Seattle Sounders FC's roster consists of four players signed through the Home Grown Player mechanism. All are at different stages of life. Tristan Bowen is about to turn 23, has six years in Major League Soccer and was the league's first HGP. On the other end Aaron Kovar spent just a year-and-a-half at Stanford and is only 20. Sean Okoli is now 21 and is a year short of his degree from Wake Forrest. DeAndre Yedlin is not yet 21, a pro for a year and stunningly just got a senior CAP with the USA.
Each has different playing time challenges.
Bowen knows exactly what it is like. As the league's first HGP, he signed with an LA Galaxy team that featured David Beckham, Landon Donovan and a cast of other veterans. Bowen was only a teen at the time. He said he had to learn a lot that first year.
"I think it was everything on and off the field. Learning how to manage yourself; learning how to carry yourself as a young man; how to be a professional; how to be professional on the field. It was everything," Tristan said after the first practice session of the year. "There was a lot of growing up to do in one year. Being around guys that are established and guys that had accomplished quite a few things in their careers it was a change."
Seattle's latest signings will have similar challenges. They can look to Bowen, or Yedlin, or other players with similar pasts. But they have to learn those same lessons. Not every player signed as a pro before 21 learns the living of life thing.
Aaron Kovar and Sean Okoli were plucked from school. Long term they will finish their education. Both have plans. Kovar talked with Chad Marshall as Marshall also left Stanford early and eventually completed his degree. Okoli and his counselor at Wake Forrest are developing a plan for him to graduate just a year later than his scholarship plan.
There's also the challenge of family. Unlike Generation Adidas players the HGP is almost always from the area (various mechanisms allow teams to sign HGPs from elsewhere). They have family they can lean on.
"It hasn't hit me yet because I'm still at home with my family," Okoli told Sounder at Heart after the first practice session. "I realize that there's going to be changes, paying more bills and being more responsible off the field."
That is part of what is special about the Academy system. This is home. Another part is their other family: the coaches and trainers and staff who helped them develop from boys to young men.
"I really have to take my hat off to Darren Sawatzky. He's been the point guy through all of this. He's really the one who is a liaison for the Sounders, but also as a friend and a mentor since I was 14-years old. He's the one who kind of got me on the Academy and then helped me through Academy process, the Youth National Team stuff and helped me get to go to Stanford," Kovar explained to Sounder at Heart. "Now with this transition he's really the guy who's been here the whole way."
Kovar also pointed to Pete Fewing standing just to the side as another key mentor in his soccer life.
These young men will not only face challenges off the field. On the pitch each are battling for playing time. Unlike DeAndre Yedlin the role they play is still to be determined.
Kovar knows he has a left foot and good athleticism. He sees the chances in front of him. Sounders FC had not added Marco Pappa when Kovar and Sounder at Heart talked, but it is hard to imagine his response changing.
"I hear a lot about ‘you're going to have a year like DeAndre' or whatever, in some ways I really hope so, but I'm not DeAndre. I'm a different guy," Aaron smiles. "I really think that there is opportunity in this team. Being a left footed player is definitely advantageous for me, it always has been. There's definitely time. There's guys ahead, but it's a doable thing."
Forward is even more crowded. There Sean "Ugo" Okoli will face tougher competition to get starts, minutes and chances. His personal goals are simple. To borrow a cliche, it's about hard work and dedication.
"I always want to play and I want to get time, start games and score goals. I know that might take a little time," Sean answers. "I'm just going to come in every day, every training session and work hard to get better somehow and wait for my opportunity."
Those two are coming out of some college. They saw DeAndre do it last year. They need only look to the seasoned vet over on the right side to see a future. Bowen is entering his sixth pro season. He's only a year or two older than just drafted seniors.
"I look at the last couple of years as my university so to say. For myself I've been very fortunate in the sense that I came in early," Tristan said. "I kind of look at it as a head start on the guys coming in now that are 22, 23 and around my age. I've been very fortunate and am looking to take that next step in my career and apply all that I've learned the last couple of years."
This is a completely new school facing the youngest players in Seattle. One that is a challenge for their profession (soccer), but also a time when they will learn life.