The Seattle Sounders are a successful organization. If you had to pick a team for a model on how to launch a professional sports franchise Seattle would be the team. On the field and in the stands they also lead MLS, finishing 2014 with the supporters shield and averaging 43,000 fans a game. How does a team like the Sounders continue to grow and maintain their success in MLS?
One way is Youth Development. In MLS rules are a plenty and interpretation takes an attorney's skill (Garth Lagerwey to the rescue), but one rule that can help a team become more successful on the field is the Homegrown Player rule. The HGP rule was established in 2008 allowing teams to sign two players a year from their respected academies without going through the draft process or having their salaries count against the teams salary cap. The last three years we have seen Seattle utilize the HGP rule by signing Aaron Kovar, Sean Okoli, Darwin Jones, Victor Mansaray, and DeAndre Yedlin. We have also seen Seattle profit from the HGP rule with the DeAndre Yedlin sale.
New Sounders General Manager/President of Soccer Garth Lagerwey has a saying for youth development; he calls it the "cradle to grave pipeline" and notes that identifying players at a young age makes all the difference for a team's future success. Looking at some of the best clubs in the world in regards to youth development you notice one thing; they are also some of the best clubs in the world. Barcelona from Spain, Manchester United from England, Ajax from Holland, Santos from Brazil, and Inter Milan from Italy. These clubs continuously produce the best soccer talent in the world, and continue to win League, Cup, and Continental Championships. Yes these clubs now sustain high class expensive players along with top notch academies, but that didn't happen overnight. It started with a plan from the bottom up in the form of youth development.
To get an understanding how the rest of the world views youth development let's look at Ajax academy in Holland. Known the world over for their special skill of developing youth players, Ajax starts development at 7 years old. Ajax is very unique in their selection criteria, and every Ajax youth team has 16 players.
"There are 2 goalkeepers. Four right footed players are selected for positions 2, 6, and 7 (right back, right midfield, right wing fwd), Four left footed players for positions 5, 8, and 11 (left back, left midfield, left forward), Three players for positions 3 and 4 (central defenders) and finally three players for 9 and 10 (striker and shadow striker). This applies from the U8 team to the first eleven. During the players development they play in the two or three positions within the team for which they have been selected."
With a basic skill set and structure that starts at 7 years of age Ajax train their players as if the players are going to develop straight to the first team. Because kids develop, grow, and learn at vastly different speeds Ajax keeps 2 full teams at each age group up to the U18 level.
When compared to the top developmental academies in the world the US system doesn't have anything that is close, but that is changing. The USSDA Academy system has 88 developmental academies across the United States, these academies play in the USSDA league which is considered the top youth league in the US. The USSDA operates on a 10 month schedule much like the school schedule, the season starts in September and ends in June or July. Play stops in mid December to mid January and players have some of the summer off. Players in the academy system are not allowed to play for other teams or participate in other sports.
The Seattle Sounders academy has been in existence since 2010. Seattle currently has 3 academy teams U14,U16, and U18, only the U16 and U18 teams play in the USSDA league at the moment. The U14 team plays in the Far West Regional League and scrimmages top local clubs from around the Pacific Northwest. Starting in the 2015-16 season the USSDA will begin a U12 academy league, the Sounders academy already recruits players at the U12/13 level through their Sounders Discovery Program (SDP ). In this program selected local youth players train with the academy on Monday nights where they are assessed and coached by the academy staff. What this means for the Sounders starting in the 2015/16 academy season is they will be able to have kids as young as 10 years old developing in a professional environment on a daily basis, with the ability to grow and train in one location from academy level all the way through to the Sounders first team. This ability to develop players will be new to MLS and pro soccer in America.
Lagerwey's strategic plan for this development is to vertically integrate a unifying system/style of play from academy level to first team. This would allow quicker transition for players coming from the Academy to S2 or the first team. Lagerwey employed a similar strategy to help turn Real Salt Lake from a bottom-feeder to a Western Conference Powerhouse. All of this of course takes time, preparation, buy-in, and precise implementation by all involved.
Clint Dempsey is a perfect example of why MLS development is so important. Dempsey was an established national team player/pro when he came to Seattle. He had played in MLS previously with New England, moved to Fulham in England, and finished his time overseas with Tottenham. The Sounders now pay $6 million dollars a year for Clint Dempsey and that is a fair price tag for someone of his caliber. But it must be asked; as a team (and more importantly as a business model) is it more effective to continually buy players of Dempsey's caliber and pay them millions, or would it be more cost effective to develop these types of players?
Youth soccer in America is a lot different than the world model. We good capitalist have for better or worse implemented the pay-to-play model. In this model the youth clubs get paid, coaches get paid, the referees get paid, fields are rented, travel expenses are covered, tournament fees, soccer camps, and on and on. As the kids develop and begin to play at higher levels fees increase, travel increases, and opportunities to play for the best youth players dwindle. Making the right decisions about a club and coach is paramount in a player's development. Each club has their own philosophies, coaching ideas, fees, and rules. It can be a very frustrating and an arduous process to make sure your child is in the right place for their continued growth.
For Yedlin, Kovar, Okoli, and Jones their youth clubs had as much to do with their development as the sounders did. The first 4-6 years of their development was done through their local youth teams. This is partially as because was previously mentioned the Sounders academy did not exist until 2010. In 2015 that will all change from the bottom up for Seattle. S2 is the missing piece of the puzzle in creating a true youth development system. Now like Ajax or Barcelona kids will join the Sounders academy at a younger age and get a soccer education the Sounders way. These kids will develop into the next players for academy, S2, and Sounders first team creating the "cradle to grave pipeline" Lagerwey envisions.