After revamping their youth pipeline, Revolution seeing the benefits - led by Buck
April 06, 2023
WHEN LOOKING AT MLS teams that routinely develop and play young homegrown players, most of the success the past decade has been found with the FC Dallas, the Red Bulls, and Philadelphia. But more and more teams in the league are successfully implementing this approach.
Four years ago, the New England Revolution revamped their youth developmental pipeline when Bruce Arena was hired as the team’s head coach in May 2019 and Curt Onalfo was hired as the technical director a few weeks later.
“We had a formula that Bruce and I implemented at the Galaxy,” Onalfo told ASN. “We were the ones who pioneered the Galaxy II, which was the first team in MLS to have a second team. We kind of just utilized some of the blueprints from that and just made it even better here. And now we're starting to see some of the benefits.”
“It's been a four-year project,” Onalfo continued. “We didn't have a second team, so we didn't have a pro pathway. We just had an academy that needed a lot of work. In 2020, we launched Revs II and that basically completed our pro pathway on paper. But with that, you have to now enhance everything.”
Those benefits are now contributing to the first team’s success on a regular basis.
Noel Buck, who celebrated his 18th birthday this week, has become one of the league’s most highly rated young homegrown signings in 2023. The 2005-born central midfielder has started all six games including scoring the game winner in a recent 2-1 victory over DC United.
Noel Buck getting a bit lucky on this huge goal but when you’re playing well, you get the luck. It turns out to be the winner for the 17 year old… Revs win 2-1. Buck continues to impress pic.twitter.com/2UZY9E5yyR— Brian Sciaretta (@BrianSciaretta) March 26, 2023
But Buck is also not alone. Jack Panayotou and Esmir Bajraktarevic, both 18, have also been emerging within the Revolution first team, although not to the scale of Buck. Last season Revolution academy product winger Damien Rivera, 20, made 14 appearances with the first team.
In the win over DC United, Arena started Panayotou, Bajraktarevic, and Buck together - a rare midfield trio in a first team game. Afterward, the normally reserved coach pointed out how pleased he was with their growth.
“Noel, I thought, played a complete game and I think for our first 60 minutes, he was probably our best player," Arena said. "So, really encouraging to see the contributions those guys gave us today.”
For Buck he appreciates the current locker room atmosphere and how the veterans work with the younger players. But it all starts with Arena for demanding a high level in order to see the field.
“He's a coach that won't play someone if they're not playing well,” Buck said. “Especially young players, if you want to get on the field, you've got to deserve to be on the field. And having that expectation can be really frustrating, but it's also just how it is. He's got to put out a group of guys who he thinks give the best chance to win the game. And those demands, as I said, can be frustrating. But at the end of the day, if you're on the field, you have to deserve it.”
But Arena this past week said Buck is at the point where he can't take him off the field at the moment.
“There's nothing that's keeping him [Buck] off,” Arena said. “He's playing a good solid game for each and every game. He hasn't played 90 minutes in every game, but he's been good, very reliable defensively. But he's been good in possession. He's helped us create some chances in the attack. He's been pretty well rounded in this game.”
The Revolution have become a younger team and the early returns are promising. The team won the Supporters’ Shield in 2021 but failed to make the playoffs in 2022. In 2023, the Revolution are off to a very solid start with 13 points from six games, trailing first place Cincinnati by just one point.
As last season was winding down and the Revolution were fading from the playoff picture, Arena began to introduce Bajraktarevic and Buck into the first team on a limited basis. That gave the players momentum heading into 2023.
“I'm obviously better than I was last year,” Buck said. “I've put in a ton of work over these last few months. At the end of the day, you're still playing soccer, whether it be more minutes or less minutes. It's always nice to have more minutes. But you have to still come in every day and work really hard to make sure I even keep my spot. So, it's just a grind.”
“We're positive,” he added on the current season. “It's early and we have a lot of things to work on… We have some new players in the starting lineup, new players around the team, and it's all about finding ourselves out there. Overall, we can win most of our games.”
With young players, form can fluctuate quickly and development is never linear. Some players are late bloomers, some peak early. Onalfo said that each player requires a specific plan.
For Bajraktarevic, he was the club’s first signing of its national recruitment effort after Revolution scouts identified him at youth events in Wisconsin. With Panayotou, the Revs felt that it was appropriate to go to college for a season at Georgetown University before turning professional ahead of 2023. That was a big factor for him in impressing in the preseason.
For Buck, the process was very detailed.
“You need a plan,” Onalfo said. “We sat down with Noel Buck's parents two years ago. He was physically mature 15 years old, and we showed him a pathway and we basically said wanted to get him 60 games as a pro prior to his 18th birthday. And we've done that. I don't know the exact stats, but if you look at national team call ups, preseason games, everything else, he's got well over 60 games as a pro under his belt. And what it did is it just prepared him to be able to function at a higher level for the first team.”
“We spend a lot of time mentoring these kids and showing them what it takes and what's expected,” he added. “And then our coaches do a good job of pushing them hard and giving all the right coaching at all levels from our academy to our second team to our first team. If you're functioning at all levels at a high level with that, the cream rises to the top.”
In 2022, Buck played 292 first team minutes while also adding 1170 for MLS Next Pro. In 2021 at age 16, he played 1921 minutes for the Revolution II in USL League One and scored five goals. But he has been the best product so far of the club’s pipeline.
“It wasn't always easy,” Buck recalled of the process. “It was a lot of work. And especially when you're a teenager, you've got a lot of stuff going on. It was just about working hard, whether I was playing up or my own age group.”
It’s not just the Revolution who are benefiting either. The U.S. youth national teams have also been taking notice. Bajraktarevic was called into U.S. U-20 camps earlier in the cycle but has since been with the U-19 team. Meanwhile, Buck has not yet been called up but is putting in performances that could see him make a late push to be part of the 2023 U.S. U-20 World Cup team.
Both Bajraktarevic and Buck are dual nationals with Bajraktarevic’s parents from Bosnia and Buck’s father from the United Kingdom (and with his UK passport, Buck is eligible for both England and Wales). Both players are also born in 2005 and are expected to be part of the U-20 team next cycle but U.S. U-20 head coach Mikey Varas said it was still possible for him this year.
“We're monitoring Noel really closely,” Varas said in March. “He's making great next steps with New England. Playing every weekend is obviously going to accelerate his development… He's in the mix to be able to play his way into this cycle, but he's younger. For him to be at 2005-born age group, we have to see that at first team level you're making a difference. That's his next step - to not only be there and obviously he's good enough to play in the first division, but now can you be an impact player in the first division consistently? And then for the next cycle, clearly he's going to be an important player.”
Buck says that that it would be a great opportunity to play in a U-20 World Cup. He has spoken with Bajraktarevic about the recent U.S. youth setup and Bajraktarevic has told him it is a positive experience. But for Buck insists he is not thinking about it right now and is instead opting to focus on the Revolution – knowing that the rest will fall into place if he plays well in MLS.
17-year-old Homegrown Noel Buck can ball. Not sure what his long-term position is, but he's looked damn good in his MLS minutes so far. pic.twitter.com/NclQbmkHhx— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) September 5, 2022
The next few years will be interesting for the Revolution. If this current group of young players continues to impress, offers will come in. The Revolution have already been active in the international transfer market with impressive sales of Matt Turner to Arsenal, Tajon Buchannan to Club Brugge, Adam Buksa to Lens but the offers will soon come for the homegrowns.
“All that stuff is just a bunch of talk until you until offers and things happen,” Onalfo said. “We don't spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. We try to keep our athletes 100% focused on the task at hand, which is playing soccer every day and getting better. And then all the rest of the stuff just works itself out.”
“We're all grounded,” he concluded. “We don't get too high when things are great and we don't get too low when things aren't going as well. We just keep an even keeled approach.”