In many ways, 2017 has been far and away the most successful year since the Sounders Academy’s inception back in 2011. Whether it’s the various U.S. Youth National Team call-ups, the historic runs in the USSDA Playoffs for both the U-16s and U-18s or Academy prospects earning significant minutes with Sounders FC 2 in USL action, the 2016-17 season was exceptional by every metric.
After an incredible 2016-17 season, in which the Academy as a whole went 16-3-1 against international clubs, the focus has shifted from being an elite American Academy to becoming one of the preeminent youth systems in the world.
“International experience is a very important part of our developmental programming,” said Academy Technical Director Marc Nicholls. “There are so many different benefits, not just on the field but off it. Part of our responsibility as educators and talent developers is to provide the players with some adverse and difficult experiences, while at the same time appreciating other cultures and ways of playing.”
Part of the club’s recent success has been an ideological shift toward developing intelligent, creative, technical players capable of solving problems on the fly. Soccer is such a free-flowing, organic sport that in order to be successful against the best teams in the world, players have to be able to interpret the flow of the game and be autonomous in their decision making to find ways to win.
The Academy’s record against international opponents in unfamiliar settings illustrates just how successful this strategy has been.
“We’re continuing to get some very generous offers from clubs and federations to travel overseas, and I think that’s because of the reputation that we’ve built as an Academy,” said Nicholls. “Not only in the way that we’ve played and the success that we’ve had, but also in the ways that the boys have conducted themselves with their behavior.”
The most recent success for the young Sounders came during the Youdan Trophy back in August, when the club repeated as champions in the U-15 division and the U-12 SDP squad took third place, with striker Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez (2002) earning the Golden Boot and Oscar Rincon (2004) winning Player of the Tournament for their respective age groups. While winning an international tournament two summers in a row -- with two different teams -- is exceptional, a pair of Academy standouts, Azriel Gonzalez and Danny Robles, won those same awards the summer before.
In a post-match interview with local media immediately following the title game, Head Coach Sean Henderson remarked that he believed there were 5-7 players on the squad on the same pathway as Gonzalez, who had recently signed his first professional contract with S2.
That kind of sustained success proves that the individual and collective accolades are down to systemic programming and an organization-wide commitment to developing world-class players in-house.
“The question we’ve asked ourselves in the Academy is: Do we have the best player on the field?” said Nicholls. “How do some of the brightest prospects compare to some of the other Academies? What’s more exciting for us that we have some of the best players.”
At Youdan Trophy -- which contained the likes of Everton FC, Manchester United, FC Basel and Newcastle United -- the answer was a resounding, yes.
It wasn’t the first time.
After the Manchester City Cup, when the young Sounders earned a 3rd-place finish, Head Coach Sean Henderson remarked that Ocampo-Chavez was likely the best striker at the event, while USYNT midfielder and local product Josh Atencio was arguably the best all-around player. Considering that Man City recently opened a £200 million academy facility and that Tottenham has one of the best youth systems in the world, that’s no small feat.
Sounders Academy’s success against international opponents has coincided with a meteoric rise in Youth National Team call-ups. As a production line for the First Team, regular involvement in Youth National Teams and success against international opponents creates a positive-feedback loop, accelerating the development of the brightest prospects in the club.
“What we’ve done well is to provide the players with difficult situations, and increasing that challenge by taking the club overseas to different events,” remarked Nicholls. “That challenge better prepares them for the National team. We want our players in Youth National Teams, but we want them to stay there.”
“A lot of our players are sticking and becoming regulars with the USYNT,” he continued. “That’s because they have a wealth of disparate experiences.”
As a pipeline of young, local talent for S2 and the First Team, the Academy’s consistent success on the international stage should leave every supporter excited about the future of the club.”