There are tons of cool perks of being in the Sounders FC Academy. Players get to use the same facilities as the First Team, travel the country and sport Sounders gear on and off the pitch, among other things. Starting this year, they even have the chance to play in professional games with S2.
Last month, the U-14 squad relished an experience that might be the coolest of them all. The Academy took its first-ever international tour, traveling to Iceland and multiple cities in France and playing eight competitive matches during the two-week excursion.
Joined on the trip by Academy Technical Director Marc Nicholls, coach Junior Gonzalez and other members of the Academy staff, the U-14s became the first American team to participate in the prestigious Neuville Sur Saone Tournoi International tournament in Lyon, France.
“We were able to put together quite a unique experience. I’d say they learned more in that three-day tournament than they do in three months,” Nicholls said. “There’s a certain intensity, and those were some really meaningful matches that they’re not used to.”
The tournament in Lyon was their third and final destination in Europe. Nicholls was originally contacted about it by Olympique Lyonnais, the host club, which expressed interest in the Sounders. The cheapest way to fly to France was through Iceland, where Nicholls also had a contact.
When he confirmed his group could stay in Iceland for two days and play a game against the local club, Nicholls booked flights for the Academy’s first international tour.
“It’s the perfect age for a trip,” Nicholls said. “Players begin to form at the age of 14. I just thought that this age was a critical one to gain that international experience that they can bring home.”
The U-14s faced the national champions of Iceland in their first game of the trip, losing 2-1 in a match played in the capital city of Reykjavik. After spending two days there, the team flew to Paris to play in a tune-up for the Lyon tournament. The Sounders would earn a 3-2 victory over the Academy of French club La Garenne-Columbes.
Not only was it an incredible experience for the players to compare their skill levels with those of European teenagers, but the Academy staff also absorbed plenty of information.
“We learned a lot about the boys,” Nicholls said. “How are they going to handle success? What kind of teammate are they? It’s quite revealing from a character perspective. When you’re in the business of predicting potential and future performance, you can learn a lot from a trip like this in terms of a player’s behavior and lifestyle.”
The Neuville Sur Saone Tournoi International in Lyon turned out to be the highest level of competition Nicholls and his players had ever seen. It featured Academy teams from six different countries, including Newcastle United F.C. of England and Olympique de Marseille of France. With some of the clubs the Sounders faced, players were under contract and competing for jobs.
The U-14s went 1-1-2 in group play and 2-2-2 overall, finishing in 11th place out of 20 teams.
“I think there were lots of eye-opening revelations,” Nicholls said of the event. “There were moments in games where they were a little overwhelmed, especially early on in the event. But when they settled down and started to compete, I think they realized pretty quickly that with a bit of improvement and an extra bit of concentration, they could hang with these guys. And they did. We’re very proud of that. They played the rest of the tournament with their heads held high.”
The event's games were played in front of a couple thousand fans inside a local stadium. According to Nicholls, the U-14s were welcomed with open arms as the first American team to participate.
“You could see in the local people – in the fans and the staff – that there was a lot of intrigue about our club,” he said. “These people had never seen an American team, but the boys were absolutely inundated by the locals by the end of the event. A lot of people wanted to speak to them and exchange emails, and everyone wanted to swap for Seattle Sounders gear.”
Overall, the Academy’s first international tour was a huge success. It’s something Nicholls and his staff hope to do with another group in the future.