ELLICOTT CITY, Md. – From the streetlights and bearing the club’s red and black colors and “we march on” slogan to the large branded truck packed with video and testing equipment on the sidelines, Maryland’s Southampton Cup (taking place on December 4-5) bore ample signs of its English Premier League sponsor.
Plenty of big overseas clubs splash their crest and merchandise at US youth events, of course. What made this one different was the philosophy and commitment on offer from the team in question.
Southampton FC are known more for churning out polished players – the likes of Gareth Bale, Adam Lallana, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott – than they are for raking in championships. And with the help of their Maryland-based equipment sponsors UnderArmour, they’re ready and eager to share their world-class development know-how with the North American market.
“Our brand, if you like, is ‘potential into excellence,’” Andy Martino, SFC’s global football development manager, told TopDrawerSoccer.com as the tournament’s championship finals unfolded at Covenant Park in early December. “That’s developing the players not only as footballers but as humans as well, as people, and that’s what we pride ourselves on in the academy. Not all the players will make it to the pinnacle, to play in the Premier League, but the ones who do, there’s a way we want them to play, a way we want them to behave, and that’s the same if they don’t make it, if they go to other clubs or other aspects in life.
“We haven’t got a huge trophy cabinet,” he added. “We haven’t got the Premier League trophy in there, unfortunately, or the Champions League trophy. But what we have got is a real conveyor belt of players who have come through our system and played at the top, top level.”
When they weren’t playing games, Southampton Cup participants were given a taste of the Saints’ renowned academy system, invited to take part in an array of speed and agility tests and other data-gathering stations in and around the aforementioned truck.
Some would be familiar to American eyes, like sprinting, leaping and agility tests using timing gates and power readers. Others, less so – like the staffer who recorded the dimensions of players as well as their parents’ heights, then fed it all into a formula that predicts, with fairly high accuracy, how tall a player will grow up to be, and how they might aim to factor that information into their soccer careers. Top performers were awarded an autographed Southampton jersey.
It’s a real taste of what Saints academy prospects undergo every year. And to up the ante further, the Southampton Cup’s top performers (divided into two teams, a U-12s/U-13s group and a U-14s/U-15s squad) of will be invited to fly across the Atlantic in the spring for an all-expenses-paid “Five-Day UK Player Development Residential Programme” to get a firsthand experience of arguably the best academy environment in England.
“In the planning of the tournament we tried to think, how can we engage with these young players in a slightly different way?” said Mo Gimpel, SFC’s director of sports science. “And actually, why don’t we use this as opportunity to educate the mum, the dad, the coach, about what we’re trying to do here with a player and how you can use this information to make players better and more effective on the field, and better football players?
“What we’re looking for is a player who’s comfortable in possession, looks comfortable with both feet, looks smooth in the way he moves, he’s making the right choices and getting into the right positions … There are some standout players in this tournament that have the coaches chatting.”
The Saints also brought very tangible proof of their club’s proven track record of development: Their Under-12 academy side, which competed in the top bracket of the U-13 division at the Southampton Cup. The English guests dominated the field, winning all four of their games, scoring 22 and conceding none along the way with a slick pass-and-move, pressing style.
“The work we do in the academy is important to the club. The main aim is to try and get as many players through to the first team as we can,” said SFC coach Lee Smith. “Our club is unique in some ways because we do try to offer the opportunities. We’ve got good history and reputation of players coming through the academy to the first team and I think it gives these boys hope and inspiration that they can do it.”
As a rule, the club aims to guide as many as half of their academy products into the senior squad. With the first team watched on TV every week by a growing North American audience and word starting to spread about their academy’s success, Southampton sees this as the perfect moment to plant a flag in this new territory. They’ve struck up partnerships with the Soccer Association of Columbia and several other youth clubs across the United States to share knowledge and in some cases, even lay out a formal curriculum.
Will a young US talent someday find his or her way across the pond to EPL stardom on England’s South Coast? It might be a long shot, but Southampton are working to make it possible.