Sporting Kansas City’s youth academy changing the US development system

Associated Press Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler, right, congratulates goalkeeper Eric Kronberg, left, after Kronberg made a save in the first half during the Sporting KC and Columbus Crew Major League Soccer match at Sporting Park on Sunday in Kansas City, Kan.

Associated Press
Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler, right, congratulates goalkeeper Eric Kronberg, left, after Kronberg made a save in the first half during the Sporting KC and Columbus Crew Major League Soccer match at Sporting Park on Sunday in Kansas City, Kan.

In the early months of 2014, while Sporting Kansas City and its fans were busy celebrating the team’s MLS Cup victory, its 16-year-old youth player, Erik Palmer-Brown, was garnering attention from Europe. Attention from Europe’s elite, specifically. Italian club Juventus reportedly offered more than $1 million for the rights to Palmer-Brown. Perhaps most surprisingly, he hadn’t played a second of professional soccer; Palmer-Brown has spent the last five years developing at Sporting Kansas City’s youth academy.

Sporting Kansas City founded its youth academy in 2007 as part of an initiative by Major League Soccer and the US Soccer Federation. In 2006, MLS created the “Home Grown Protected List” which gave its teams first-rights to sign local youth to their academies and, in the future, to professional contracts. To capitalize on the new rule, the US Soccer Federation created the Development Academy League in 2007, a league for professional teams’ U-18 and U-16 youth teams to participate in. Sporting has four teams within its youth academy, U-12, U-14, U-16 and U-18 teams.

Sporting didn’t sign a homegrown player to a pro contract for its first five years.  Since then, the team has signed three, including Palmer-Brown when he signed in the summer of 2013. The other two, goalkeeper Jon Kempin and defender Kevin Ellis, signed in 2011 and are currently on loan to third-division Oklahoma City Energy.

For Palmer-Brown and other teens at the youth academy, soccer becomes a full-time job. Immediately after school, players report to the Swope Park Soccer Village in Kansas City, Mo., home of the youth academy, to practice, lift weights and comb through performance evaluations—everything that you’d expect from a professional. The thirty game season is played on weekends, often requiring extensive travel across the Midwest. The most talented players will also travel across the country multiple times a year to train with the youth national team.

“It’s a daily process: ‘Can you get better today?’ ‘What can you do better today?’ ‘Here’s an evaluation for this two month period, can you use that to improve in the next evaluation we have?’” U-12 and U-14 coach Matt Trumpp said.

Youth at all levels are treated and trained as if they’ll play for the professional squad one day. The goal is for a player like Palmer-Brown, who joined the academy at 11-years-old, to progress through the academy and seamlessly transition to the senior team.

“We like to call it vertical integration,” Director of Youth Soccer Betsy Maxfield said. “So if a player on the U-16 or U-18 ever gets called into the pros, they’re not going to be nervous and stunned right away. They’re going to know how to warm up just like [the pro team], they’re going to know the same type of activities and the same type of drills they do up there.”

To help foster this culture, youth go to each Sporting home game to observe and connect with the professional team. The pros act as mentors for youth playing the same position as they do. On the field training is supplemented with off the field mentoring from Sporting’s professional players.

“It’s about creating a culture of knowing your hero and getting that call up,” Maxfield said. “And some of the pro players, we encourage them if they have off that weekend to come here to Swope and watch the U-18s and the U-16 matches.”

A new model for youth

The introduction of youth academies has created a new path for American soccer youth.

Previously, top players would play for local or regional club teams. Clubs charged players an average of $4,000 per season, according to a poll conducted by ESPN FC in 2009. This fee covers travel, coaches’ salaries, tournament entry fees, league fees and more. The cost of club soccer can make it prohibitive to players without well-off families. The Sporting KC academy, and other MLS-affiliated academies, cover all costs for its youth, allowing them to accept talented players that otherwise couldn’t afford participating in elite youth soccer programs.

“Depending on where you’re from, what your demographic is or what your parents do—it doesn’t matter to us,” Maxfield said. “If you can play soccer, we want you here.”

Sporting academy players are also woven into the team’s professional network. Youth share a locker room with professional players, have access to team doctors, and participate in the biannual MLS academy-only showcases for “anywhere from 10, on the low end, to 50, on the high end, of college coaches watching them play,” Maxfield said.

Academy Director Jon Parry said the academy offers prospects opportunities that they couldn’t access playing for a club or high school.

“I think just the environment we create, it can’t be replicated in the high school or club situations,” he said. “Nobody else is connected to a professional team like we are and our coaching staff has a wealth of knowledge.”

Because only a fraction of a percentage of youth go straight from the academy to the pros, players have an opportunity at each game to continue their post-academy career in college. Sporting’s two biggest stars, Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, played in college before going pro.

“The league we play in, the development academy, every one of our games are scouted,” Parry said. “And usually those scouts are college coaches or technical advisors.”

Parry, a coach of 16 years, brings the academy something that only a few coaches in the country can offer. He’s currently earning his elite formation coaching license from the French Football Federation, the country’s governing soccer body. The license is one step below the country’s professional coaching license.

“It’s like getting your doctorate in soccer,” he said.

Parry said he’s implementing the ideas learned from the FFF’s courses into the Sporting academy. This includes the “whole-part-whole” training regimen, which introduces tactical and technical aspects into the ordinary run-around-and-play-ball attitude of scrimmaging.

Teenaged professionals

Youth deciding to join the academy face a commitment that requires expectations and sacrifices off the field that normal teenagers wouldn’t be forced to make. Academy players from U-14 and up aren’t allowed to play any other sport. The team travels 10-15 times a year, mostly within the Midwest but also nationally, according to the academy website. Instead of hanging out with friends after school and on weekends, players will be at the academy training or playing in matches.

“You’re preparing kids to be pros,” Trumpp said.

Players are also subject to stringent academic requirements. Maxfield said the academy expects at least a 3.0 GPA from its players. She also works with school guidance counselors to ensure players are taking challenging courses in high school. This may seem like a lot, but the academy works around players’ school schedule to keep them eligible on the field and off. Players are encouraged to miss a training session if they need extra tutoring, Maxfield said. Travel schedules are formulated with consideration to players’ school schedules.

“We try and leave Friday afternoons at 4 or 5 p.m., even if it’s a more expensive flight, we always try to respect school,” she said.

Parents of academy players praise the ways of the academy over their experiences with high school or club teams. Jimmy Rocha, of Belton, Mo., has two sons playing for the academy: Israel “Izzy” Rocha on the U-16 team and Angel Rocha with the U-12s. He said the academy offers more than what his sons experienced at the club or high school level.

“This is way more professional, consistent and way more serious. This is the closest to the real thing for their age,” he said. “Here, they play soccer all day. At high school, they only play during the soccer season.”

Dave Burkhart, of Shawnee, has a son, Kole Burkhart, playing goalkeeper for the U-12 team. Dave said after getting a recommendation from his son’s club coach to try out for the academy, the difference in quality is noticeable.

“It’s the best here,” he said. “You just don’t get training like this with a club. This is the best.”

The future

After opening its doors in 2007 and going almost four years without signing an academy product to the pro team, the signings could become more routine. The academy is currently home to two nationally rated prospects.

The academy’s U-16 goalkeeper, Ryan Krutz, was ranked as one of the top 150 players for the class of 2015 by Top Drawer Soccer, an amateur soccer news website. He’s currently ranked as the sixth best player in the heartland region, which encompasses the Midwest.

Collin Innes, an outfield player for Sporting’s U-14 team, was selected to play in the id2 National Selection International Tour, a US Olympic Committee and US Soccer Federation initiative. He was one of the 18 players to go on a 12-day trip to Italy and play three professional Italian academy teams, ACF Fiorentina, Inter Milan and Juventus.

The academy has produced seven professional players, four of which came in the last four years. With Palmer-Brown entering the professional ranks as its first nationally recognized gem, the team has at least two more in its stables.

Until then, academy youth will be chasing the soccer dream by grinding on the field. Five days a week, after school. Traveling on Fridays. Playing on Saturdays. Traveling back home on Sundays.

  • Updated May. 8, 2014 at 10:05 pm
  • Edited by Austin Fisher