Sounders Director of Youth Development Darren Sawatzky looks on during a Sounders U23s playoff match. (via Chris Coulter and soundersphotos.com)
MLS teams have very cramped rosters. You can argue whether the MLS obsession with parity is a good thing or a bad thing, but it's the law of the land and teams need to find ways to work around it. With a limited roster size and a salary cap, teams that want to compete don't have the luxury of carrying players that can't help in the short term. That leaves out a lot of players who aren't quite ready to help yet, and (less discussed) a lot of players who aren't helping as much any more.
The development of a player is a progression from a youth player to a veteran, but a place on an active roster is reserved only for players at the peak of their abilities. Traditionally, teams have essentially ignored players in other stages. They've passively waited for talented domestic players to be ejected out of the college soccer system via the draft or they've plucked foreign players from other leagues.
In recent years the development of the Academy system has given teams the opportunity to develop their own young players, but the Seattle Sounders have gone well beyond that system in making sure they have an active hand in developing their players from youth soccer all the way through retirement.
In stage one, the Sounders Pre-Academy is preparing for their second season and identifies U15 and below players who have the potential to make the Sounders Academy teams. Last season they played 21 home matches at Starfire against various teams the Sounders invited in. Not a part of any particular league, the team exists so that Seattle can directly develop their youngest potential players.
Stage two includes the U16 and U18 Academy teams, which compete in the official USSDA Academy system. Seattle has an excellent record of success in their short history, with 3 of their 4 teams making the playoffs and the 2011 U16s making the national final eight. The Academy system is relatively new and is a huge upgrade over the past reliance on players developing on their own in high school and on independent club teams.
Stage three is the remaining gaping hole in American soccer player development. Once a player ages out of a dense and challenging Academy curriculum — assuming they aren't talented and refined enough to immediately contribute to a starting MLS roster at 18 — they move on to college soccer and the MLS team that developed them effectively waves goodbye for four years. Players are likely to pick a college for any number of reasons other than soccer (nearness to home, academic interest, climate, whatever) and even a good soccer school may not develop a player according to the interests of the MLS team that has his rights. If a college coach needs a player to play midfield to have a winning season and keep his job, that's what will happen, even if an MLS team thinks the player should be a center back.
This season the Sounders have started grappling with that stage. First, the creation of the Sounders U23 team from the ashes of the Tacoma Tide has given the club a presence in the PDL, where college players can play during the summer. They've taken that opportunity to call in players from various colleges around the country and let them play together again under the eye of Sounders coaches for at least a few months a year. The results in season one have been excellent, as Seattle rode those Academy alumni along with a talented pool of complementary players to the national PDL semifinals.
Secondly, the University of Washington has quickly developed as a magnet for Sounders Academy players. The Huskies are going from having one Sounders player last season (Drew White) to having 6 this year (including transfers Ryan Herman and Darwin Jones). If they continue to add 5 a year, they'd eventually have 20 Sounders — over 2/3 of the roster. Now, I'm aware that many Sounders fans are also fans of the Cougars and any number of other college teams that don't take kindly to the UW. But the benefits to the MLS team are significant and obvious. They get to have their graduated Academy players playing competitively alongside each other in their own backyard, where it's easy to keep an eye on their development.
Obviously if a player has an offer to play for Duke, Akron, or another top flight soccer school, that's a great opportunity. But there are plenty of players for whom the UW represents an excellent chance at a continuing soccer education. And this relationship, whether explicit or just a coincidence born of convenience, is symbiotic. Having a pool of professionally developed players who come in with significant experience playing together is a huge opportunity for the UW. Coach Clark (no relation) and the Huskies barely missed out on the national tournament the last two years and a core of talented familiar players could make the Huskies a national power appropriate for even the top Sounders Academy talents.
That prepares the players for stage four, where the Sounders can select the top college players as Home Grown Players and bring them into the MLS fold.
That's the important part of the talent pipeline, but it's worth noting that there's a stage five. Tight MLS rosters don't leave a lot of room for veteran players who might not be providing as much on the field but are good leaders and good role models for younger players. And despite the name, the U23s don't have a strict age requirement. The PDL allows as many as 8 players to be over 23 and that creates opportunities for veteran players as well. We saw that this season when once-Sounder Nate Jaqua helped the U23s during their playoff run. That's also an opportunity someone like Roger Levesque could take advantage of in future years. It's easy to imagine setting a few roster spots aside for retired Sounders who are transitioning into a coaching career and can provide leadership and serve as player coaches for the younger players on the team.
The goal should be a system that routes around the worst gaps in domestic player development, creates a steady stream of talented youth players, and gives players an opportunity to represent the Sounders to the best of their ability from the beginning of their career to the end. Seattle's well on their way to creating such a system.