In July of 2014, Sounders FC announced the creation of the SDP (Sounders Discovery Program). SDP gives the best young players across the state between the ages of 11-13 an opportunity to train once a week with the Academy staff. The purpose of the program is three-fold: to help identify players with the potential to join the Academy, to introduce them to the training philosophy and methodology and to contribute to the player’s development.
In fact, the word “Discovery” in the title of the program perfectly captures the purpose of SDP. In addition to discovering players with the potential to succeed in the Academy, the SDP staff, spearheaded by U-14 assistant coach Brayton Knapp, have carefully crafted training sessions that help the young players discover for themselves how to be effective soccer players.
A key distinction that reveals the brilliant methodology of this curriculum is the role of the coaches who run the sessions. Rather than telling the players how to react and adapt to every slight variation in the run of play, they adopt to the role of facilitators.
The typical model of player development in the United States is a ground up approach built on expanding basic principles taught by coaches. Conversely, the Sounders have flipped the script and placed a greater emphasis on developing problem-solving soccer players that are capable of finding in-game solutions on their own. This methodology and philosophy aligns perfectly with that of the Academy, and as a result SDP serves as a vital tool in the Sounders’ youth system.
The advent of SDP has eliminated the uncertainty in forming each year’s new U-14 squad by giving the staff a holistic understanding of the best players in the state up to three years before they would join the Academy. By introducing the best players in the region to Seattle’s unique methodology, the staff has drastically reduced the learning curve for each player brought into the system.
“We like to use the game as a teacher, and the coaches are there to guide and facilitate learning and discovery,” said Director of Soccer Programs Michael Morris. “Coaches are not just there giving players all the answers. We let them explore the game on their own, and make adjustments if they get off track and try to push them in the right direction.”
An incredible amount of detail has gone into this program at both the micro and macro level. A pool of the top 60 players in the 2002-2004 age groups from across the state train once a week with SDP. Each cycle of twelve weeks is essentially a compressed version of the Academy’s yearlong curriculum.
Within the twelve-week course, Morris and Knapp have created a list of secondary objectives that aim to develop complete soccer players. Since the SDP staff only gets to train with the players once a week, the curriculum is segmented by three-week periods that focus on increasing cognitive and physical abilities that are paramount for any well-rounded athlete. This segmentation helps Knapp make sure that each session is as efficient as possible.
So, what does this methodology look like in practice? Before each training session, the players are put through a technical warm-up that focuses on getting lots of touches on the ball. This warm-up not only helps the young players improve their technical ability, but each warm-up is carefully crafted so that it develops the skills necessary for the remainder of the session. From there, the players go straight into small-sided games with restrictions and rules that implicitly instruct the players on how to solve any problems that arise. The game serves as a medium for each player to discover the intricacies of soccer for themselves. If they struggle with the concept, the coaches will work with the group to discuss a different strategy, or impose more restrictions on the game. After the small-sided games have been mastered and the players demonstrate an understanding of the concept, they expand into full-sided matches.
The Sounders Discovery Program not only serves as a pool of players that may one day join the Academy, it also increases the quality of soccer throughout the state. The best young players get an opportunity to train with each other, and are exposed to the organization’s high quality of coaching and philosophy. Even if these players do not make the U-14 team, they can bring the lessons learned back to their club teams. However, the players that do move onto the Academy can hit the ground running and have a strong understanding of what it means to be a Sounder.