Back in 2015, the club began overhauling its player development apparatus. One of the first initiatives, a Homestay Program for nationally scouted recruits, brought in three older players for whom the club had high hopes. Those three players – Sounders FC goalkeeper Trey Muse (Kentucky), as well as Tacoma Defiance defender Nick Hinds (Florida) and midfielder Shandon Hopeau (Hawaii) – helped the organization test out the feasibility of a Homestay Program.
Flash forward three years, and these top talents are all plying their trade in the professional ranks, and eight current youngsters are all enrolled in the Homestay Program.
“The Homestay Program has enabled us to raise the standard of the whole Academy,” said Sounders FC Director of Player Development and Academy Director Marc Nicholls. “It’s allowed us access to some of the best players in the country, and has allowed those players to have a happy home life, which goes hand-in-hand with development.”
Homestay families are provided a monthly stipend to assist with any associated costs, as well as two tickets to every Sounders FC home match. Numerous club employees, from Head of Education Diane Carney to Academy Administrator Lauren Babcock and the entire coaching staff, are on hand to support the players and families. Additionally, the club hosts educational seminars on topics such as food preparation to help the players provide for themselves and be more responsible.
While other MLS clubs tend to house recruited players in dormitories, the Sounders felt it was crucial to make the transition to a new environment as smooth as possible.
“As much as we can, we want players to have a normal home life,” added Nicholls. “Obviously, they’re already moving away from home, so having them in a family situation away from the soccer ground enables them to have a well-rounded outside of the game.”
U-19 center back Blake Malone is one of eight players currently participating in the Homestay Program. A native of Las Vegas, the young defender left home when he was 16 years old in pursuit of a professional career. Following the initial screening process, he was paired with the Paglia family, who live in Mercer Island.
“My experience has been awesome,” said Malone. “My host family is absolutely amazing, and they are my second family. It’s great to go home every day and see them because it makes the experience so much better. They really helped me through the process, especially moving from Las Vegas to Seattle. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
The Paglia’s, who have three kids of their own, have taken Malone in as their fourth child, immersing themselves in the Sounders community as they support his soccer career.
“Blake and his dad came out to visit and within two minutes of walking in our door, he was family,” said Jenna Paglia. “He’s [our children’s] big brother. Blake is the youngest in his family and the oldest in our family, so it’s a different dynamic for him, too. He and my daughter are two peas in a pod.
“He plays with the boys. We got a basketball hoop for them and he and I spent three hours in the rain setting it up. I tell everyone he’s our fourth child.”
Embedded within the fabric of the community, roughly 80% of the players in the Rave Green youth system come from the Greater Seattle area. So, when they recruit a player from a different state, they only do so if they are a national-team caliber prospect. In just two years in the Sounders Academy, Malone has won the Generation adidas Cup and USSDA national championship, participated in preseason with the First Team and started five matches with the Tacoma Defiance.
“We’re all so excited for him and his success,” said Paglia. “When he won the national championship, we were screaming and jumping up and down. My parents, who live in North Carolina, have come out and seen his games. When he first got to play for the Defiance, we were all there and cheering for him. The kids all went down on the field and got to hug him.”
Malone smiles on the pitch at Cheney Stadium with his Homestay Family after starting a match with the Tacoma Defiance | Jenna Paglia
While being a Homestay Family and hosting a teenager may seem like a massive decision, especially if you have kids of your own, Paglia says that the assistance her family has received from the Sounders has made it an incredible experience.
“It seems like the support structure available to host families and these kids is unique to other DA clubs,” she added. “It’s a unique experience and it will be great for your family. I can say that without reservation because the Sounders are very particular in the type of kids they’re going to bring into the organization.
“Any player that they ask to stay with a homestay family, the Sounders are putting their reputation on it, so they’re going to make sure it’s someone who will be respectful of your time and your family. I feel they’re very invested in the players. They do a lot of due diligence in finding families that will be supportive of the players. The Homestay Program is just another example of how the Sounders have built an organization that supports these players and gives them every opportunity to be the best players they can.”
You can find more information on the Homestay Program here.