World Cup vet and former pilot Wilmer Cabrera aims to take U.S. Soccer's U-17 program to new heights.
By Mike Woitalla (from Soccer America Magazine, December 2007 issue)
After his long playing career, Wilmer Cabrera stepped straight into a new job: commercial helicopter pilot. Usually before takeoff at least one of the passengers would say, "You sure look like the soccer player Wilmer Cabrera."
The World Cup veteran would acknowledge that he'd heard it before, then aim for the skies above Colombia's mountainous terrain.
The piloting came about because Cabrera, while still playing in the Colombian league, reunited with a friend who started a helicopter service.
The friend offered lessons, and Cabrera, who had always had the urge to fly, saw a career opportunity for his post-playing days. He learned to pilot the Hughes 300, Robinson 22 and Bell 206 L3.
Cabrera's pro soccer career started at age 17, with Santa Fe de Bogota, but at his older brother's insistence he continued his education and earned a business degree.
"I owe a lot to my older brother," says Cabrera. "He was the one who made sure that I knew the importance of studying. He was my advisor, counselor, father and coach."
Seven years his elder, Cabrera's brother, Jorge, gave up his dreams of soccer stardom after their father left the family because Jorge had to become the family's breadwinner.
"Jorge was a very, very good player," says Wilmer. "Better than I was."
But Jorge watched proudly as Cabrera became a key figure on the Colombian national team that enjoyed its most glorious era in the 1990s, qualifying for three World Cups after having failed to reach the previous six finals.
Cabrera was part of the 1990 World Cup squad, missed the 1994 finals with a knee injury, and played all three games for Colombia at the 1998 World Cup.
Born in Cartegena but raised in Bogota and Cali, Cabrera played street soccer until joining a neighborhood team at age 9. His success as a teen for Santa Fe led to his U-20 national team selection and he was part of its 1985 and 1987 U-20 World Cup squads.
Cabrera started as a center forward, but ended up playing all positions besides goalkeeper.
"From the day I started playing," he says, "I was always paying close attention to the coach. I asked a lot of questions about tactics and always wanted to know what the coach wanted from us. I was very interested in the elements of all positions.
"Whenever I played a position, I would first concentrate on the main role of that position, then I would see what else I could contribute. If I played right back, I would identify my main opponent - whether he was right- or left-footed, how fast he was. I would concentrate on locking down my area of the field. Then I would see how I could enter the attack, with or without the ball."
His versatility made him a valuable player for country and club - he spent eight years with powerhouse America de Cali - and helped prepare him for a coaching career, which started when he co-founded the Chico Futbol Club in the mid-1990s.
Chico FC, which he helped reach Colombia's top tier, was built upon a player development system in which teens from across Colombia moved into its residency camp.
The model was similar to U.S. Soccer's U-17 residency academy in Bradenton, Fla., which Cabrera is now in charge of, having been hired as U.S. U-17 head coach in October.
COMING TO AMERICA. Although his piloting work went well, it infringed on his family time. As he looked for other opportunities he was drawn to the United States. In 2003, he moved to the New York area with his wife and three children.
"Since I moved to this country, I've had a goal," says the 40-year-old.
"First, learn English. Then try to share my experience as a World Cup player through my career with the kids over here."
He came out of retirement to play for the USL's Long Island Rough Riders, an idea that MLS Director of Player Programs Alfonso Mondelo proposed as way to familiarize Cabrera with the U.S. game. Cabrera began coaching Long Island youth teams and took on a U-16 boys team at Queens club BW Gottschee. Its director of coaching, Ben Boehm, says Cabrera was one of the best coaches the club has ever had in its 50-year history.
"The best way to describe him is he likes players to make decisions," says Boehm. "He likes players who are composed on the ball, can make good decisions, and he works in that direction. He has a very good, consistent methodology, which is very important with young players. He had our team playing real good ball. The guy is just a good coach. He's an excellent teacher."
Cabrera mastered English, passed the U.S. Soccer Federation's B and A license courses, worked in the Region I ODP program, and last January became a member of the U.S. Under-18 men's national team staff under Bob Jenkins, the Federation's director of player development.
Cabrera was also hired as MLS manager of fan development, working on Hispanic grassroots and youth programs.
PREPARING FUTURE STARS. The United States is the only country to have qualified for every U-17 world championship since FIFA's youngest boys championship was launched as a U-16 championship in 1985. In 1999, the U.S. Soccer Federation created a full-time residency program for the U-17s. More than 40 players in their mid-teens reside at Bradenton. In addition to preparing a team for U-17 World Cup play, the environment at Bradenton aims to prepare the youngsters for the U-20 and full national team play, and pro ball.
Cabrera is the first U-17 coach since Bradenton's launch who has had extensive experience in the professional game. He is also the first Hispanic to head a male U.S. national team at any level.
"I'm glad the U.S. Soccer Federation has put him in that position, not because he's Hispanic, but he comes with a certain style and feel of the game," says Boehm. "You get all different types of coaches and there are lot of good coaches around, but he's definitely what we need more of in this country. He knows the type of player he's looking for. He's not looking for a player who's just an athlete, he's looking for the guy who's the soccer player."
Cabrera's appointment is one of three national team coaching hires by U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati since his term began in March 2006. (Bob Bradley became men's national team coach in December 2006 and Gulati named Pia Sundhage women's national team coach in November 2007.)
Cabrera played against the USA four times in his career, including a 4-1 win in the third-place game of the 1995 Copa America. Gulati was also familiar with Cabrera from having tried to sign him for MLS in the late 1990s when Gulati was MLS deputy commissioner.
"The obvious influence of South American is something that weighed into our decision," Gulati said of Cabrera's appointment, "but it wasn't the primary factor. We wanted someone who would be a very good coach, could work with young players, and the fact that he does bring a different attitude and different background is a huge plus for us.
"The fact that Wilmer is bilingual and played for the Colombian national team is a huge plus in a lot of our outreach program issues, and something that I think we'll continue to focus on. But primarily he has been hired because he was a technically gifted player and a very good coach with a lot of promise."
COACHING PHILOSOPHY. Cabrera was one of the most admired players on the Colombian teams of the 1990s that included such flamboyant players as Carlos Valderrama, Faustino Asprilla and Rene Higuita. Cabrera was considered the team's gentleman - humble and well-spoken.
After reaching the second round of the 1990 World Cup, Colombia disappointed in the 1994 World Cup when it entered the tournament as a favorite following a stunning 5-0 qualifying win in Argentina and a long undefeated streak.
Colombia was also widely hailed for its playing style - a possession game combined with an explosive frontline. The team was notable for its highly technical players in all areas of the field and its effective passing game.
"We didn't have the speed or athleticism to run back and forth the whole time," says Cabrera. "So we would pass the ball 30, 40 times consecutively, making the other team run a lot. And we played a smart zone defense. We knew each other's movements so well. It was unbelievable."
Cabrera says the main difference he sees in American soccer compared to his native land is that in Colombia children see soccer as their only path to a better life.
"In the United States, you don't have to play soccer to survive," he says. "The approach with these kids has to be different, and the process has to be different because they have a very good education and I love that. We have to take advantage of the fact American kids want to be No. 1.
"I don't have any doubt about their decision to try to play soccer at a high level. My job is to offer them the tools to understand that at the highest level the game is competitive, and that you have to be a professional beyond the field. It is a lifestyle. That means a lot of sacrifice, but also a lot of passion."
Cabrera also appreciates the USA's diversity - "We have to take advantage of all the different kinds of players" - and its huge player pool.
"In the United States, more kids than in any other country in the world are playing soccer," he says. "In my opinion, they play soccer because of the freedom of the game, because they feel freedom to be creative on the field. They can express themselves on the field and freedom is something the kids love. We have to take advantage of that, and guide them to use that freedom in the best way."
Boehm says that one of Cabrera's outstanding skills as a coach is being able to create a competitive environment in which the players work hard while enjoying themselves.
"I think this has to be natural," says Cabrera. "The kids come to you and they expect you to show them everything. It's not like that. They have the tools, they have the passion. You only have to be the guide for them.
"You only have to give them confidence, possibilities, make them have fun - and show them that they can have fun and be competitive, and that they can trust what they have. That's the way I learned and that is the way I'm going to try to teach."
(This article originally appeared in the December 2007 issue of Soccer America magazine.)