Azriel Gonzalez August 2018
Charis Wilson

How Seattle Sounders Academy became one of the best youth systems in the United States: Programming and the Pathway

Editor's Note: In just three short years, the Seattle Sounders’ investment in the Academy has led to three Youdan Trophy titles, over two dozen players receiving U.S. youth national team call-ups, a wave of teenagers signing pro contracts and a national championship.

This four-part series will trace the history of the last three years under General Manager & President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey, highlighting the initiatives, staffing hires and tectonic shifts in player development that turned Sounders Academy into a sustainable pipeline of elite prospects who will one day put on the iconic Rave Green jersey and play at CenturyLink Field.

Read Part I HERE.

Read Part II HERE.

Grassroots Level

When Seattle Sounders FC Director of Player Development Marc Nicholls became the Academy Director in 2014, rather than trying to overhaul the entire system at one fell swoop, he and the Academy staff launched several initiatives targeted at improving the quality of players entering on a full-time basis at the U-15 level.

The Sounders Discovery Program (SDP) and Club Partners and Affiliates initiative drastically increased the efficacy of player identification and scouting. But they also empowered the club to raise the quality of player development at the grassroots level, creating a sustainable pipeline and pathway from the U-8 level all the way to the First Team.

“When MLS launched, it kind of started from the top down,” said Nicholls. “So, it’s been very important for us to re-tool it and build the Academy from the ground up. I think that’s what we’ve done and that’s why I think we’re on such a solid foundation for the program.”

The Club Partnerships and Affiliates initiative is very much a two-way street. The Sounders coaches spent a year developing detailed, comprehensive training curricula, supported by evidence-based coaching, that aimed to improve the technical quality, soccer IQ and creativity of local players starting at the U-8 level. Sounders FC Partner and Affiliate Clubs, as well as the entire Eastside Youth Soccer Association, receive training curricula and coaching education for the U-8 to U-14 age groups.

Example of a drill from the U-10 training curriculum, focusing on building possession from the back to create scoring opportunities | Michael Morris

The curriculum, divided into subcategories based upon the phase of play, includes dozens of sessions with detailed diagrams for a plethora of drills. Each drill is accompanied by important coaching points, technical instructions and thought-provoking questions, which are aimed at developing intelligent, problem-solving players.

It’s great because they’re familiar with our expectations and pedagogy,” said Sounders Academy Head of Recruitment Henry Brauner. “Like we say certain things a certain way within our system, so these kids are already immersed in that and the language of how we speak. Their development is accelerated at those clubs, which is critical for us because what a 14-year-old look like coming into our academy full-time now is very different from four years ago.

“Instead of us introducing it our players at 14, 15 or 16, they’re getting that at 10, 11, 12. They’re coming into SDP and it’s not a completely new thing. They’re almost as comfortable with it as our players. That helps us in developing them because they’ve started their soccer education earlier.”

SDP’s value extends far beyond comprehensive scouting. Operating at the U-12, U-13 and U-14 age groups, SDP invites the top players in the region practice together twice per week with Sounders Academy coaches, using the club’s training curriculum, for four-month cycles. Not only does this effectively double the amount of quality training they receive on a weekly basis, it also raises the level at their respective clubs, creating a trickle-down effect throughout the region.

“My goal for these guys is, when they get unique opportunities, whether it’s a call-up to S2, or to train with the First Team, or the national team, I want them to say yes to those opportunities with a completely free mind, without worrying about the impact it will have on school.” — Head of Education Diane Carney

Essentially, SDP is the first step along the club’s professional pathway.

“Everything is in place for a player to succeed,” said Sounders FC Head Scout Sean Henderson, who spent seven years as an Academy coach. “We can push a player straight through the system from SDP to the First Team. The method and the process have improved to where we have a chance to truly develop players without having to hope for outside help along the way.”

Accelerated Timeline and the Pathway

With the grassroots infrastructure in place, the club has instituted programming that accelerates the top prospects’ professional trajectory. As detailed in Part II, the club feels it is important for elite players to make their professional debuts by the time they’re 17. The programming and developmental approach is geared toward providing players the requisite technical and tactical foundation in SDP to successfully make the transition to S2 while still in the youth system.

“The higher you move up the game, the older the players are, the quicker they are, the faster the game is, the less time you have,” said Sounders Academy Director of Coaching Chris Little, who led the U-17s to a USSDA national championship in July. “So, the key differentiator is your technical quality. The more technical quality you have, the more time you have in a game to make a decision. That’s what the game is all about: decision making. We feel that if we give our players the best technical foundation, that’s going to allow them slightly more time to make better decisions.”

A critical aspect of the club’s youth programming, which will be explored in further detail in Part IV, is the exposure to international competition at a young age. It’s important for top players in the Sounders youth system to be taken out of their comfort zone and immersed in new cultures while facing off against some of the best young talents in the world.

In 2016, the Academy ventured to Europe for its first appearance in the storied Youdan Trophy tournament, which the Sounders won by defeating Swiss powerhouse FC Basel 1-0 in the final. S2 midfielder Azriel Gonzalez, who inked his first professional contract in 2017 at 16, earned the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer.

The Sounders Academy U-17s celebrate winning the 2018 Generation adidas Cup | Lauren Babcock

“I was a part of that first Youdan Trophy when we beat FC Basel in the final,” said S2 Assistant Coach Wade Webber, who spent two years as an Academy coach. “That was a big deal. FC Basel, they’ve developed players like [Liverpool and Swiss international midfielder] Xherdan Shaqiri and many others, and they were a really good team. In the lineup for our U-17s’ [USSDA] national championship match, we had Leo Burney, Connor Drought, Alec Diaz, Enrique Montana, Peter Kingston, Danny Robles and Azriel Gonzalez. That’s seven out of the 11 guys who played at the Youdan Trophy in 2016. And after that they came back and won it again 2017, and then they won the Generation adidas Cup.”

When Sounders Academy shifted towards a bottom-up approach, the first generation of players to benefit from these changes was the 2001/02 age group. In the four years since, six of the top prospects — Diaz, Robles, Gonzalez, Marlon Vargas, Ray Serrano and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez — have signed professional contracts. Six of the starters from the 2016 Youdan Trophy final have played professional minutes with S2 this season.

S2, Vertical Integration and the Pathway

SDP and the Club Partnerships and Affiliates program provide the foundation for the entire youth system, with the top prospects from those two tributaries filtering into the U-15 team. Once players are in the Academy full-time, they participate in programming like international trips, Generation adidas Cup and training with S2 and the First Team.

The top talents train regularly with the First Team, play matches with S2 and feature with U.S. youth national teams. But all of this is possible because of the presence of Diane Carney, the Head of Education, on the Academy staff.

“I think the familiarity of the First Team coaching staff with these top prospects is what will make the difference for these kids to eventually play meaningful, valuable minutes for the First Team. It’s not a matter of if it will happen, it’s a matter of when.” — Sounders FC Head Scout Sean Henderson

As of the 2018 Fall semester, 11 players throughout Sounders Academy are enrolled in full-time online school. Their classes and curriculum are overseen by Carney at Starfire Sports Complex, and each has assigned teachers with whom they correspond regularly.

An additional four players are enrolled in a hybrid program where they attend school and take some classes online under Carney’s tutelage.

“I think we’re unique in not having a set program and, instead, meeting each player where he is in terms of his academics and his intended soccer pathway,” said Carney.

In the early days of Sounders Academy, players had to choose between their education and a professional career. The likes of DeAndre Yedlin and Jordan Morris went to college because a clear professional pathway simply didn’t exist. But with Carney on the staff and S2 serving as a conduit between the Academy and the First Team, it’s no longer a binary choice because players can receive a quality education and benefit from the club’s vertical integration.

S2 center back Sam Rogers, who decided to sign directly with the club’s USL side instead of playing college soccer at Villanova, recently enrolled at the University of Washington and will continue to receive academic assistance from Carney.

“My goal for these guys is, when they get unique opportunities, whether it’s a call-up to S2, or to train with the First Team or the national team, I want them to say yes to those opportunities with a completely free mind, without worrying about the impact it will have on school, because we’ve already planned ahead.” added Carney. “We’re just on the brink of seeing the results of the hard work in the Academy over the last several years. We’ll have our first graduates from online school this year.”

Seventeen-year-old Academy alum Azriel Gonzalez scores the game-winning goal for S2 against Rio Grande Valley FC | Charis Wilson

Under this new education an initiative, an Academy player enrolled in Carney’s program can take classes four days per week from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then train with S2 or the First Team from 10:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. After that, they can participate in a strength and conditioning regimen before attending a meeting with coaches where they analyze match footage. Finally, they spend a few more hours in the classroom, ending the school day at 4 p.m. Players spend additional time on their school work independently on Fridays and weekends.

This education initiative has provided the organization the flexibility to craft tailor-made, individualized professional pathways for all the top prospects throughout the youth system. It’s one of the main reasons that 22 teenagers have gained priceless experience playing professional matches with S2 in the 2018 USL season, which will ease the transition as they attempt to break into the First Team in a few years.

“It was rare in the early days for Academy players to train with S2 or the First Team, but it is a normal occurrence now,” said Henderson. “I think the familiarity of the First Team coaching staff with these top prospects is what will make the difference for these kids to eventually play meaningful, valuable minutes for the First Team. It’s not a matter of if it will happen, it’s a matter of when.”

With the implementation of SDP, Club Partnership and Affiliates and S2, there is a clear pathway to the First Team. But with the advent of the education initiative, the club has the flexibility and resources to create unique pathways that perfectly fit the needs of each player, which has positively altered the landscape of the organization.