The Crew's heavy investment in youth development yielded national championships and collegiate stars. Now that those players are signing with the team, will it pay off at the highest level?
Soccer stars aren't born; they're made. More accurately, they're farmed.
American sports fans are familiar with the concept of a farm system. Major League Baseball teams have been using minor league clubs to develop young talent for more than a century. Young prospects sign with the Cleveland Indians and work their way up through the A and AA leagues, most likely making a stop with the AAA Clippers before getting called up to the big leagues.
That system seems quaint compared to the way soccer (ahem, "football") clubs around the world groom their talent. MLB teams don't start working with players until just after college, sometimes high school. By that age, many top soccer prospects have been honing their skills under the guidance of the world's most prominent clubs for a decade. Storied franchises from Italy's Juventus to Brazil's Santos populate youth development academies with the best young players, establishing an elite pipeline. They don't pluck the kids straight out of diapers, but straight out of kindergarten? Sure.
The idea is to grow your own talent rather than pay top dollar for it elsewhere. For some, this is a pathway to dynasty. FC Barcelona fielded the greatest club of this generation with a roster built primarily from products of its youth system, La Cantera. The list is staggering: Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas. It goes on.
For others, youth development has become a means of survival. A 2010 New York Times piece about the storied Dutch club Ajax's youth program explained: "Ajax once fielded one of the top professional teams in Europe. With the increasing globalization of the sport, which has driven the best players to richer leagues in England, Germany, Italy and Spain, the club has become a different kind of enterprise - a talent factory. It manufactures players and then sells them, often for immense fees, on the world market."
Whether they're fostering the core of their franchise or selling off talent, every serious club has an academy. Recognizing that American soccer was behind the curve, in 2005 Major League Soccer compelled its clubs to act.
"It was a mandate that every club needed to start a youth system," said Andrew Arthurs, the Crew's senior vice president of soccer business development, who has headed up the Crew's youth programs since '05.
The plan was to hone the kind of talent that would catapult MLS and U.S. Soccer into the international elite. Teams would be able to sign players from their academies rather than watch hometown heroes snatched up by other franchises in the MLS SuperDraft. Each MLS club was assigned a territory. (The Crew got the entire state of Ohio.) The rest of the organizing was left up to the teams.
"Everybody was starting fresh," said Jeremy Parkins, the Crew's director of soccer business development. "There really wasn't a book, per se."
Teams could look to successful European models for inspiration, but for the most part, this was a new frontier.
"There's some things we can take away, but there's so many differences in their cultures and their education systems and whatnot," Arthurs said. "It's hard to say what works in Holland will work in Columbus, Ohio."
What worked for Columbus was an extensive youth system with Crew Juniors teams spanning from U-6 to U-20, supervised by some of the Crew's best personnel, including former players Billy Thompson and Technical Director Brian Bliss. Whereas some MLS franchises tightened their focus on the highest levels of competition, the Crew would build a "pyramid" in which younger age brackets could focus on player development rather than winning, and every player could aspire to the next level.
"We recognized early on just that with the size and quality of players, we needed to be a little more complete and comprehensive in our model," Arthurs said.
The crown jewel of the Crew's youth system was the Crew Soccer Academy (CSA), an elite program that would field U-16 and U-18 teams to compete against other academies and top clubs.
"It's really trying to replicate as much as possible what our pro team was doing," Arthurs said. That meant more structured, rigorous training sessions and fewer but more meaningful games.
The CSA pooled players from throughout Ohio. In Columbus and across the country, academies emerged as the new upper echelon for teenage soccer.
"You really get to build - I wouldn't say a dynasty, but a super team among the kids in Ohio," said Wil Trapp, a 20-year-old Gahanna native and CSA alumnus who recently left the University of Akron early to sign a Homegrown contract with the Crew.
At the outset, the academy system sent ripples through the world of youth club soccer (and ruffled a few feathers). Players had to choose between established power clubs like Ohio FC and the Crew's new, unfamiliar program.
"There was a fissure for sure," said Matt Lampson, the starting goalkeeper for the original 2008 CSA team, now in his second year with the Crew after a sterling collegiate career at Ohio State. "A lot of people weren't sure which was better. And especially since mine was the first year, you really didn't know what was going to happen."
The academies won out for a number of reasons.
"First of all, it was paid for," Trapp said. "The Crew fully funded their academy, so we weren't having to pay for travel. As well as there were national team scouts at every game. It was the place to be."
Besides the national team scouts, top college programs kept a close eye on the academies.
"Any kid that's going to want to play in college, they should be in the academy and go to the showcases," said Ben Speas, a Stow native who commuted two hours to academy practice multiple times a week. He should know - after helping Akron win an NCAA championship in 2010, Speas transferred to North Carolina and won a second title, earning College Cup MVP honors in the process. Now he's in his second year with the Crew.
CSA alumni seem especially grateful for the occasional training sessions with the Crew's senior squad, both for the chance to catch the coaches' attention and the steep learning curve.
"Being thrown into the trenches, you have to make it work. Little tiny mistakes are really exposed when you're at this level," said Chad Barson, a Lewis Center native who signed a Homegrown contract this winter after captaining Akron's powerhouse team.
Added Trapp: "Getting to train with the first team when you're still in high school and have (Coach) Robert (Warzycha) come and watch games, it was definitely big. And now, look, I signed my contract. I think it all is connected."
The CSA got off to a flying start, with the inaugural U-18 team finishing third at the U.S. Soccer Development Academy's national championships in Los Angeles. ("That kind of put the stake in the ground for us," Arthurs said.) Next came U-19 and U-20 national championships for Crew Juniors squads stocked with academy alumni on break from college. The youth program has continued to blossom, with 4,000 boys and girls involved in some capacity, including feeder teams in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Grand Rapids.
That's all well and good, but the idea is to funnel that success to the Crew's first team and the U.S. national team, raising up new generations of players to fend for MLS Cups in black and gold and World Cups in red, white and blue. Fortunately, the Crew is doing well there too. Five CSA products have signed Homegrown deals, bested only by seven at FC Dallas. (A sixth CSA alumnus, Kyle Hyland, signed a deal that technically doesn't qualify as "Homegrown.") Meanwhile, Trapp is making waves internationally; he was named to the Best XI as the U.S. finished second at the CONCACAF U-20 Tournament this month.
So a significant portion of the Crew's roster comprises hometown heroes proudly defending the colors they cheered for growing up. These guys would have never ended up on the same pro team without the academy to funnel them together.
So is this the tipping point? Will the homegrowns make their mark on MLS this year?
"It depends on the performance," Warzycha said. "They're competing against other players, the players that are older, the players that have more experience. They have to play better."
Last season, their impact was limited. Lampson got a lot of invaluable practice reps but only a few minutes of playing time. Speas and Aaron Horton both scored in an exhibition against Stoke City of the English Premier League but otherwise barely played. (Speas was injured and Horton was loaned to the semi-pro Dayton Dutch Lions for part of the year.) The CSA grads are well aware that they're not going to walk into a starting job or even a spot on the bench.
"Just because we're Homegrown players doesn't mean anything," Barson said.
Arthurs is quick to poo-poo the idea that academy products will carry the Crew in 2013: "We've got a pretty good team this year," he said. "I do think there are two, three, maybe four of our Homegrowns that are going to maybe push some of the older guys."
Whether or not it happens this year, Arthurs sees the Crew's extensive investment in youth development paying dividends down the line. There are many more players in the pipeline, including three from the Crew system in residency with the U.S. national team in Bradenton, Florida. A U-14 academy team is in the works. In the meantime, the current crop of Homegrowns has its chance to shine.
"That doesn't mean they already made it," Warzycha said. "It means they get the best opportunity a soccer player can get. Most of them have families and came from this area. There's no better setup for them than to play for us."