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Developing the future: A look at Seattle Reign Academy

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Is the next Lauren Barnes or Keelin Winters in Seattle? It’s quite possible.

Does the next Keelin Winters, Haley Kopmeyer, or Lauren Barnes live in Seattle? That’s the bet Laura Harvey and Seattle Reign FC took when they launched the Seattle Reign FC Academy in 2016. Created through a partnership with Seattle United, Reign Academy entered the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) — the top female youth club competition in the U.S. — at the start of this year, after months of training.

Players ranging from age 13 to 19 laced up their boots and stepped onto the field last weekend for their third competitive match with the Reign Academy. Some teams probably won. One of the five Academy teams likely lost. Maybe there was a draw or two.

However, as Reign Academy Technical Director Tracey Kevins said in an interview with Sounder at Heart, “We're not interested in the score lines. We're interested in how you develop as an individual player.”

Which begs the question: what kind of player does the Academy want to mold? Ideally, one that would transition well to the NWSL side of Reign FC, Kevins said. In her time as head coach, Harvey has built a very distinct style of play. Reign FC is a technical, possession-orientated team that presses aggressively from the front and builds play from the back—rather than launching the ball down the field.

Just as the Sounders Academy tries to mirror the style of play of its MLS side, the Reign Academy seeks to do the same. For the past four years, Reign FC demonstrated to players, the league, and fans its commitment to world-class soccer. Kevins is working to create a similar environment for the Academy teams.

“The Reign Academy is very much an integral part of Reign FC,” Kevins said. “We wanted to take two or three hallmarks of the first team and educate our players in how you play the Reign way, which we believe is the right way to play soccer.”

Identifying And Building Talent

For Kevins, finding Reign Academy players was about identifying young women who demonstrated a huge passion for the game. Being a hard worker, having a passion for their sport, and wanting to play the game in the right way were the most important qualities Kevins and her staff looked for as they selected the first group of players.

“One of the things that we are looking for is players that are dedicated to their trade,” Kevins said. “Are you willing to practice outside on your own in the rain, outside of your other training opportunities? What are you willing to do on your own to be the best version of yourself?”

If early results are any indication, the Academy selected a strong group of players that are living up to these high standards. Pac-12 coaches have appeared at their matches — extolling how well these players are performing, despite the fact that they’ve only been with the club for a few months.

On the first Wednesday of February, National Signing Day for college prospects, high school seniors can sign their National Letter of Intent. Five Reign Academy players declared their intention to attend and play at schools like Dartmouth, WSU, Austin Peay University, Cal State Monterey Bay, and Pacific Lutheran University. Many others will likely follow over the next few months.

“We’re really proud of our first graduating class,” said Kevins. “The level of institution that all the players are going to is indicative of the hard work these girls have put in.”

From England to Seattle

Kevins’ journey to Seattle was more than a decade in the making. Harvey and Kevins worked together in the England youth national team system about 10 years ago. Both moved to the States around the same time, with Kevins ending up at the LA Strikers, a W League Women's Team in Los Angeles.

She stayed in touch with Harvey over the years, came to a few Reign matches, and was contacted by Harvey and Reign owner Bill Predmore at the end of 2015 about the Academy role. But Kevins loved her job and sunny Los Angeles.

So what changed her mind? The fact that Harvey and Predmore structured the technical director position to make it the best role for Kevins — allowing her to be hands on with all five teams.

“The normal club structure here is that you have a director of coaching who may oversee one or two teams, but I always felt that you can't really have the impact with every single player if you’ve got your own two teams to deal with,” Kevins said. “So, having a role that was tailor made to me and my strengths was one of the biggest reasons to come out here.”

After launching the Academy, Kevins focused first on technical and skill development that would prepare the players well for college — and then ideally an NWSL career. That includes making sure players are comfortable with possession and understand that it’s not necessarily about getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible.

It also included educating parents about the importance of development, and the need for patience as their daughters learn and grow into the game.

“Development takes a long time,” Kevins noted, acknowledging it can be a tough message to hear, especially in America, where people tend to have a win-at-all-costs mentality. As Kevins pointed out, the focus on development has to be made at a system level. Luckily, she sees that beginning to change.

In fact, Kevins was optimistic the NWSL would have a homegrown rule in place in the next few years — allowing clubs to sign players that developed in their academies, rather than having them go through the draft process. With this model, Seattle could sign players that would have an immediate understanding of how the club runs.

“What we would really love is to have our own Jordan Morris — where a kid that comes along through a local club, plays at the academy and then goes through to the first team. We would love to complete that cycle where the young player starts at Seattle United, comes into our academy at 13, goes all the way through to 19, goes off to college for a few years, and then comes back and plays for Laura at the Reign.”

Developing Players as Coaches

In the same way Kevins hopes to develop NWSL talent through the Academy system, she’s also committed to stretching the abilities of NWSL players through Academy coaching roles. Former Reign left back Stephanie Cox, for example, will be doing some work with the Academy this year. Cox took over as head coach for Gig Harbor High School last year, and Kevins sees the Academy as a way to help Cox develop into the “best possible coach she can be.”

Last week, Reign players Kiersten Dallstream and Rachel Corsie were at practice to observe and connect with the Academy’s older teams.

“What we want to do is show the players that there is life after playing, and we would love to complete a cycle where they play for the Reign, give us their best years, and then have an opportunity when they retire to come back into our Academy and are coaching within our teams,” Kevins said.

What’s Next

After two weeks of competitive play, Kevins displayed an unbridled optimism about the future. “Our 2003's were fantastic last weekend. It's quite exciting to think, what are they going to look like in three, four years time of our education?” Kevins said.

“You know, you can go out and buy a trophy. We're not interested in trophies. Those bits will come. We're really interested in developing the individual player to be the best version of herself.”