Just days after the Sounders FC Alliance Annual Business Meeting there was another Sounders event. The Sounders U-18 and U-16 teams took on local rivals Crossfire. In the stands at Starfire were a mix of friends and family from both teams and a small contingent of supporters cheering on the boys as they pushed to not just win the game, but display and test the skills that they are putting in hours developing.
If the Business Meeting gets several hundred of the most die-hard fans, those that cheer on the Academy teams, the Sounders U-23s and the Sounders Reserves are not fans. There may not be a word strong enough for what those that do not know the players on a personal basis are habitués to the club. They are supporting these kids with very little chance to ever make the first team.
At the meeting Adrian Hanauer displayed a slide that showed the club pyramid with the First Team at the top and below it the Reserves, the U23s, the Academy and various youth initiatives, programs and camps supporting it all. That pyramid that players climb like stairs over the years means that over time the number of youth players that call themselves “Sounders” will be in the hundreds.
There are several reasons the club has a youth program. It isn’t just about finding the next great soccer player.
“There is a soccer part to this project, which is that we want to develop good players to help make us a good team and a good league.” Hanauer said by phone this week. “There is a business side to the project which is that ultimately that if there are lots of kids and families connecting to the Sounders brand, that's a good thing for the base of business. And there's a social part to the project which is that soccer and athletic competition are a good part of a child's development and upbringing. Hopefully along the way the Sounders organization and some of our pros can be good role models and demonstrate what it means to be a valuable member of a community and ultimately become good adults.”
That first reason is what inspires kids as young as the upcoming USSDA U-14 level to dedicate several days a week, 10 months of the year to professional training. Many will go on to college and often come back to play for the Sounders U23s. But the goal is that elusive status as a professional soccer player.
It starts simply at the base of the Sounders system where the Sounders are less directly involved, but start to identify players who can join their official Academy system. That starts long before they meet the age requirements of the current teams (next USSDA season will see the pre-Academy be part of the formal U-14 level).
When those players join the Academy they continue their soccer education. They travel around the country playing matches in both the USA and Canada. At the winter break the current U-18s are 6-3-4 with a plus eight goal differential for second in their division and the U-16s are 7-2-4 with a plus 14 goal differential and are also second in the division. They are good teams, again. It’s quite similar to the pattern that the First Team has.
But the primary goal of these teams is to develop the unique talents within their ranks, to help them grow as people and just maybe contribute to the full squad at CenturyLink Field.
To this point they have yet to do that. But, in last year’s MLS Reserve League Sounders Academy players contributed three goals, two assists in 834 minutes (about 9% of total Reserve minutes played). Eight of the players on the Sounders U23s played with the Academy, including the leader in minutes played (Yedlin) and the joint fourth-leading scorers (Okoli, Jones).
When Adrian Hanauer talks about the Sounders pyramid from the youth camps and regional programs scattered throughout Washington State feeding into the U-14s, U-16s and U-18s of the Academy, then into the Sounders U23s, then the Sounders Reserve Team and finally the First Team there is evidence it is happening up until that final step.
The system might be patient and slow, but the efforts can be seen on the fields of the region every day. It is particularly evident in the ambitions of the players within the system. For players that lived as far away as Clark County, WA and northern Idaho the dedication is readily apparent. But it isn’t just those players, the locals are no longer in their high school athletics program. Those that leave, like so many Seattle based athletes, come back and train with those others attempting to be the future of the organization.
It may be a pyramid built of individuals, but together from the owners, GM and coaches of the first team down through the Reserves, Academy and Youth effort are all Sounders.