FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – As New England Revolution Technical Director Curt Onalfo set out to build the USL League One side’s first-ever coaching staff, he left no stone unturned in his search for experienced coaches with proven track records of developing young talent into elite players. In constructing the all-important bridge between the club’s Academy ranks and the MLS level, Onalfo looked outside of the organization to fill several key positions, including Head Coach Clint Peay.
However, Onalfo and Peay did not have to look far to find a top assistant coach with the pedigree they were looking for. Then serving as head coach of the Revolution Academy’s Under-19 team, Marcelo Santos was the perfect choice to join Peay’s staff and lend his expertise to the project of developing New England’s next wave of professional players.
Before arriving in New England in 2018, Santos spent a decade as an assistant coach for Marquette University’s men’s soccer team, where he helped several players navigate their way into the pro ranks after successful college careers. Beyond his NCAA success, the Sao Paulo, Brazil native has long been committed to the goal of developing young talent. He began building his winning reputation in the Premier Development League (now USL League Two), winning a title in 2008 as an assistant coach for the Thunder Bay Chill in a league focused on helping college players continue their development during the summer months.
“You like to think that along the way you made an impact on all the players and helped them become better people and players,” Santos said. “However, I like to believe the credit always goes to the player. I was fortunate to work with a lot great ones that ended up moving on to the professional ranks. Their dedication, open-mindedness, self-belief and work ethic made a great impact on me too.”
When a position opened up in the Revolution Academy in 2018, Santos couldn’t turn down the opportunity to coach New England’s most elite young players, so he made the move to Foxborough from Milwaukee.
“I really enjoyed my time at Marquette and I feel I grew a quite a bit as a coach while there,” Santos said. “I believe at the time, in order to develop further my own ideas, I had to emerge myself in a high-performance environment as a head coach. The Revolution Academy seemed to be just that.”
Beginning as a coach for the Under-17 team, Santos quickly advanced to the U-19 level, taking over the squad for the 2018-19 season. His influence across both teams was essential in the development of top prospects Nicolas Firmino and Damian Rivera, helping them earn MLS contracts and become the Revolution’s fifth and seventh Homegrown Player signings, respectively.
Though Santos knew he had one of the most talented groups of players in the nation in their age bracket, that year’s Under-19 team defied all expectations. Normally, Santos starts preseason from a bird’s-eye view, showing his players the parameters to form a team identity and culture. Once that culture is strong enough, Santos slowly passes the ownership to the players to be in charge of their own development. A process that usually takes six months, Santos was impressed when the group was already forging ahead on their own after just four months. The results showed, with the team progressing into the U.S. Soccer Development Academy playoffs in the top-seeded Group A.
“It was a special group of players,” Santos said. “Talented players, no doubt, but what made them special was their appetite to work and improve. I had the privilege to work with the majority of them the year before and get to know them well. I say privilege, because they are really good people. Their work ethic and intrinsic motivation was very apparent on a daily basis.”
Taking into account Santos’ extensive experience molding young players, coupled with his strong connection with many of the Academy’s rising stars, it is easy to see why he was tabbed to assist Peay in the team’s inaugural League One campaign. Two of his former Under-19 charges have already made the direct leap to Revolution II, Dennis Ramirez and Meny Silva. While the familiarity with several of these players is an asset, Santos sees himself as just one key member of a coaching staff fully dedicated to advancing these young players’ careers.
“In general, from my experience, players tend to lean on the assistant coaches for help,” Santos said. “I don’t believe the young players lean on me for support any more than the usual, because we have a very good support system at the club and I feel everyone contributes in order to give the necessary support the young players may need.”
In addition to his calming presence and coaching acumen, Santos has bridged a crucial language gap for some of the club’s players. With a vast array of backgrounds on the squad, including players of Brazilian, Portuguese, and Cape Verdean heritage, Santos’ fluent Portuguese has already paid dividends, helping several of his players adjust quickly to life on and off the pitch.
“It has been a joy to work with all of them, I believe eight Brazilians and two Portuguese players in these two-and-a-half years,” Santos said. “The language may help in terms of connecting. I believe I had a good connection with former Academy players Tyler Freitas, Nicolas Firmino, and Victor Viana and now on Revolution II with Maciel Felix and Tiago Mendonca, to name a few.”
As Santos begins his professional coaching career, his goal remains unchanged – bring out the best in every player he coaches. In only the dawn of Revolution II, the results have been promising and the players have responded well.
“I just hope when they look back they feel their effort and time was worthwhile,” Santos said.