More and more, MLS is looking to take advantage of the work being done by the club’s to build players through the academy system.
Young players signed contracts throughout the league in 2010 and with the expansion of the rosters in 2011 and the benefits that come with signing homegrown talent, it is likely to become even more prevalent in the coming months.
“The academy is one of the most important drivers for the future of soccer in our country. Our league needs to be at the epicenter of that. We want kids to grow up and dream about playing for their local MLS club. We want to take that responsibility,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said earlier this season. “For 20-30 years it’s been the youth soccer clubs developing those players. That’s an important part of the soccer landscape, but we want to be the tip of that spear - the top of the pyramid.”
The Sounders FC U18 Academy is only 10 games into their first season, but they have already established themselves as a showcase of the top talent the state of Washington has to offer.
Over the weekend, they topped local rivals Crossfire 1-0 on a frosty-cold day at Starfire on Saturday. They did so without a player who is already emerging as perhaps the most exciting of the players on the team, as Sean Okoli was away with the US U18 training camp in Carson, California.
The Wake Forest-bound striker already has seven goals and three assists for the U18 team, including a goal in a 3-3 draw with the US U17 National Team in a friendly at Qwest Field last month.
“I don’t think it will be the last time in the very near future that one of our players is spotted for a national team call-up,” said Sounders FC owner/GM Adrian Hanauer, who keeps a close eye on the Academy teams.
His call-up isn’t the first for the Sounders FC Academy led by Director of Youth Development Darren Sawatzky and head coach Dick McCormick either.
Nick Palodichuk has seen time in the U17 Residency program and was even named Parade Magazine’s 2010 Player of the Year. Additionally, goalkeeper Ryan Herman has been called in by the U18s and defender DeAndre Yedlin has experience at the youth international level. Midfielder Jamael Cox has also been praised by the US scouts.
“It’s another feather in the cap as far as knowing that we’re doing some things right on the Academy side and the development side,” Hanauer said. “It’s a credit to Dick, Darren and the rest of the coaching staff.”
However, the Sounders aren’t about to rush them to the senior squad just yet.
Even as their season is in progress, the focus of Sawatzky and McCormick is on developing the young players so when the call does come, they are prepared to play as professionals.
Technical director Chris Henderson points out that the club will have the benefit of letting the Academy players train with the top club to get them experience and help determine how the players respond to the challenges of facing professionals.
“Our Academy is only six months old, but there are some good, promising players in that group,” Henderson said. “We’d like to get some of those guys out to train with us to see how they do with men.”
Part of that development may come at the college level as well. Under that circumstance, the Sounders would retain their homegrown player rights. For the top tier in the Academy, that means the opportunity to develop in some of the top college programs in the country.
Along with Okoli’s committal to Wake Forest, Herman is slated to head to Santa Clara, Yedlin to Akron, Palodichuk to Duke and midfielder Troy Peterson is set to go to College of Charleston.
That’s not to say that those players won’t be signed to the roster, particularly with the rosters expanded to 30 players and the implementation of the Reserve League beginning next season.
“Our objective is to only sign players out of our youth system if they are within a couple of years of stepping on the field and contributing,” Hanauer said.
Having already trained with the senior club, Okoli would likely be among the first considered for a contract.
The Todd Beamer High School senior from Federal Way has shown his scoring touch at the U18 level, but also holds his own with the Sounders in training. He has the strength, skill and athleticism to play with pro-level players.
Great athletes come through soccer frequently, though. One of the attributes that distinguishes Okoli is his role-playing capabilities. Coached by Jimmy McAlister and Gary Heale at the club level, he learned quickly to play the set-up role while still developing the goal-scoring punch to become a solid double-threat up front.
That willingness and ability to play in a position that is slightly out of the spotlight is a credit, Sawatzky says, to his youth coaching.
“A goal-scorer always is the money-maker and the headliner. It’s a credit to Jimmy McAlister that these guys can fit into a system. He taught these guys how to play and they know their roles and they fit their roles,” Sawatzky said. “Sean Okoli wants to be a goal-scorer at times, but he really is a set-up guy.”
His growth this year isn’t lost on Hanauer either.
“Sean is continuing to improve and is really coming on this year. I do believe he can probably play professionally. Whether he is ready right now, I couldn’t say, but thankfully we have lots of technical staff to analyze those issues,” Hanauer said. “We’re in contact regularly with players like Sean and others on that teams to make sure that they are getting the right instruction, advice and direction on how to evolve as soccer players, but also as young adults.”