100%. And then it's a way of working. And we've changed a lot of coaches. We've enhanced the coaching. And our motto is that we want to try to get better every day. And just if you keep getting a little better every day, all of a sudden you have a body of work you look at where you can be proud of.
What's happening now is, between just having a really good environment with our second team and having a thriving pro pathway, we're starting to get players that are coming through the system, which is the goal. And in the process, we're beginning to win championships, which is icing on the cake.
“Our motto is that we want to try to get better every day. And just if you keep getting a little better every day, all of a sudden you have a body of work you look at where you can be proud of.” —Curt Onalfo
TBM: There are some MLS Academies that are really well known. Dallas and Philly are well-known academies. Where do you think the Revs are compared to the rest of the league in terms of their academy? [Editor’s Note: A U.S. Soccer Collective report from Jun. 2023 listed the Revs as the third-best MLS Academy]
CO: Obviously we want to be in the conversation as one of the top academies and pro pathways, and we are. So what does that mean? I don't know. My job is to be player-centric and develop players for the first team. And we're starting to do that. You can see it with the young players who are getting minutes for our first team at this particular moment.
I think it's just very difficult to say where we are. I'm proud with the progress we've made. We're obviously getting better and better. We just won our second championship. Only four teams won championships this year. We were one of them. Only four won last year. We were one of them. So that's all good and dandy. So I don't know how to answer that question other than I'm proud of where we are and we're not content with it. We want to keep getting better.
TBM: You mentioned you guys want to get a little bit better every single day. What's something that you think you could still get better at in terms of the Academy?
CO: There are so many things to work on. I was down there for the entire week in Dallas. We took away some things that we could do better. We could be better at set pieces, both offensively and defensively. But when you’re player-centric, when your motivation is to get the players better individually, you don't necessarily have enough time to put as much effort into everything.
So there are always things that we can get better at. The space we come from is that we want to get better. We want to look each year at ways to enhance the program. So that was a minor thing I think that we could get better on. But we just got to keep attracting the best players and training them up the best we possibly can, make sure that our pro pathway is as competitive as possible, and just give these kids all the tools to be successful.
“I'm proud of where we are and we're not content with it. We want to keep getting better.” —Curt Onalfo
TBM: Last year you mentioned that when you came into the club, you didn't feel like the Revs Academy was attracting the best players in the region and that was something you're working on. Do you feel like you're better at this now? And if so, why?
CO: Yeah, I mean, we are because we have a better product and now we have Academy kids that are playing for the first team and getting games. So there's a visible pathway. And I just think that with the facilities that we have, with coaches that we have, just with the system that we have, who would not want to be here? We've definitely moved up a lot in that category.
TBM: We've seen a recent trend of signing young players to first-team contracts, but then kind of allowing them time to develop on Revs II. Santiago Suarez is an example of that. He's a little bit of a different example because he needs that time with Revs II to become a Homegrown player. Peyton Miller is another example as he recently signed a first-team contract. Why are you going through that process of signing them to first-team contracts, but then giving them time with Revs II before moving to the first team?
CO: We sat down with Noel Buck—him and his family—when he was 15, and we said, look, we're going to do whatever we can to get you as many pro games as possible and hopefully by the time you're 18, you've played 60 pro games. And that's what happened with Noel. When you get a critical mass of games professionally, you continually get better. And that positioned him to be able to play for the first team. It's been interesting to watch. And obviously, we have a similar plan with Peyton and with Tiago, but everybody's pathways and their timelines are a little bit different depending on how everybody adapts. And so it'll be really interesting to watch or continue to watch the progress of both Petyon and Tiago.
“The one thing I will say is that they'll play at some point and I'll be rooting for them when their debuts happen.” —Curt Onalfo on Tiago Suarez and Peyton Miller
TBM: Can you tell us what to expect in terms of Tiago and Peyton? What does their pathway look like? Tiago is going to move up next year. The Boston Globe says Peyton is expected to get minutes in 2025. What should fans expect from these players?
CO: Those are things I usually stay away from. The one thing I will say is that they need to get a lot of pro games under their belt. They're going to get those with the second team. And what that will do is position them to be successful when they get their opportunity with the first team, whenever that is.
And the player dictates that but also so does opportunity, right? Often these types of players aren't etched in as starters for the first team. They're kind of depth to the first team and then an injury happens and then they take their opportunity or all of a sudden their play becomes so dominant that they have to get in. So there are so many different variables, it's very difficult to predict. All you can do is just make sure you're helping them, in some ways nurturing them, so that they are ready when that moment comes.
And that's a lot of the rhetoric that we're talking to players about. It's just, got to be ready, you never know when it's going to happen so that increases their concentration levels and everything else. So it's exciting. The one thing I will say is that they'll play at some point and I'll be rooting for them when their debuts happen.
TBM: It sounds like personal plans and having those goals that are a big part of the Academy. Can you just talk to me about what that looks like? Do you sit down with the player? Does Rob sit down? Do you guys sit down once or twice a year with players and say, here's what we envision? Obviously, it’s going to change as time goes on, but do you actually sit down with the players and have discussions with them?
CO: Well, I do. As the Technical Director, if you're a high-potential player and you're going to be somebody that's going to be signed, I will do that. With our second team and the Academy, we have IDPs, so Individual Development Plans, for every one of our players. And that's the job of the coaching staff, to sit down and really help everybody individually. That's the goal. The goal is to make every player better. Not all of the players are going to make the first team, that's obvious, but we're sending a lot of players to really top colleges, and we're building their self-esteem in the process, so all those things are valuable as well. But there are clear plans for every single one of our players to get better. So there's lots of those meetings that go on and the communication with each of those players.
TBM: Would you say that those types of meetings, those individual plans are what kind of sets the Revs apart from maybe some other academies?
CO: I don't know. I'll be honest with you, I don't really care what anybody else does. I'll be honest, I'm very entrepreneurial and I've been doing this a long time, and so has Bruce. We have a very clear plan in terms of the profiles of what we want our players to look like.
I would think what separates us or what is beginning to separate us more other than some really good processes is the energy that's put into it. We put a lot of energy into it. We care about it. If you talk to the players in the Academy, they see me around. They see a coaching staff that brings enormous energy every day. And so I don't know if it's the IDPs or whatever. I just think what's beginning to separate us is good energy, and I think a really good knowledge base in terms of what the coaches are passing on to our players.
“We put a lot of energy into it. We care about it. If you talk to the players in the Academy, they see me around. They see a coaching staff that brings enormous energy every day.” —Curt Onalfo
TBM: You have a lot of young players that have gone into the first team, such as Noel Buck, Esmir Bajraktarevic, Jack Panayotou, and Damien Rivera. Buck is an example of someone who's playing consistently with the first team. The others are in and out of the lineup. What needs to be done to get more of those Academy players’ first-team minutes?
CO: One is the individual talent of the player, right? Look, it's a top league, right? Major League Soccer gets better every year, so you have to be as good as that international player that you're going to sign, right? So it obviously sometimes depends on the position, but it's just a matter of taking your opportunity, making the most of it so that you can turn into a starter.
And they're all young. You're not going to have a first-team roster of a bunch of kids starting. It's just not going to happen, right? You're going to have a couple. That's basically what you're going to end up having. And then in some games, like when we played in D.C., and I think we had three starting. That's not that normal, right? But over time, if you can just keep pushing, you could have several players that are helping, that are younger. It just depends on the makeup of your team and who your DPs are and all these other aspects. But the one thing we want to do is make sure that we're producing players that are fighting to help and contribute to our first team.
TBM: You've got some young players that are also getting some attention abroad. Buck, obviously being one of them, was possibly going to train with Tottenham. Esmir did go over to the Netherlands and train. How do you balance the foreign interest that they're getting, but also wanting to keep them in the Academy?
CO: Well, the reality is in the offseason, if it makes sense to have a training opportunity that expands the player, just expands and makes them better, we look at those, and if it makes sense, we go ahead and do those.
Our goal is for them to play for the first team. That's kind of our focus. And if it turns out that a player gets sold to Europe, great. That could work out well also. But for us, our focus is just to try to make them as productive as possible for our first team, and then all the other stuff works itself out. There are players that always get sold, and then some players don't want to get sold. They want to stay, and they want to play for their home team club. So I think every player will be different with that.
TBM: I'm wondering if you could bring me to the MLS NEXT Cup and give me a moment that really sticks out to you. You talked about the energy, and I remember seeing pictures of you guys, and Rob's face is just, he's got an ear-to-ear smile. Is there something that really epitomizes how dedicated you guys are, your crew is to these players and helping them?
CO: Yeah, listen, they care about every player, and you can see that on a daily basis. There are quite a few things.
There was one game in particular where we just, you know, we were having a tough time and we were down 2-0. This was obviously with the 19s, and listen there were a lot of games that were being played down there for all levels. I mean, our 17s played so well in the quarterfinal that they shouldn't have lost. We lost 2-1, but we should have won the game. We were so good, we should have advanced the semis, which would have been incredible.
But, for example, with the 19s, we have a lot of talent and we were down 2-0, and we somehow found a way to get back 2-1. And then literally in the eighth and final minute of injury time, we got a PK and ended up tying the game. And then we just knew we were going to win it because we had Max [Weinstein] in goal. Max is a second-team player and he's just been killing it with his PKs. So that was a really cool moment because you always instill some of these qualities: You never give up and you always go to the end. And that was an example where the players exemplified that through the staff's attitude, and we found a way to do it. From that moment on, that team just got better and better, and you could just see it escalating at the end.
I really loved the moment when the final whistle blew and you saw the reactions of Rob and Brad [Knighton, Revs U-19 coach] and the rest of the staff. They put so much effort into it, right? For me, as the Technical Director, my job is to help everybody be better and for me to be able to just sit back and watch them celebrate, watch the players celebrate, that, for me, was just an awesome moment and made all the hard work and planning pay off.
“As the Technical Director, my job is to help everybody be better and for me to be able to just sit back and watch them celebrate, watch the players celebrate, that, for me, was just an awesome moment and made all the hard work and planning pay off. — Curt Onalfo on the U-19s winning the MLS NEXT Championship
TBM: I'm just kind of curious about you. You obviously spent time in L.A. You mentioned building a system over there. You come over with Bruce Arena. When I talked to Rob he talked about how he wanted to be here for a long time and be part of building this program. Do you feel like this is a home for you now? Is this somewhere that you're like, I'm building this program. I saw you on Tuesday with the first team. Then you're over with the younger kids. You're everywhere. Do you want to be here for a long time and are you proud of what you're making here?
CO: Listen, I’m very grateful to Bruce. I've worked with him for years, and I'm obviously extremely grateful to Brian Billelo and the Krafts. I do feel very at home here. I grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut, so I grew up like this. New England has always been my home, but you're in a business where you never know where it takes you.
Right now, my job is to help the club be successful on a lot of different levels, and I really enjoy this. The first time I've done this as a Technical Director, I've always been a head coach or a coach, and it's definitely a different situation. But I feel very valued here. I think we have a platform to try to be as successful as we can because of the great facilities that we have, and I think we can continue to grow. And my focus is just on the now and what can we do to continue to get better and we'll see what the future holds.