On a spring morning in Europe, a group of youth academy directors joined U.S. Soccer brass for a tour of an established Belgium academy. Over the ensuing hours, the youth coaches observed a practice from the sideline, with the plan to take the training techniques and implement them into their own academies.
Sporting Kansas City took more than the suggestions. It took the instructor, too.
A year after that meeting, Sporting KC is set to hire Michel Ribeiro, a 41-year-old technical trainer from the K.R.C. Genk Academy in Belgium who has worked with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne (Manchester City), Christian Benteke (Crystal Palace) and Yannick Carrasco (Atletico Madrid).
In his role in Kansas City — his first job in the United States, which will start in July — Ribeiro will focus primarily on the Sporting KC Academy. And exclusively on the technical aspect of the game.
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Sporting KC believes the narrow focus makes Ribeiro the first hire of his kind in Major League Soccer.
“In our philosophy, there are four areas of importance in our players — technical, tactical, physical and psychological. The technical aspect is what we need to have accelerated in all of our players,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “There’s a lot of potential there, and to have someone focus on that all week long, every day, is paramount to the investment we’re making to the players in this club.”
After a playing career that spanned more than a decade, Ribeiro has worked as a technical coach for 14 years in the Genk Academy. Vermes plans for Ribeiro to work with all of the Sporting Kansas City products, including the first team and the Swope Park Rangers. But he will undoubtedly spend the bulk of his time with the academy prospects.
In that sense, Ribeiro represents a potential long-term investment for a club that has multiplied its academy funds at a significantly faster rate than its MLS payroll. It lines up with Vermes’ long-term vision, in which he has mapped out a plan to eventually field a Sporting KC roster comprised of mostly homegrown players.
Sporting KC ranks only 16th in the 22-team league in senior-team payroll, according to figures released earlier this week by the MLS Players Union, with an estimated total of $6.4 million. The club ownership says it has invested approximately $20 million into the academy over its lifetime.
Over the past few years, Sporting KC has intensified its efforts to link the academy to the senior team, an endeavor aided by the addition of the Rangers last season. The expectation is Ribeiro will provide a much-needed link for the teams within the academy.
“As a kid comes into our academy, they switch coaches as they move up in age and graduate to the next team. Michel will be on the one constant working with every group every single year,” Sporting KC Academy director Jon Parry said. “That’s why this is a move we’ve been talking about for the past few years.”
Within the academy, Ribeiro will train the finer points of the game — things like first touch, passing, dribbling, receiving the ball, developing the non-dominant foot.
“For me, it’s not going to be much different because I’ll be putting in my same exercises, but I think it will be an adjustment for the boys in the beginning, and it might even be a little difficult for them to adapt,” Ribeiro said. “But this is what I want to do — help kids develop their skills.”