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Justin Solomon provides a snapshot into life in the early Sounders Academy

The early days of the Seattle Sounders Academy meant lots of driving, not much time for homework.

Justin Solomon during an Academy match at Starfire.
Courtesy of Solomon family

Justin Solomon played two seasons with the Seattle Sounders Academy, their first two. Many of his teammates you know — DeAndre Yedlin, Sean (Ugo) Okoli, Darwin Jones, Ryan Herman, Jamael Cox, Jordan Schweitzer, Michael Gallagher, Aaron Kovar, Troy Peterson, Chase Hanson and Solomon himself all had professional careers of some length out of that group.

Solomon’s experiences from 2010-12 are similar to others from Clark County, WA, which was part of the Sounders catchment prior to the Timbers starting their Academy system. He shares this tale of his own experiences, and those of others who wished to remain anonymous, with Sounder at Heart. This story is written in first-person, in reality it reflects the collective experience of several people.

I played in a club in Vancouver, WA for many years and during that time for 3 years I played for Oregon ODP until a hilarious incident changed the course of my life for the better, making me leave Oregon ODP and go to Washington ODP (who were better) and got me involved with the system up north. I’m not sure if even Darren Sawatzky, who was my first coach with WA ODP, knew or anybody knows the story (ask me about it sometime). But for the 2 years I was with WA ODP I would have to drive 2 1/2 hours for training and games to Starfire.

And so after that and before the Sounders Academy started, they would have these “pre-academy” trainings, like once a week or once every two weeks, I don’t remember. I would have to drive to Starfire to be a part of this so I could improve my chances of making the inaugural Sounders Academy team. Then the tryout came and I didn’t make the Academy.

I was heartbroken. A couple months later they called me back in and said they wanted me to be on the team for the rest of the season and next season. I joined back in and was with the Academy. I was with a youth club in Oregon and told them I had to take this opportunity. My first day of training was like another world. I already knew some of the guys from being with WA ODP and they helped me integrate into the side.

The pace of play was nothing I had ever experienced. I defended Sean Okoli 1-v-1 and blocked a shot of his and was so proud. Little did I know there was a lot more to do from there. I got my jerseys and training kits the next training and when I got home I laid them all out on my bedroom floor and took a picture of them and thought I had made it.

Going into training every day and having trainers there giving us bottles filled with Gatorade and many coaches and sometimes seeing Sigi on the sidelines and having Fredy Montero join in at training is a level you can’t get when playing club soccer or even with a non-MLS DA. Being able to go into the training room after practice that the first team would use is a lot different than playing on uneven fields with holes in them and having to get changed in the car.

We also had the luxury during my time in the Academy of being able to sit on a bench on the field during MLS matches so we would get to see where we wanted our futures to be right in front of us. But I knew my future would be 5-hour round trips to Starfire for training and games around 4 times a week. And for all of our flights to away games I would have to drive to Seattle to fly out with the team and then we would obviously all fly back to Seattle and then I would have to pay for my own flight back to Portland and then have my mom or dad pick me up at the airport at some Godforsaken time and drive me back to Vancouver, WA. One weekend we had a game Saturday morning and Sunday morning. I had prom that Saturday night. I drove up for the game, played, and then drove back down frantically so I could make the festivities and be with the group. I don’t think I even have one formal picture of me from that night or a picture of me and my date from that night.

I didn’t stay up late and we turned down the after-party because I had the game the next day. Woke up early and drove up to Starfire to play the next day. My grades weren’t very good and my social life was damn near non-existent. I just didn’t have the energy to do homework in the car like some of the guys and when I got home I just wanted to sleep or calm my mind. Soccer was always on my mind. I never drank or smoked like so many of my peers did because I knew that would hamper my pathway and I was never really interested in that stuff in the first place.

We had a great season and got to playoffs and only needing a draw, we lost in our final group match. So that’s how my first year with the Sounders Academy played out. I graduated high school at the end of that year and had always planned on taking a gap year to play with the Academy another year so I could catch up with the class I was supposed to be with (I started my senior year of high school at 16). So what I did was I literally moved north. 17-year-old me moved my life to an apartment in Renton, enrolled at a CC for classes and left my girlfriend back in Vancouver.

Long story short, I thought I was going to have a big role with the team but I didn’t. I pretty much had less of a role in the second year with a inferior team than I did in the first year with arguably the most talented academy team to date. I remember some of the games my beautiful parents would make the hike up to watch and I would warm up thinking I would get to play (I didn’t) and afterwards I would check on the academy demosphere online and see that I wasn’t even in the 18 for the game. A wasted trip for them. I played the rest of that season very sad but always did my best and was always in the gym.

The season ended on a bad note for me and the team and things moved on. I was committed to play at Seattle U for the next season and even though I was accepted into the school, something fell through with the NCAA and I was deemed ineligible to play because of a missed class or something in high school. So I ended up playing at a JC in Arizona and tore my meniscus.

After surgery and recovery I joined up with Sounders U-23. Back to 5 hour round trip drives for the season. I only played one game that season but it helped a lot because I was recovering from my injury and I got to play with really good players every training. After that season ended I had some really promising opportunities to go on trial with some clubs but ended up having to get another surgery. Then I went to play in Australia (Sunshine Coast FC in Australia’s 2nd division) which didn’t turn out well. I came home and had more chances to trial but turned them down.

Now, I’m here and who knows what’s next. I look back at all of these hours on the road and think wow that was a lot of time spent driving during some pretty formative times in my life but I honestly would do it every time again if given the chance at that stage. I knew what I was getting into. It all made me such a significantly better player and person.

I thank everybody who gave me the opportunity to be a part of it all. Especially Darren Sawatzky who first identified me and picked me to be a part of that WA ODP team after I went through like 5 tryouts where they would narrow players down after every one. It all began after that.

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