Yoann Damet said it bluntly:

“I’m honest with myself. Saying it is normal to be there now would be a lie.”

Damet is an assistant coach at FC Cincinnati, where he’s been the last three seasons. At a club constantly changing, he’s been somewhat of a constant.

Every training session, he’s led the team through drills and exercises. His French accent echoes around the field – and it becoming easier to understand.

Roughly a month after Head Coach Alan Koch replaced John Harkes in February 2017, Damet was brought in as Koch’s assistant. He’d just turned 27 and had been working with the Montreal Impact as the head coach of their Under-18 team.

Last month, Damet celebrated his 29th birthday. Of all 105 head or assistant coaches in MLS, that makes him the youngest. (Goalkeeper Coach Jack Stern is second-youngest at 30.)

But what’s more significant beyond age is this:

Damet is one of only two coaches in MLS who didn’t play soccer collegiately or with at least minor professional experience. The other coach used to oversee Barcelona’s youth academy, La Masia.

The Frenchman got to this point by studying the sport through education – through classes and a university degree.

“In sports there is a lot of place for former professional players, like in coaching staffs,” Damet said. “If you don’t come through that path, it’s more difficult.

“Being there at my age, I consider myself as lucky, but I also worked very hard to be there. I had to work my way up. For sure, I’m looking at the situation and I’m enjoying myself because long term it was the plan to be where I am.

“But on short term, I was not expecting that to happen that quickly.”

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Getting into coaching

For nearly every other coach in MLS, their path into coaching happened differently. For them, they played in college or professionally, then eventually made the switch into coaching. Once there, they passed courses to get a license to coach, and now use their playing experience as an asset to work with their players.

That didn’t happen for Damet. He decided he wanted to be a coach at 16 – before he could even get his driver’s license in France.

“I knew it was the right path that I wanted to take,” he said. “It was a dream and a crazy dream for me. There’s a lot of young players that dream of becoming professional players. When I was 16, I was playing, but I wanted to become a coach.”

Eventually, Damet earned a degree in sports training from Université de Bourgogne. Classes covered all aspects of the game. 

Even now, for example, the 29-year-old will watch matches or clips from practice to learn. But just as importantly, he reads different articles and interviews about different methodologies. Recently, that meant scientific research on the human body and the effect of small-sided games on the fitness levels of the players.

“He’s got a very pedagogical approach to coaching and to the game, and probably part of that is because he’s studied the game a lot,” Koch said. “I think that’s what sets him up for success. He’s had to compensate for not playing the game as a professional, of course, but he started coaching at a very, very young age and spent several years of his life getting himself where he is today.”

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Damet started coaching with youth teams. As his experience grew, so did the age of his players.

In 2013-14, that meant working as an Under-11 head coach and as an assistant with Dijon FCO’s U-15 Inter-Ligues teams. Later, he was a U-14 coach with District Jura for a French district tournament. He also worked with additional youth clubs in the country.

“There’s different ways to become a coach and there is no way that is better than another one, it’s just different ways,” Damet said. “My background allowed me to have different knowledge. I didn’t play at the highest level, so for sure I’m lacking something. But I try to compromise that by learning more, studying the game more, reading more and trying to develop my knowledge another way.

“I try to use my experiences at different levels as a coach, like starting very young to coach, to gain that experience to allow me today to be where I am.”

In 2014, he moved to Canada and started working with the Montreal Impact. He initially coached the U-12 team, but left the Impact for Cincinnati after three seasons and as Montreal’s U-18 head coach. During that time, Damet also worked on getting his Canadian Soccer Association A License. He also holds a UEFA A coaching license, which is for Europe.

But during his courses for a Canadian coaching license, Damet met Koch, who was also studying for the same license. At the time, Koch was the head coach of Vancouver Whitecaps 2.

“We spent two years together going through that process,” Koch said. “He was really young at the time and you could tell already how his mind worked as a coach.”

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Getting to FCC

Once Damet arrived at FC Cincinnati, he faced a different challenge he’d never dealt with previously. He was 27 years old. Instead of players not being 18 yet, some were older than him.

He said the most important thing was earning his credibility with the coaching staff and with the players. Three years later, Damet still considers that critical to his work at the club.

“I try to work every day on the field and give answers to the players,” he said. “I try to be honest with them, honest with myself and try to be prepared. I work hard to have an answer to every question that the players could ask. That allows me to earn the credibility and to build that relationship of trust between me and the players.”

The credibility is noted and respected.

“His knowledge on the game is one of the best, really,” right back Justin Hoyte said. “That’s unbelievable to have such a young coach and young enthusiasm to coach. Maybe he hasn’t had the playing career that some others have had, but he’s had a long coaching and studying aspect … I think that’s benefiting him now.”

But what’s different now, in comparison to Damet’s previous coaching stints, is proving he belongs while still continuing his growth as a coach. That he’s so young means there’s time to develop, similar to a player, while he becomes an experienced coach in a first division.

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At 29, it’s worth noting how quickly he got to this point – and doing it quickly without being a former professional player.

For context, in 2018, the average age of an MLS head coach is 46.5 years old. That means Damet is a generation younger than the top coach at a club – and he’s currently second in command.

“I don’t take that for granted,” Damet said. “I am very fortunate for the opportunity that was given to me by the club, by (President and General Manager Jeff Berding) to be at that level. Yes, for sure, the club is growing, but as you know, a lot of teams that go from USL to MLS, most of the time the coaches are not staying the same.

“I feel like it’s a reward for my work. I want to make the most out of it. I want to prove to people that that’s my place and I want to establish myself at this level.”

During the season, the focus is on growing FC Cincinnati. In the offseason, that continues, but Damet visits different clubs to learn new ideas and methodologies from other coaches. That’s meant trips to Spain and France.

But to Damet, the most important thing is using what he learns and making it digestible for players so there are tangible results.

“One of the key things for me is the way you transmit that to the players,” he said. “At a certain level, it’s not about the knowledge that you have; it’s about the management of the player you have, the way you transmit the knowledge.”

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And that’s why he got into coaching. Damet wanted to progress in the sport, but in a way that would allow him to give back while also being able to grow.

“You’re sharing values with the players,” he said. “The way you want your team to be is the way you are as a coach. I wanted to do that because I think when you have the opportunity to create something bigger than you by transmitting your ideas and by giving a bit of DNA to your group, it’s something beautiful.”

Damet has done that. Now, his focus is continuing to do so no matter what comes next.

In 2013, he was in France coaching players who weren’t even teenagers yet. Mathieu Deplagne, a French defender on FC Cincinnati’s roster, was already playing in Ligue One, France’s top division, at the time.

To go from that to becoming an assistant coach in a first division is a remarkable growth. That it happened in a such a short time span is what separates Damet apart.

“I know the path has been very quick for me and I feel very fortunate to get this opportunity to be an MLS assistant right now,” he said. “I knew it would be a long way one day for me to one day get the opportunity to coach at the professional level. I got lucky to be able to every single year, to go a step further every year since I started to coach. I got one step further.

“For me, it was like something big. It puts a lot of pressure on me because every year I wanted and I worked to get more. But it’s also a lot of pressure because you don’t want to get back where you were one or two years ago. You’ve got to keep up with the work that you’re doing. You have to try and be on top of things.”