Darren Sawatzky knows a lot about the players in the Sounders FC Academy. He has scouted the players thoroughly over past few years and has pieced together the best teams of local U-18 and U-16 players along with an excellent group of Academy coaches including Dick McCormick, Billy Crook, Sean Henderson and Mark Boyes.
He can go into lengthy descriptions of each player - their backgrounds, their style of play, how they compare with other players. He certainly has seen his share of talent in the area over the last eight years. Before joining the Sounders FC as the Director of Youth Development, he was the head coach at Thomas Jefferson High School (his alma mater), Director of Coaching for Highline Premier Football Club, as well as an assistant coach with the University of Washington and the USL Sounders.
He will test that knowledge for the first time on Saturday and Sunday when the two teams play their first matches as a team at Starfire.
“This weekend is going to tell us a lot,” Sawatzky said, shaking his head.
This weekend starts a 45-50 game schedule for the Academy teams that will take them all over the country to play some of the best young soccer players in the US.
The U-16 and U-18 teams are the future of Sounders FC and if the other teams around MLS are any indication, that future will come much sooner than later. There are 18 home-grown players in the league and the number continues to rise each month as more Academy players are signed to pro contracts. With the league expanding to 30-man rosters for the 2011 season, that number will only increase.
“The better you do at development, the more you will be rewarded,” Sawatzky said.
Some of the teams that have been rewarded, thus far, are the LA Galaxy and DC United, though many more have also added talent from their backyards.
In LA, Tristan Bowen signed with the Galaxy in November of 2008, at the age of 17. After being used sparingly in the 2009 season, he has two goals and two assists this season.
In DC United’s case, they added Bill Hamid last season and Andy Najar this year. Hamid, 19, has posted one shutout and a 3-5-0 record in his eight MLS starts while Najar, 17, has been a regular starter in the midfield for United and has five goals and one assist to show for it in his rookie campaign.
Although the hope is that someone from the Sounders FC Academy can make a similar impact, owner/GM Adrian Hanauer doesn’t want to rush a player into the first team before knowing that the player is ready.
“We want to be careful. We don’t want to jump the gun and sign a kid to a contract when he’s not ready and maybe the best thing for him is to go to college and play soccer,” Hanauer said at training Friday. “But for sure there are 16 and 17 year old players all over the world that are jumping into first teams and putting their imprint on a game and we’d like to do our best to find some of those players as well.”
Several of the players in the Academy have trained with the Sounders FC first team and reserves already this year, thanks in large part to a recent rule change in NCAA that allows current and prospective student-athletes to train with professional teams (Title 18.104.22.168) and compete in matches (Title 22.214.171.124.1) as long as they are not compensated beyond what is “actual and necessary to participate.”
In addition to the training sessions, the newly adopted rules also allow players to play in matches, such as friendlies, that don’t require players to be under contract.
“It’s huge,” Hanauer said of the ruling. “Being able to have a player in the Academy come out and play with the professional team gives us a chance to look at how they play, which is a great part of the assessment process, but also a big part of the development process. It’s different playing against 15-year-olds than when you jump on the field with Blaise Nkufo and Nate Jaqua and Pat Ianni. Their bodies are just different. As is their knowledge and their ability to make use of the strength that they’ve gained over their careers.”
However, Hanauer doesn’t expect that, after just two competitions, he’ll be willing to insert Academy players into the squad when the Sounders take on Chivas de Guadalajara on October 12 at Qwest Field in a friendly.
“It’s always possible, but we really don’t want to jump the gun. We’re going to be patient,” he said. “Making a quick decision before October 12 isn’t necessary, so we’ll just take it carefully and hopefully make a good decision when we get to it.”
Of the players already signed to MLS rosters from the Academy system, Sawatzky says none is significantly more talented than players that he’s seen in the Sounders Academy.
He is certainly proud of the work already done by the Sounders in the early-going, but acknowledges that it won’t be an overnight process getting his players into MLS contracts.
“My professional opinion is that we have guys in our Academy that are of the standard of guys that are getting signed into the league now out of the academies,” said Sawatzky, who played four of his ten professional seasons in MLS. “Whether that happens now or next year is up to the coaching staff and Adrian and Chris Henderson. But I think the guys we have are commensurate with the guys that are getting signed around the league.”
Some of those top-notch players will take the field for the Academy on Saturday and Sunday.
On the U-18 squad, goalkeeper Ryan Herman has been training regularly with Kasey Keller, Terry Boss and Sounders FC goalkeeper coach Tom Dutra. However, the attack-minded team also features midfielder and 2010 Parade National Player of the Year and Gatorade State Player of the Year Nick Palodichuk, along with Darwin Jones, Troy Peterson and Sean Okoli, formidable talents in their own right.
“The U-18 team is very technical. They combine well and they’re fun to watch,” Sawatzky said. “They’re explosive and they have the ability to score goals in bunches.”
The U-16 side is more of a work in progress, bringing in players from all different backgrounds, including two players from Liberia who moved within the last few years to the US and have earned roles on the team.
The focus of the Sounders FC Academy, is on player development through training, which differs from the traditional US youth clubs around the country that can play 100 games or more in some cases each year.
“I don’t have a problem with that many games, but you don’t have enough time to develop players technically and creatively. With the academy the emphasis is back on training. That’s the model for developing players around the world,” Sawatzky said. “Our national team hasn’t won a World Cup yet. We’ve produced good players like Claudio Reyna and Landon Donovan, and that’s great, but where’s our Zidane or Messi? Our country is too big not to have produced 2, 3, 4 of those.”
Reyna had 112 caps for the US National Team and played 14 seasons in Europe before finishing his pro career in MLS in 2008. He now is the Technical Director for USSF US Youth Soccer and has recommended a more specific, targeted system that works in complement with the existing club system.
“The key was to avoid taking things away from the club system – the people in the community that have done a lot of the work,” Sawatzky said. “You’re never going to make everybody happy, but in the end, you have to form a team. We tried to involve everybody in the process, because in the end we are all trying to develop players.”
The next great stage in that development will come Saturday and Sunday at Starfire when the teams play their first competitive matches together.
“We feel like we’ve done a lot of preparation to take the next step in the evolving process of developing players. This is a big step,” Hanauer said. “There are some good kids out there and our hope is that someday in the not too distant future one of those players will sign a professional contract and be out here training with the first team.”
Kickoffs are slated for 11:30 am and 2 pm on Saturday and 10:30 am and 1 pm on Sunday.