For almost every single Development Academy player here in Frisco, whether playing in Showcase matches or in the Playoffs, the end goal is the same: to play soccer at the highest level possible.
While the ultimate dream may be to take the field at Old Trafford or the Bernabeu in the future, every player knows they have to work their way up. The Academy provides players with the environment to make that first step towards those goals, enabling every player the chance to reach their highest potential.
Academy teams such as FC Dallas strive to take advantage of their connection to a professional club, giving the Academy players the opportunity to see the effort required to be a professional.
“We get them in practices, we get them in activity with reserve games,” said FC Dallas U-17/18 head coach Oscar Pareja. “Sometimes coaches invite some of the Academy players to train with the first team, so this creates a very professional environment and helps us a lot with their mentality. They see professionals around them all the time.”
When FC Dallas started a youth academy to join the league three years ago, they had a few specific goals in mind.
“The first objective that we had before was to develop the Academy in a professional way, to create a good atmosphere for the boys,” said Pareja. “We think we’ve reached that level. Now bridging the Academy with the professional team, that gives us a plus and we actually are very happy with the support from the whole organization for this program."
It’s this total support from the ownership group down that provides the players with the full professional experience, which players soon find out brings both good and bad.
“A couple of us went up to play with the reserves and had some games with them and practiced with the first team,” said FC Dallas U-17/18 defender Boyd Okwuono. “It’s been a great experience. The practices are way faster, way more intense and way more serious. [On the first team] everybody is fighting for a job and fighting to put food on the table. It has helped me get better.”
For FC Dallas, the relationship works both ways too, as coach Pareja was quick to remind.
“We try to bridge [the Academy and the professional team] so they can see a professional team as an opportunity for them in the future,” he said. “They come and challenge for positions like any other country in the world, so it has been good for the professional team as well because they have players coming from their own academy, their homegrown territory, trying to challenge them.”
Okwuono gets more out of the collaboration than a strong work ethic, however, as the interaction between the first team and the Academy teams lends itself to some immediate benefits as well.
“I’m learning from the other players and they give me a lot of advice,” he said. “I grab the tips as I go on and use them as a tool for when I play.”
It’s not just clubs with an MLS affiliation that are seeing results. One of the strengths of the Academy is that non-MLS clubs, such as Indiana United Academy, are also clearly benefiting from a professional environment. One of the original Development Academy clubs, United Academy (formally named Carmel United), has won the national championship twice as a U-15/16 in 2008 and then as U-17/18s in 2009. Since then, they’ve had at least one of their teams in the postseason every year, illustrating the success gained from running their club in a professional manner.
“I think the biggest thing we do to create the professional environment is train as often as possible,” said Indiana United’s U-17/18 head coach Adam Bruh. “Most youth soccer teams around the country train twice, maybe three times a week, but when you look at professional teams, a lot of them only take one day off a week. We try and emulate that as much as possible.”
The key, says Bruh, is to focus your training on specific things.
“You don’t need to kill the kids with a two-hour practice every time; I’d rather have a 60 minute session if it means the players are putting 100 percent into it,” he said. “There are so many different things to work on, from off-foot passing, to striking long balls, set pieces – you don’t need to spend two hours a practice trying to include everything if you can train several times a week.”
The end goal that clubs like F.C. Dallas and Indiana United have in mind is to produce players capable of playing at their highest level. For some, that’ll mean playing in college on their way to a degree. For others, perhaps a spot on the U-17 or U-20 Youth National Teams. A select few may even make it all the way to the full U.S. Men’s National Team. But wherever they end up, Academy players will head into the future with the knowledge of what it means to work, and play, like a professional.