In recent years, Seattle Sounders FC has greatly improved its level of investment in the Academy, and this increased support has led to some truly impressive results on the pitch.
In an effort to enhance the youth system and better integrate the pathway to the First Team, the club hired Diane Carney as the Sounders Academy Head of Education and Welfare. Carney, who owned University Tutoring Service, an individualized and group tutoring company that also assists in test prep and career planning, for several years before taking a job as the Learning Services Director at the Annie Wright School in Tacoma, provides a crucial resource to all of the younger Sounders.
In addition to an expansive resume and vast experience in the education sector, Carney brings with her a lifelong passion for the club.
“I’ve been a Sounders fan my whole life," said Carney. "I grew up in Everett and used to go to the Sounders games when they were in the NASL and followed them when they were at Memorial Stadium playing in the USL. I’m just completely thrilled to be working for a GM and Director who are so pro-education. From [General Manager and President of Soccer] Garth Lagerwey on down, everyone at the club really emphasizes that we are developing the whole player.”
Carney’s work at University Tutoring is of particular value to the Academy. Unique player development opportunities afforded to Sounders Academy players such as training with S2 and the First Team, traveling with S2 for USL matches, U.S. Youth national team call-ups and international trips often conflict with school schedules. Carney’s role is to find innovative solutions that ensure the young Sounders can receive a quality education while simultaneously accelerating their soccer development.
It’s an initiative that, while still in its infancy, has the potential to unlock and fast-track the professional potential of the club’s top prospects by charting highly individualized developmental and educational pathways.
“We want to ensure that a player gets his education and at the same time provide them with an opportunity to develop and potentially become a successful professional player,” said Sounders FC Director of Player Development Marc Nicholls. “Rather than a one-size-fits-all model, we understand that players have different ages, goals, expectations and ambitions and that we need to tailor and cater to the needs of those individuals.”
With the program still evolving, a few archetypal pathways, which will maximize the development of each individual player, have emerged.
A select few of the top prospects in the pipeline have enrolled in online school, conducted by Carney at the Starfire Sports Complex. Drawing upon her experience in online schooling gained from running University Tutoring, she’s able to provide these players with hands-on, high-quality education.
In addition to full-time online students, several attend their public or private high schools half the day and take online classes with Carney the remainder of the time, giving the Academy staff the flexibility to devise training schedules that maximize individual player development. These prospects attend some classes in their Seattle-area home districts, take some classes online and attend First Team, S2 or Academy training and video sessions during the day, all while staying on top of their education.
While Carney spends a sizeable portion of her time working closely with a handful of elite prospects, she is a readily available resource for every single player.
“I don’t want any of the players to have to choose between having good grades and taking every opportunity they have to play soccer at the highest level, “ she said. “Yes, we’re in the business of creating professional soccer players, but the Sounders are really admirable in wanting to promote the education and wellness of every Academy player, both on and off the field.”
Carney helps each of the younger Sounders with their college applications, SATs and ACTs, letters to college coaches, homework, tutoring and communication with their respective high schools. For college-bound players who hold aspirations of a Homegrown contract, she’ll help them find a college program that suits their soccer and academic needs.
Carney has also played a massive part in player recruitment, both with local players and for prospects scouted from out of state.
“When you’re talking to a player you’re also talking to a parent, as they want to make sure they’re in a positive environment where their overall well-being is a top priority,” said Nicholls. “I think this program has really helped us expand our reach and to move in the direction having a fully encompassing club.”
At the other end of the spectrum, having Carney on the staff has enabled the club to sign elite prospects to professional deals at a younger age, thus accelerating their individual player development without sacrificing their education.
Players like Shandon Hopeau, Sam Rogers and Azriel Gonzalez signed professional deals directly from the Academy while still receiving a first-class education. Carney works closely with these players, helping them map out academic pathways, selecting classes and assisting them in their school work.
“It’s clear that the soccer landscape is changing, and I think that’s evident in our club,” said Nicholls. “We want to develop, sign and play young players from our Academy. With that as a stated goal, we then have to make sure that the educational pathway for the player is clear, that they are able to achieve their educational goals because there’s absolutely no reason that within this program they can’t have the best of both worlds.”
It used to be that elite Sounders Academy players had to choose between going pro or receiving a college degree. Now they don’t, which is a prospect that has Carney thrilled for the future of the First Team.
“I think the most exciting change from a soccer perspective is that players now have the option to advance in the Academy through to the pro level and not have to forgo college to do that,” she said. “We can create a pathway where players can stay within the club, and stay within the same coaching style all the way through, which I think will lead to improving the First Team.”
By the time some of the current Academy prospects turn 18, they’ll have already spent hundreds, even thousands, of hours training alongside S2 and First Team players. For those who, in the past, would have gone to college for 2-3 years before signing a Homegrown deal, they’ll have already played hundreds of professional matches by the time they’re 22.
Hopeau, Rogers and Gonzalez are all pioneers in this new programming. But as the club continues to flesh out these tailor-made pathways, the caliber of player coming through the Academy pipeline and up to the First Team will continue to improve at a rapid clip.
“It just gives you this sense that something fundamental is changing. Just wait five years, you’re not going to believe it,” said Carney. “We’re looking at a change in MLS and a change in U.S. Soccer. There are so many talented players throughout the Sounders Academy, and then in the younger age groups you just see this wave of exciting players coming through.”