Ray Serrano
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The Club Partnerships program intends to provide a clear pathway to MLS for young talent, and it's proven to be successful

Back in 2015, Seattle Sounders FC announced its first ever Official Youth Club Partner, Seattle United.

As a result of this symbiotic relationship, the Sounders shared training curriculums, coaching education, youth programming, on-field training sessions with Sounders Academy coaches and other club resources. All of this helped charter a pathway for Seattle United players into the Academy and, in the case of Homegrown Player Handwalla Bwana, up to the First Team.

Fast-forward three years, and Sounders FC now has six Official Youth Partners -- Seattle United, Twins City Soccer Association (North Carolina), Spokane SC Shadow, Eastside FC, Central Washington Sounders (Yakima), and Northwest United (Bellingham) -- as well as two Youth Affiliate Clubs, PacNW (Tukwila and Renton) and Central California Aztecs.

“We couldn’t be happier with the Club Partners that we’ve made so far,” said Sounders FC Director of Player Development and Academy Director Marc Nicholls. “It’s enabled us to make more and better informed decisions, to have a sense of togetherness, and, ultimately, to raise standards of play. We’ve been able to do all that alongside our partners.”

Reaching into key youth soccer markets throughout Washington, California and North Carolina, the Club Partnership and Affiliations initiative has established an expansive scouting network for players who, in the past, likely would have fallen through the cracks.

“The biggest influence of the Club Partnerships has been being able to widen our network of talent identification and working with people who share a common goal,” said Sounders FC Head of Affiliations and Club Partnership Development Dan Lock. “Now we’ve got seven clubs who want to provide a professional pathway for their elite players.”


Rookie midfielder Handwalla Bwana joined Sounders Academy from Official Partner Seattle United. After playing in the academy, S2 and the University of Washington, he reached MLS. | Corky Trewin

Sounders Academy staff members regularly visit and run training sessions for Club Partner teams across various age groups, allowing them to systematically scout and positively impact the development of players, which has led to more informed and holistic evaluations.

“Henry Brauner, our Head of Recruitment, is really involved with the Partner Clubs,” said Lock. “He does a good job of going to these clubs and running field sessions on a monthly basis. This allows him to identify talent, but also to form relationships with all of the coaches so they can contact him with any player recommendations they may have.”

With prospects like Bwana, Marlon Vargas (Central California Aztecs), Ray Serrano (Spokane Sounders) and Sam Rogers (Eastside FC) joining the Rave Green pathway from Partner Clubs, the efficacy of this initiative is clear to see. In fact, there are 33 players from Partner and Affiliate clubs currently on Sounders Academy teams, with seven of these prospects receiving U.S. Youth National Team call-ups in the past two years.  

In terms of curriculum sharing, the Sounders Academy staff has created dozens of highly-detailed training sessions for the U-8 to U-12 age groups -- each contains diagrams of specific drills with instructions, coaching points and key questions to ask players, fortifying the kids’ understanding of key soccer principles -- that aim to develop technical, creative, autonomous and intelligent players.

These curricula are a resource for coaches at the partner clubs, which has allowed Sounders Academy to supplement the quality of player development in each of these key markets.

Added Lock: “If we’ve been able to raise the standards and coaching at these partner clubs, that’s fantastic. That’s definitely going to help with the base, as the players who come to us have a broad base of technical and tactical skills, which gives them a running start once they get into the Sounders Discovery Program.”


Eighteen-year-old defender Sam Rogers, pictured here as a young Academy player, joined the club from Youth Partner Eastside FC.  

SDP invites the top U-12 to U-14 players throughout Washington to train twice per week with Sounders Academy staff, using the Sounders curriculum and methodology, while they continue to train and play matches for their clubs. It also includes international programming, such as the English Premier League Truce Tournament, Youdan Trophy and Manchester City Cup. Since 2014, over 270 young players have participated in SDP.

These partnerships also include coaching education. Each summer, the entire Sounders Academy staff holds a coaching symposium with its Partner Clubs, featuring presentations and on-field demonstrations from Academy, S2 and First Team coaches.

Ultimately, the Partner Clubs and Affiliates program is about providing talented young soccer players with a professional pathway. Starting as young as seven years old, these soccer-loving kids can train and be developed in the Sounders philosophy and methodology, progress into SDP, join the Academy full-time, play for S2 and, one day, suit up for the First Team at CenturyLink Field.

“The biggest impact of it all is we’re providing a pathway to the top players, and that’s what it should be about,” said Lock. “Top players should get an opportunity to make it to the professional level if they’re good enough."

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