Living in the United States for the last 22 years and coaching ever since he arrived, Tony Annan has never experienced so much rigor, yet so much triumph, in the soccer realm quite like the last 12 months.
Before officially being named the Academy Manager for Atlanta United FC in 2016, Annan was initially approached by the MLS club’s President, Darren Eales and Technical Director, Carlos Bocanegra. In conversation about joining the club, a rare opportunity was brought to Annan’s attention:
The Elite Formation Coaching License (EFCL), a 52-week labor intensive French course introduced in North America just three-and-a-half years ago when the French Football Federation (FFF) and the MLS formed a partnership to escalate and advance youth player development in the United States and Canada. Only a handful of premier MLS Academy coaches have ever been selected to participate in this course. This was an exclusive break that all youth coaches endeavor to receive at some point in their career.
However, already in the process of completing the U.S. Soccer Academy Director’s Course, Annan found himself in a very fortunate but tough situation. With confidence and his future in mind, he made the decision to take on both courses simultaneously. As expected, this would be no cake walk. Multiple trips back and forth between the U.S and Europe, intense and demanding work both on-and-off the field, and hours-on-hours of absorbing new methods of coaching, managing, teaching and communicating lied ahead.
After months of sweat and determination, Annan passed both the EFCL and the U.S. Soccer Academy Director’s course becoming one of only six coaches to have ever reached this feat, as well as becoming the first ever to accomplish this in a one-year period.
What brought Annan to Atlanta United?
Both Eales and Bocanegra had heard countless exceptional remarks about Annan’s philosophy, attitude, and history of player development from many directors in the area. Eales noted one of the first times he and Bocanegra covertly attended one of Annan’s training sessions.
“It was really impressive. You can tell a lot by how a team acts before the coach even arrives. They were a very disciplined team.”
“It was apparent, he ran his youth club as if it were a professional organization,” Bocanegra added. “He had clearly earned the respect of his players.”
Eales and Bocanegra also pointed out that both of his eagerness to learn and constant strive to be better – in addition to his thorough local knowledge of soccer in the Southeast and the United States – made him a great fit for Atlanta United.
“He’s someone that has a real development heart to him,” Eales said. “He’s someone that cares about the players, cares about their development path, and that’s important to us at Atlanta United because not every player is going to make it to our first team, but what is important is that every player develops and gets to the best level they can.”
Bocanegra added, “With Tony knowing the landscape here in America, being in and around Georgia for over 20 years, coaching the top club team and having a very good knowledge of the youth market in Georgia and in the Unites States, he is vital for the growth of this Academy and will continue to be a main part of it going forward.”
“He’s very enthusiastic, very energetic, and very good at imparting his knowledge on the kids,” said Atlanta United Academy Director, Richard Money, who has worked side by side with Annan for the last 6 months. “We need people here that are really going to grind and work but also have a good knowledge base and good experience to bring the expertise that we need and I think Tony encompasses all of that, there’s no about it.”
What do his players have to say?
Remi Smith, U16 Academy midfielder that has played under Annan for three years, said, “He doesn’t take it easy on us. He makes sure that everyone is working, and I think that takes him to a different level than the rest of the coaches I’ve had.”
Also with Annan for three years is William Crain, U16 Academy defender.
“It’s a bunch of tough love,” Crain said about Annan’s coaching philosophy. “He’s always tough on you, but he knows that you’re a good player and that you wouldn’t be out here unless you’re not. Even though he’s hard on you, you know he’s doing it for a reason...he believes in you as a player.”
It’s clear that not only does Annan possess the incredible work ethic and drive to finish two labor intensive courses and help build an Academy all in one year, but also, his genuine care for his players and their development both on and off the field is a defining characteristic that classifies him as elite.
We sat down with Annan to discuss his experience with the EFCL and his opportunity with the Atlanta United Academy. Read the full interview below:
So the French Course is a 52-week program that only a handful of coaches have been able to be a part of. Can you talk a little bit about how you got involved in the opportunity?
Carlos Bocanegra called me one day when we were talking about me joining the club and threw out the idea of the French course (EFCL). Every club in the MLS gets a person that can go on the course and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing that. At the time I was doing the Academy Directors course, so it was a bit of a daunting invite, but it was one I couldn’t refuse or turn down.
Compared to other coaching courses, what aspects of the French course make it so rigorous?
It’s intense, it’s really intense. It stretched over a 12-month period rather than over a week or a 10-day coaching course, that’s the standard. It teaches different styles of pedagogy that you have to use while coaching, it really peels back your layers, it gives you a total different look, it makes you uncomfortable. It takes you out of the comfort zone of how you’ve been doing things your whole career.
It’s intense, it’s hard work, it’s a lot of labor on the field as well as off the field, a lot of practice, a lot of failure, which is a part of the whole learning process. It almost sets you up to fail, so you have to keep working at it to get better. Overall, it’s something like I’ve never done before.
To be one of just a few coaches to finish BOTH the French course and the USSF Director’s course, what does it mean to you to accomplish this feat in your career?
Personally, it was probably the hardest 17 months of my life. As far as how much work I had to put in and how much detail I had to pay attention to with both courses at the same time. A lot of people asked how I would do it and didn’t think I could I think. I managed and it was a lot of work, but it was well worth it doing both courses. I think it’s made me a better coach, a better manager, and it’s really improved me as a person both on and off the field.
What do you feel is your biggest takeaway from the French course and how has it influenced your coaching style?
I think like any course it doesn’t completely change you, you don’t lose who you are, you don’t lose your personality, but you do change. You do realize there’s another way another way of learning and teaching. It’s definitely changed my approach of how I structure my training sessions, how I talk to the players and how I communicate and present.
The management piece of the course really improved how I learn, how I teach, and how I talk to people whether they’re in football or not. In that sense, it’s changed my personality a bit, but I still have my passion intensity and drive that I had before. I think the best way to say it is that I’m a more polished coach than I was in a completely different way than I used to think.
The partnership between the FFF and MLS is fairly young, but what do you see as its long term impact on player development in the United States?
It will produce better coaches which in turn will produce better players for the academies, for the MLS, for first teams, for USL teams. The impact is massive. I think if it stopped it would be a shame, because it is a really good course that offers a lot and a completely different way of teaching and development.
Are there more coaches from Atlanta United that are going to take the French course in the next couple of years?
I certainly hope so. I think everyone on our staff would benefit from this course and I know some of the guys are really keen to get going on it. It’s up to the MLS and U.S. Soccer whether they continue the course, but again I think it would be a shame if it wasn’t
Can you describe what it is like to play a pivotal role in building a professional youth Academy from the ground up?
It puts a smile on my face, it’s amazing. It’s a fantastic organization that gives us all the resources that we need to take this academy where we have to take it, where it must go. To be on the ground floor every day to be working to build this thing is the best feeling, it’s great, it’s what I’ve always wanted, so following my dreams really.
The Academy is just 4 months old now, can you talk a little bit about where Atlanta United is at currently and what is next?
Everything is going quite well. I think we’re ahead of where we thought we would be. But we have to keep our feet on the ground, we have to keep working because everything is about hard work, intelligence, and dedication to development. If we don’t do that and we read the press and watch SportCenter and those sort of things, we can easily get distracted. Where we are right now we’re in a good place, but I think two, three years’ time we could be in a really good place. We could see a lot of these kids moving into our USL and first team setups. So were happy with where it is, but we’re never going to be satisfied.
What is your favorite thing about this group in particular?
Their work ethic. They’re disciplined, they’re a great bunch, we have no bad apples and they all work for each other. They all understand what their role is and they’re really talented.