The Sounders FC Academy had a banner year in 2013, with DeAndre Yedlin headlining the year by bursting on the scene with an All-Star season in his rookie year in Major League Soccer.
And while the success runs much deeper, with several Academy alums earning All-Conference honors at colleges around the country and the current teams sitting near the top of the standings of their USSDA divisions, Sounders FC Director of Youth Development Darren Sawatzky has loftier goals in mind and the determination to attain those goals.
“Every single day – every single minute of every day – we work to get better at what we do in our own Academy systems,” Sawatzky said.
Major League Soccer and its clubs committed over 20 million dollars toward youth development in 2013 and with 57 active Academy alums playing in MLS in 2013 it has paid dividends on some level. That number doesn’t include the 10 players who were out on loan and a handful of others – including Andy Najar – that have gone on to play in other leagues.
Although a growing number of players are coming from the Academy systems and playing at high levels in MLS and earning opportunities on the international stage, MLS wants to get better.
As part of his State of the League Address earlier this month, MLS Commissioner Don Garber noted that MLS and U.S. Soccer can take a page out of Germany’s book when it comes to developing players in a joint venture between the league and the national federation.
“Germany went from a viewed failure on the international stage, got together with their leagues and sat down with their FA, changed some of the way they thought about it and now not only is Germany continuing to be a real world power on the international stage, but the Bundesliga is viewed as the top professional league in the world,” Garber said.
Attempting to follow Germany’s model is no easy task, so the Academies around the country are taking many needed steps toward the eventual goal of providing top-level talent for MLS and the U.S. National Team.
In addition to looking at the structures of leagues and federations and the symbiotic relationships they can have, many coaches around the youth development programs around the country have taken part in an ongoing study through the France Football Federation that has Sawatzky making frequent visits to Europe to learn different aspects of youth development.
“It’s a completely different way of building a better soccer player. It’s about making sure that you put the pieces in place so that they can maximize their individual player potential. They really focus on the individual players and how you can maximize their abilities,” Sawatzky said. “We’re only three years into really having players full-time. The longer that we have these kids and we’re giving them this knowledge on a daily basis, the better it’s going to be down the road. We’re still learning and we’re working very hard at breaking down our system. We have benchmarks for what we do to develop players, but we’re still in our infancy in this.”
Even in its early stages, the Sounders FC Academy still placed five players on All-Conference First Teams in NCAA Division I schools. Midfielder Jordan Schweitzer (Denver) was All Summit League First Team, forward Jesse Klug (Bucknell) was All Patriot League, forwards Darwin Jones (Washington) and Jordan Morris (Stanford) were All-Pac-12 selections and forward Sean Okoli (Wake Forest) earned First Team honors in the illustrious ACC. Additionally, midfielder Aaron Kovar (Stanford) was honorable mention All Pac-12.
Soon, that development will start paying further dividends for Sounders FC. Yedlin set the standard high with his All-Star performance in 2013, starting 29 of Seattle’s 34 matches in his rookie campaign and also earning a spot on the U.S. U-20 World Cup squad.
With Sawatzky overlooking youth development and a healthy investment from Sounders FC’s owners, it won’t be long before Yedlin has company in earning those types of accolades.
“There is no one way to develop players and we are getting better at it. I think we play a better brand of soccer than we did and we hope that gets better every year we have the Academy. It’s up to us to work on that and I’m very lucky that the owners have invested in us.”