Integrity and character.
Along with passion, those have become the hallmarks of the Sounders FC Academy program that is still short of a year into their competitive life.
That foundation for the development of the players in the Sounders youth programs has led to successes on and off the field already. Recently, ten U18 players signed their National Letters of Intent to play NCAA soccer. Several, including most recently Aaron Kovar, have also been called in to play with the US U18 National Team. Those off-field milestones are complemented by the fact that both the U18 and U16 teams are atop their divisions in the US Soccer Development Academy standings.
All those have Director of Youth Development Darren Sawatzky excited about what’s still to come for the Sounders FC Academy.
Sawatzky has a good model for his system with the Sounders Academy. As a collegian, he played at the University of Portland for the legendary Clive Charles. There he learned that the development of players goes far beyond the coaching on the field. When Sawatzky became director of coaching for a local youth club, Charles was the first he called.
“You have to make a choice right away,” said Charles, who passed away after a long battle with cancer in 2003. “You either have to be about development or about winning. If you’re about development, the winning will come. If you’re about winning, all you’ll have is trophies on your wall.”
But that wasn’t just about the soccer on the field, Sawatzky explains.
“It’s about player and personal development. We definitely coach to win, but we can’t skip pieces of development in order to get there,” he said.
Another of Charles’ axioms has played prominently in Sawatzky’s philosophy.
“I would rather make a personal decision for a person that will have a long-term positive effect, than make a soccer decision to win something that will have a negative effect,” Sawatzky quotes Charles.
This feeds directly into Sawatzky’s notion that the Sounders are far more interested in developing players than in winning trophies.
“It’s better to take care of the kid, because the soccer will take care of itself,” he said. “Sometimes personal growth is as important as the soccer growth. We do our best to help them grow as young people too.”
Off To College
That’s one of the reasons he is so proud of the ten players signed to National Letters of Intent. Sounders on the U18 team have signed with colleges all over the country, including 2010 national champions Akron and perennial powers Wake Forest and Duke and local stalwarts UW and Seattle Pacific.
The move to the college ranks doesn’t mean that those ten players won’t still be on the radar for the Sounders. The club still maintains their homegrown player rights and have the first right to sign them if they decide to play MLS. In the meantime, though, the club more than encourages them to seek out their educations.
“If the kids aren’t going to play professionally for us, it’s our job to help them find the next level,” Sawatzky said. “The reality is, the majority of the kids that play high school soccer don’t play college soccer and the majority of the kids that play college soccer don’t play pro soccer. We want our kids to pursue higher education and have a good life and a good education. It’s incumbent on us to make sure that our kids get that opportunity. Many of them would probably be going to college even without the Sounders FC Academy. But playing in our Academy gives them exposure that they probably wouldn’t get anywhere else.”
Beyond getting attention at the college level, the Sounders FC players are also getting tabbed by the US National Team for matches at the U20 and U18 levels.
Sean Okoli, DeAndre Yedlin, Jamael Cox and Ryan Herman have all been courted by the National Team and, more recently, Kovar caught the eye of the US U18 coach Mike Matkovich and Kovar was called in to the U18 National Team for a training camp in Phoenix running from February 12-20.
“Aaron’s an exciting story. He still has a lot of development left in him. He’s still got a ways to go, but he is very gifted 1v1 and he’s got a very good left foot. Those two things are hard to find,” Sawatzky said. “In the American game there aren’t enough guys that take people on. Sometimes Aaron does that in areas that we don’t want him to, but part of development is learning when and where you’re supposed to do that.”
More and more, players coming into those camps are coming from MLS Academy teams rather than from the US Academy in Bradenton, Florida. This is due to the rapid growth of those Academy programs.
“The great thing about what we’re doing now is that we have 18 Bradentons around the country,” Sawatzky said. “We have these kids on a daily basis and we talk to those coaches.”
And the system is growing.
Establishing Early Roots
The Sounders will expand their Youth Program in the coming year, with the growth coming at the U14 and U15 levels where they will start a pre-Academy program.
The team found that they were addressing issues in players that should have been taken care of much earlier in their development. By getting the U14 and U15 players into training three or four nights a week with the Sounders Youth programs, they will be better prepared to meet the expectations placed on them when they do reach the U16 and U18 levels and, in turn, the professional level.
“The more you can influence them at a younger age, the closer you will be to a finished product at U18 rather than a work in progress,” Sawatzky said. “It should just be another stage. We hope to reach the point that we can just plug them into the system when they reach U16.”
The Sounders U16 and U18 teams will finish off their February calendar this weekend against the Irvine Strikers and Pateadores in California. They will resume play May 28 and will play five more games before the season concludes, including three at Starfire Sports Complex.