Last Wednesday and Thursday nights, the Minnesota United Training Ground in Blaine played host to the first round of tryouts for the MNUFC Development Academy. More than 175 participants came out to show off their skills in hopes of earning a callback for the next round as the Academy works toward filling out a roster of 20 U13 and U14 boys to begin competition in the fall.
“Our very first game is actually September 9, here in Blaine,” said Academy Director Tim Carter, taking down notes on a clipboard, as boys performed pullbacks and stepovers in seven-a-side scrimmages in the setting June sun. “It really puts them onto a pathway that accelerates their growth, being a part of the Development Academy, but also the benefit of being connected to an MLS club.”
Over the course of their season, the players will be competing against other Development Academy teams, playing somewhere between 28 and 32 games on weekends. The emphasis, though, is squarely on training, with the MLS Development Academy mandating a 4:1 ratio in terms of training to playing time. The promise of that level of training along with the direct connection to professional soccer at the highest levels is what has drawn the large crowd of boys, who move from field to field in a rainbow hue of pinnies as Carter and other MNUFC staff — including Sporting Director Manny Lagos and first team goalkeeping coach Marius Rovde — evaluate them.
“The goal of Minnesota United is to be integrated in the community,” said Lagos. “MLS and the academies they have built allow us the chance to interact with the youth level in a positive way. We want to create a high level elite academy that partners with all the clubs in the state. We just hope we're going to continue to inspire, and by doing the academy, it’ll get not only all of the clubs in Minnesota better, but obviously create that pathway that all these kids are dreaming about when they go to Minnesota United games.”
Evaluating talent at this level is no mean feat, but Carter — who brings nearly four decades of coaching experience at the college and youth levels — knows what he’s looking for, including some potential pitfalls.
“You’re trying to look out on the field and predict a future, but you’re really looking at today,” he said. “Sometimes the biggest, strongest guy at this age might dominate because of size and power but might not be the most promising talent on the field. You try to look at qualities: Speed, and how do they use their speed. Their personality, and how do they use their personality on the field, how does it come out. Do they want to take charge? Do they want to get involved? You want to see how they play individually and with another player, or maybe two other players. How well do they play with their head up? Do they know when to play by themselves or make a pass to a teammate? How about, do they have an idea of where to run on the ball to get a pass, or to get open?”
“You don’t want to overthink it or under think it,” said Lagos, “because the kids are going to continue to grow and develop, but certainly you can see certain kids who technically solve problems really well on the field, and certainly you see kids who athletically can do that as well. And then the special ones are the ones that can do both at this age.”
Sometimes it’s not a specific combination of skills but what Carter called the X factor. “Do they have something special?,” he said. “Do they have some unbelievable speed? Are they a constant whirlwind on the field running everywhere? What’s the X-factor? All I can tell you is that it’s something unique in that individual. But it’s special. You see it and it catches your eyes.”
As a goalkeeping coach, Rovde had his eye out for some very specific physical attributes, noting that a 6’2” 13 year old in net wouldn’t have to grow an inch to make a solid ‘keeper. But he was also looking for what he called “that fire in the belly.”
“It’s easier to tame kids than to wind them up,” he said.
The presence of Rovde and Lagos on a Wednesday and Thursday night is a big statement, Carter believes. “I think that says a lot about the integration. Here you have people that are dealing with a professional team that’s playing in the highest league in the country and they’re out on the field looking at young players for the academy.”
For Lagos, it’s not a one-way street. MLS teams like FC Dallas have reaped the rewards of having a robust academy program — FCD starter and USMNT player Kellyn Acosta is just 21 but already a four-year veteran after making his debut for the first team in 2013 after coming up through the team’s Development Academy.
“It gives you excitement,” he said of Dallas’ robust homegrown program. “Because ultimately, we love our market — we think it’s a great youth soccer club market. And I think that we really want to embrace that we’re not Texas, we’re not Dallas, but we can do things just as well as long as we really roll up our sleeves and commit to the vision.”
It will be a long process for the club, the academy and for all the young players with dreams of one day suiting up for their hometown team. But for now, the next step comes on June 27 and 28 when the best and brightest from this initial group get called back for the second round of tryouts.