Frank MacDonald outlines the innovative program being worked on by MLS in Seattle and Washington State Youth Soccer.
Why is it that some innovations are also–Doh!–no-brainers?
That would seem the case with the youth development program currently being designed mutually by MLS Seattle and Washington State Youth Soccer.
There’s no re-invention of the wheel. No fixing something that ain’t broke. And although the program’s details are still a couple months from becoming public, don’t expect it to rock the soccer world.
Washington is already a great place to grow-up as a soccer player and, simply put, the MLS Seattle/WSYSA youth development program will only make it better while boosting the game’s profile on all fronts.
“It just made good sense,” says WSYSA president Doug Andreassen, noting that this will be the first arrangement of its kind in U.S. professional soccer.
Cooperation and sharing. A shared vision and a program director who actually answers to both the club and state association.
“There is not another youth association in the country that has affiliated or aligned themselves with Major League Soccer like Washington State Youth Soccer,” Andreassen says. “That makes this unique.”
Director Fits the Bill
Darren Sawatzky has been hired, jointly by the WSYSA and MLS Seattle, as the youth development director. It’s a role which seems a natural progression for the Federal Way native.
Sawatzky played his college ball at Portland, then four seasons in MLS before retiring in 2004 as the Sounders’ No. 3 career scorer. Since then he has served as an assistant coach for the University of Washington and the Sounders, and as coaching director for the Highline Premier Football Club in Burien.
Andreassen describes Sawatzky’s role as that of a “conduit” between the professional club and the state association. He will work closely with Chris Henderson, technical director to the MLS team.
“The way that soccer is going and the development of players, you have to think outside the box,” says Sawatzky.
Already Washington is producing high-caliber players, and the idea is to work with existing clubs rather than competing against them, as has often been the case in other MLS markets.
A Break for the Past
Past professional teams in the Northwest have also had, at times, chilly relations with the youth organizations. “A lot of animosity,” says Andreassen. “No cooperation whatsoever.” Neither side saw any benefit to affiliating.
This time was different. Andreassen met with MLS Seattle owner/general manager Adrian Hanauer and both agreed there could be a symbiotic relationship. It took some six months (meaning this all began before the franchise was officially born) of talks to piece the puzzle together.
When completed, the youth development program will serve to identify the top 16-18-year-olds in the state. Boys and girls. From established clubs and those leagues which, until now, have been under the radar.
These top prospects will benefit by training and playing against kids of similar ability and coached by the best in the business. Recreational players will gain access to the MLS players and coaches through clinics, discounts and special events.
While simple in theory, Andreassen admits the youth development program will have its share of growing pains. The fact that no other state has tried it translates to learning as they go along.
“We’re creating this from the ground up and that’s part of the difficulty,” he says.
Good for the Game
On the upside, there is camaraderie. “We’re fortunate to have Joe Roth and Adrian Hanauer, owners who realize the benefit to MLS of a youth structure with 126,000 kids,” says Andreassen. “After talking to the other presidents at the USSF meetings, I can tell these guys have been the best to work with, no question.”
Both Andreassen and Sawatzky would like to see this development program produce players for Seattle’s MLS team. However, only a small percentage of the players passing through those ranks will get that opportunity.
“The others are going out to colleges and out into the world, and we want to be good citizens, good people,” Sawatsky says. “It’s going to be about developing the player, as a player and personally.”
Success for the program can and will be measured in several ways, both in the near and long term. Better players, better people and a better game.
Ultimately, says Andreassen, it’s about making soccer stronger.
“Exposure to Major League Soccer is better for all our players, statewide,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re all trying to build a base where kids can directly connect to the world of soccer and just become fans of the game.”