When MLS announced their partnership with the French Football Federation to help youth development in the league there were many questions as to just what that would mean for the clubs’ Academy teams. After the first two weeks for the selected participants one thing is clear – their developmental educations will deepen and their exposure to other ways to think about player development will expand.
Seattle Sounders FC Youth Technical Director Darren Sawatzky was the club representative selected for the experience. His first two weeks were in Clairefontaine, France in an academic environment and in Bilbao with historic Basque club Athletic Bilbao. Already licensed in the United States the difference between his current education and this new undertaking is massive.
“My USSF-A license was about 70 hours. The formation license we’re taking in France is about 700 hours,” Sawatzky said in a phone conversation earlier this week. “It’s just way more in-depth licensing on such a bigger scale. This doesn’t mean the USSF-A license isn’t good. This program is very specific about the formation of players – teaching them to be professional. This is more individual based, as opposed to the A and B license in the US is more team based.”
The focus on individual player development was and will be present in every stage of this process. A club like Athletic Bilbao has a pool of 1.2 million people from which to seed its Academy and First Team due to their philosophical choice to limit their catchment to only those from the Basque region. Twice in the last five years they were runners-up in the Copa del Rey. In their history they hold eight league and 23 Copa del Rey titles with this policy.
“They have to do an incredible job in making sure that they identify the right players and making sure that those players develop as much as they can develop. They have to maximize potential,” Sawatzky noted. “This is something we could do a lot better at all levels in the US. We’re still learning. At the youth I think we do a good job, but you have to constantly evolve to do better each year.”
Getting better is the goal of Major League Soccer and Seattle Sounders FC in this partnership. It is a long play. The changes will not be rapid and the results even slower. Like many things in American soccer the progress will be gradual. It is also change that will not be done just by the less than two dozen, mostly former MLS players, in the program, but must be implemented by the full technical staffs at the club level.
“You don’t just walk in and say, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ You think about what makes sense for us in the next 20, 30 years, not what makes sense between now and June,” Sawatzky explained about how Sounders FC will adjust to his learnings. “Right now, I’m still kind of marinating over a lot of information and then I will share it and allow other people to marinate. Then we’ll see what makes sense over the next stage and makes sense for us to be.”
With an Academy system that already has one player significantly contributing to the First Team and others likely on the way it is sometimes difficult to remember that just a few short years ago it did not exist.
“In reality we needed the three years of the Academy to get a good idea of what this new entity is about,” Sawatzky said. “Even those of us involved in soccer over thirty years it is different now. With MLS Academies it is even different than it was eight or 10 years ago.”
After 18 months learning from the French Football Federation and Athletic Bilbao there will be more changes, all with the intention of building the best future for the players that come up through the Sounders Academy which will in turn help Sounders FC’s First Team.
After today they are up at Vancouver on March 30th. The next home Academy games are April 6th and 7th.
Attendance at matches is free, though there is a charge for parking. Donations will be collected at the Reserve game.