Sounders Academy Philosophy, Structure And Future

The first part of Sounder at Heart's recent conversation with Darren Sawatzky featured a few players from this year's U-18s. This second section is more about what the Academy is and how Seattle Sounders FC is handling it. The conversation is lengthy, but shows the efforts the team is taking to develop not just future pro players, but men. It is also presented as a question and answer so that the focus on can be on Sawatzky's words in his role with the club.

SaH: How young is the organization recognizing talent?

Sawatzky: We'll look at any kid at any age if they fit into the Academy System and they have the potential to be an elite level player. We watch club soccer daily so it really doesn't matter what the age group is. We're aware of players all the way down to the 2001 age group right now that are talented in Washington State and fit into our territory. At the end of the day we want to get players into the system as soon as we can because it gives us more time to develop them.

SaH: Adrian Hanauer mentioned at the End of Year Meeting that seven Academy players were called up to US Youth National Team camps or tournaments. As the Academy kids spend more time with organization, not just being coached by some of the coaches, will that number grow?

Sawatzky: The reality of it is that whenever you bring the very best players together, that you have over time, you're going to get a better player. The whole, even in Holland or wherever when you talk about youth systems, the very best players playing and training together is going to produce the best players. It's simple. If you put the best kids together, even if they are not coached, they're playing and training against the very best they get challenged.

We've had a lot of kids, you talked about the U18s last year, like a guy like Darwin Jones. Darwin Jones played for me at Highline since the age of nine years old. I've known that kid for a decade. He's bounced around from club to club, played in the Olympic Development system; he's done all these things. It's not like we haven't "had them" as you alluded to coaches coaching them, because top players gravitate towards the top coaches because the top coaches usually have the winning teams.

A lot of these kids we've had a lot of time with. The great part about Sounders FC is that now we have an avenue where we can get them in day in and day out with four, five days a week training which is really how you maximize your development. We still have a ways to go.

SaH: Toronto is making major infrastructure improvements while Seattle already has Starfire. Does this mean that the Sounders focus is more on the short term production of players or is their a longer term focus as well?

Sawatzky: That goes to the protocol of developing youth players in America. We have constraints in the US that other countries don't have. We want to make sure that we help every kid maintain their NCAA eligibility, which we do, because Americans want to go to college. Whereas in other countries the dream of being a pro soccer player negates any college soccer aspirations, it just doesn't exist. It's been in place for a hundred years. These kids work to be pros.

It's a little different here. We also have child labor laws in this country that don't allow certain things to happen as far as signing kids contractually. You know at the end of the day it has to make sense to form some type of residency, or some kind of massive infrastructure. The Canadian programs are a little bit different from ours. Vancouver and Toronto run their systems a little bit differently than we do. At the end of the day it doesn't make sense to run a Residency until you are ready to get into the business of selling players.

Right now we're looking to develop players for our first team and we're doing a pretty good job of that. We're thinking long term that all of the MLS Academies will be looking to do things that Dallas, Vancouver initiated, and now Real Salt Lake, where you have them day in and day out. Again if you have them all day, every day you control their nutrition, you control their studies, you control their football. That's really how you're going to develop players.

SaH: But that could require a different legal framework?

Sawatzky: I'm not the expert on that. Our ownership is unbelievable. Adrian will do whatever it takes, and that makes sense (I shouldn't speak for him so I won't) but he's unbelievable at giving us the resources to be successful and he's a very smart guy. If it makes sense to do something down the road where we have more time with these kids or some sort of Residency or some sort of ability to do that, I'm sure he'd do that.

Right now we're working very hard with the structure we have and we've done pretty well so far.

SaH: Several players have moved onto colleges. Do you track them or does that move to Chris Henderson and Kurt Schmid now?

Sawatzky: Because of our relationship with the kids, they're young men now, and as I've said, our coaching staff is a very good one in the Academy and they know these kids. So all of these kids that are out at these colleges right now they talk to one or all of us all the time. It's not just about soccer, it's about how's your life going. How's school? We're invested in them.

In terms of scouting, when it comes to the technical side, of course our first team Kurt, Sigi, Adrian everybody is watching these players. But we all stay connected; we all talk and decide together what makes sense, at the end of the day though it will be Sigi, Chris and Adrian that decide whether or not players are good enough. Our job in the Academy is to get them as prepared as we can and stay connected to them.

SaH: You mention you ask about school: Does that mean you are giving advice about school to the current Academy players?

Sawatzky: The Academy is an evolving system. We're new and we're still learning. If you look at history the reality says that a majority of kids playing soccer are not going to be professionals. It's a very small percentage. So we make sure that they know what they have to have academically as they head into their 9th and 10th grade years when we get them here. We hold a seminar at the beginning of the year where we talk about college soccer, we talk about SATs/ACTs scores, we talk about GPA, we give them the NCAA rules so that they understand. Ultimately it's up to them to work on their grades. We work with parents constantly. If a kid's not doing as well in school as he should be then we turn the screws a little here to make sure that they do.

This isn't just about soccer. This is about the growth of young people. This next Thursday all of our boys are going to volunteer down at the distribution center at Northwest Harvest because we want to give something back to the community. We're going to be more stuff like that because we want the kids to be good assets to the community. The grades, the school and how they interact outside of the soccer program is just as important as what they do on the field.

SaH: You mentioned Darwin Jones earlier and I probably haven't paid attention to him as much as I should. What kind of player can he be?

Sawatzky: Darwin has a lot of the attributes that you need to be a professional player. He's extremely fast, he can jump out of his shoes and he can finish. He's a physical specimen. Quite honestly he could be the happiest man alive. I don't think you'll ever see Darwin without a smile on his face. You can't underestimate that; attitude going into things is as important as anything. You're going to hear "no" more in professional life more than you're going to hear "yes."

You've opened the door for me because the developmental side of soccer in the US. The college soccer game is an intermediate piece between the Academy and the professional level. It's limited because they play 20 games in the Fall and college coaches do an excellent job in Spring getting as much development in as they can, but Darwin's counterpart across the water over in Europe, the kid is still training 5, 6 days of the week whereas the college student doesn't have that opportunity in a structured environment. Can Darwin get to the next level? Absolutely. The biggest thing for him is to make certain he's training in an environment that can help him get better. It's up to us to keep creating stuff so he can do that and we're working on it. When he transfers out of a community college to a division one school this spring he'll be in an environment that helps him more and more. The sky's the limit for that guy.

Again, the Academy teams are likely to see friendlies scheduled in January as the schedule is very light right now. You can follow them on Twitter or Facebook for updates and of course we'll try to keep you informed as well.

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