The fields of green stretched in neat rows from left to right, tucked one after the other under a slate gray sky. You could see them easily underneath the shadow of the massive expanse of the BayArena, the incubation factory of one of Europe’s most unlikely powerhouses.
In September I visited Bayer Leverkusen, the home of the youngest team to qualify for the 2016-17 Champions League and one of the most youth-friendly clubs in all of Europe. It has been a club ethos to chase youth for years, something club CEO Michael Schade reiterated during my visit there.
“I have an agreement with our coach (Roger Schmidt), we always have to have four to five players within his squad at the age of 17, 18, maximum 19. At the time we have six. So we have the chance to develop them. And you’ve seen already during this season, we have a very, very big talent here (Kai Havertz). He’s the number one in Germany concerning the talents, he’s now awarded with the Fritz-Walter Medaille (won 2016 U-17 Silver medal) for the best talent in Germany, Kai, he’s at the age of 17. He played already Bundesliga two weeks ago for the first time, and he will play during the season a couple of times at 17 years, because we trust him and we believe in him.
“You can’t do that in Munich, even when you trust in talents. Because a team like Munich is so important and so well known, they have to present big stars. I think a coach cannot take a 17-year- old player and give him a chance to develop, there’s too much pressure. And that’s why we have the chance, we take the chance, young players know that.”
Those fields represented that ethos. Bayer Leverkusen doesn’t operate a second team. It determined the fourth tier, in which that reserve team would operate, was too low a competitive level to drop its players into at such a critical time. So they’ve used their U19 team – which competes in the national U19 league – as their de facto second side. And it trains on one of those stacked fields right next to the senior team alongside their U17 team as well. So as young as 14, Havertz could regularly crane his neck and watch Stefan Kiessling train just a few fields over and dream.
I thought about this as news hit Thursday that FC Dallas signed its 16th Homegrown player. This one was a biggie. Jesus Ferreira, the 15-year-old son of FCD legend and former No. 10 David Ferreria, is now a professional.
Ferreira is an unbelievable talent, maybe more so than any one player FCD has ever signed as a Homegrown. This blurb from FCD’s official welcome is a good entry point.
In last month’s Generation adidas Cup in Kansas City, Ferreira tallied 10 goals in three matches as the FC Dallas U-18 team went 3-0-0 with a goal differential of plus-13. In his most recent matches, Ferreira led the academy to its first victory in an international tournament. The team downed Leicester City in penalty kicks and Aspire Academy, 2-1, to take the Tri-Series Tournament in Qatar. Ferreira netted all three goals.
Earlier this year, FCD released a mini-doc about their academy. Titled The Next One, it took a glimpse inside the inner sanctum of what’s made this development apparatus the best in the country. Less than two months after this video hit YouTube, FCD swept the U16 and U18 Development Academy national titles.
It’s equally relevant that the first three player interviews in the video are Weston McKennie, Paxton Pomykal and Ferreira. McKennie signed a professional contract with German megaclub Schalke not long thereafter. Pomykal and Ferreira are now both on FCD Homegrown contracts.
It’s a good video, and you should watch it in its entirety, but the one part that rocketed back out to me in light of my trip to Leverkusen was this passage about 4:25 into the video. These three quotes come one after the other.
Pomykal: “We train the same time as the pros. So everyone on Field 2 sees the pros on Field 1, and they’re like, ‘Oh I want to be there, I want to be with them.’ Because at the end of the day, what soccer player’s dream isn’t to become a professional player?”
Ferreira: “They always tell us, be ready. Be ready. That’s what they tell us every single time. So if they call us, we’re ready for that.”
McKennie: “This is the only club out there that you can really get the bridge connection to the first team. Oscar (Pareja) believes in young talent, and you want to be the next one. Everyone wants to try and be the next one. It’s just one field away to make the difference. Just going across to Oscar, ‘Hey, can we have some players? Yeah yeah, who’s the next one?’ That’s what our coaches tell us all the time. ‘Who’s the next one?'”
And then, finally, succinctly.
Pareja: “Our academy is the heart of the club.”
We talk about mentality so often, but to see the gears like this is a rare thing indeed. The fact that FCD’s top academy kids train in such close proximity to the senior team seems like such a small detail on its own, but it’s part of a vast interconnected web of exercises in mental fortitude. They are convincing their players there are real stakes to their performances each day, and then reinforcing those beliefs by actually rewarding them with minutes and contracts.
The difference between MLS clubs and a Bayer Leverkusen, though, is that there are no Bayern Munichs in MLS who cannot afford to build through their academies. There is no club upon whose shoulders rests so much pressure and manifest stress that they can’t afford to replicate this method at least in part. No MLS club has even won a modern Champions League, let alone shoulders the need to cobweb the academy. And in fact, with youth development what it is in the U.S. right now, they’d be doing their surrounding communities (not to mention their own club) a service to ramp it up.
FCD is a club of a million small things, a legion of minute decisions that stack on top of one another to create one gigantic conglomerate of streamlined success. Decisions as small as putting academy players on the same training plane as first team players, for instance. It isn’t just what Champions League clubs do. It’s what FC Dallas does.