Seven Development Academy Alumni Signed Professional Contracts in August; Development Academy Environment Benefitting Player Preparation for Professional level
In July, 17-year-old midfielder Victor Pineda was shining under the bright lights of The Home Depot Center as he led the Chicago Fire to its first championship in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy program. In the final, Pineda assisted on the Fire’s goal during regulation time and converted a penalty in the shootout.
Just one month after lifting the trophy with the Academy side, Pineda signed a professional contract with the club’s first team and will train with players like Brian McBride, Freddie Ljungberg and Nery Castillo with a chance to crack into the first team’s starting line.
Though Pineda is the first player to sign with the Chicago Fire under the MLS Homegrown Player rule, 15 players have made the move from the Development Academy to Major League Soccer, including six in August alone.
Needless to say, it has been a busy summer for Academy alumni.
The transition from youth clubs to professional teams has been eased with the environment created by the Academy’s best practices. With players training between three and five times per week and playing challenging games with FIFA rules every weekend, the system more closely resembles the professional regimen. The 10-month Academy season closely matches that of a professional league, and this summer’s signees have demonstrated the benefits of training in that environment.
“It’s encouraging to see that every year we’re seeing an increase in these Academy graduates who are moving on to the next level,” said Development Academy Director of Scouting Tony Lepore. “The fact that more and more are making the jump straight from the Academy to domestic and foreign pro teams is a positive sign that the Academy is helping the clubs improve player development at this crucial age group.”
Earlier this week, D.C. United’s Conor Shanosky joined former youth Academy players Andy Najar, who is currently leading the team in goals, and goalkeeper Bill Hamid in the club’s professional ranks. (Shanosky will train with the first team for the rest of the MLS season, but will not be eligible for selection in a league game until 2011.) After moving to the Washington D.C. area when he was four years old, Shanosky has been a faithful fan since the club’s inception, and listed current interim head coach Ben Olsen among his favorite players.
The same day, the Colorado Rapids signed their first Academy graduate to the first team in midfielder Davy Armstrong. The 18-year-old came into the Rapids youth program in 2007, and began training with the first team this summer ahead of his official signing on Aug. 16.
FC Dallas had already made history by adding three Academy players to the first team, all on August 1. Ruben Luna, Victor Ulloa and Moises Hernandez all received contracts that day, the first time a team had signed multiple youth players to the first team. Luna is the only one of the three eligible to play in MLS games this season, but Hernandez has already played in a friendly against Inter Milan, having quickly adapted to the new challenges. The Seagoville, Texas, native has been a FC Dallas fan since the team (then called the Dallas Burn) played its first game in the Cotton Bowl.
“I went to the first game and knew I always wanted to be there,” said Hernandez after the match against Inter Milan. “I always said to myself and my family that I was going to be there one day.”
Add the recent overseas success of Conor Doyle, who made his first appearance for Derby County against Cardiff City just days after finalizing his contract – a rare and impressive feat for anyone, let alone a teenager. He had been part of the Dallas Texans Academy side since its inception at the beginning of the 2008-09 season.
Upon Doyle’s arrival at the English Championship team, head coach Nigel Clough was impressed with the 18-year-old, who has been assigned the No. 23 jersey at the club.
“Conor has settled in very quickly and has impressed everyone,” Clough said of the Texan. “For a player of just 18 years of age he is very mature and has adapted well to English football.”
“We still have a long way to go, but we’re happy with the progress we’ve made in such a short time with the Academy system,” said Lepore. “These players who all moved up the ladder this summer will encourage other young players to set goals and work hard to get to the professional level.”
Despite the influx of alumni into Major League Soccer this season, the true impact of the Development Academy initiative is only beginning. The oldest players that went through the program’s inaugural year are still just 20 years old, and though there might be time before the full Men’s National Team is made up of former Academy standouts, the youth national teams have already felt that impact. Shanosky, along with New York Red Bulls Homegrown Player Juan Agudelo, were two key players for Thomas Rongen in the U.S. U-20 MNT’s Milk Cup championship run. Both players have the opportunity for continued growth in their current MLS environments.
As more and more of the country’s top players are involved in the professional environment provided by their local Academy club, Lepore believes that the impact will be unprecedented, and the standard for soccer in the U.S. will continue to rise.
“These clubs are getting good players that are more ready to make the jump,” said Lepore. “These young guys have been playing good games week in and week out and we’ve also really pushed the clubs to focus on their every day training environment. It’s part of an effort to raise the standard. It’s not a secret to these domestic or foreign clubs that the U.S. is producing young players who can play at the highest level.”
Pineda, who began training with the first team about two weeks ago, hopes his transition will be as smooth. It will be aided by familiar faces, as his head coach with the Academy team, Larry Sunderland, is an assistant coach on the first team. The youngster has also been with the Fire program since he was 12 years old, and traveled with his Academy teammates to Mexico alongside the pro side during preseason.
Moving up the ladder is a dream come true for the Bolingbrook, Ill.-native, who said during Finals Week that he wanted to become a professional as soon as he could. Now, he’ll have his shot to play alongside some of his childhood heroes.