Following a year that included a trip to the Boys Development Academy Finals Week, an academy player signed directly to a professional contract, and a few Youth National Team call-ups, Saint Louis FC Academy’s success in 2019 was one for the record books. Some of the groundwork for that successful season can be traced back to a move made in 2014.
Saint Louis Scott Gallagher Illinois (SLSG IL) established a partnership with Dutch club Feyenoord in 2014. In the midst of a wave of clubs setting up some agreement or another with European clubs, it was an easy one to look past with limited expectations.
However, everything about the agreement between the two clubs was different.
“We looked for partnerships with the three things we wanted - international experience, coaching education, and an opportunity for our best guys,” Saint Louis FC Academy Director Blake Decker told TopDrawerSoccer in a phone interview. “We looked for about three years. We talked to a bunch of clubs. Even in our four month conversations, it seemed like there was turnover in those clubs and you were talking to someone new week to week.”
Nearly six years later, the partnership is bearing fruit and might be the blueprint for many clubs in the country to follow for the next decade. The SLSG IL Academy Program, which merged with the SLSG MO Academy Program in 2017 to form Saint Louis FC (STLFC) Academy, was named the “most improved academy” by U.S. Soccer in 2015 - only one season after working with Feyenoord.
The success was not a flash in a pan. In 2018, for the first time, the club qualified both the U17 and U19 age groups for the Development Academy playoffs in the same season. In 2019, the club enjoyed perhaps their best season in boys club soccer. STLFC U18/19 advanced to the Development Academy semifinals amongst a sea of heavily backed MLS-funded academies, STLFC put together an impressive run and came up just short of a crack at the title. The USL club signed the first player, Nichi Vlastos, to a professional contract directly from the academy after Finals Week.
“If you look at the group last year that made up that U19 team, there were a number of those guys who had been over to the Netherlands as 13s and 14s and gotten that experience,” Decker told TopDrawerSoccer. “There were also a number of guys who had been over there training on internship as well. You can point to guys over the last few years whether it's Jack Maher or others we have sent over there and when they received subsequent opportunities they were better prepared.”
Decker also point to Patrick Schulte as another player who has benefited from the relationship with the club in Netherlands. Schulte spent 10 days training with Feyenoord before he had his first shot with a U.S. Youth National Team.
The success of the player development is only part of the story and the ambition for working with Feyenoord. Decker has been with SLSG IL/STLFC since 2006. He has seen the growth of the club and the change in the club soccer landscape over that time. He pointed to the development of the club as the biggest gain from the partnership with Feyenoord.
“I think the biggest asset has been on the club development side,” Decker said. “In being able to have a model to look at and talk about, not to copy. We’re not Feyenoord and St. Louis isn’t Rotterdam. We can’t take what they do and put it here. Because of the amount of time we’ve spent over there, the amount of time they’ve spent here, or the time we’ve conversed over Skype, we’ve had dialogue - six years worth of it.”
“We were ready to tackle the basic things in year one,” Decker continued. “As you grow and get better, you’re ready to tackle more things so that conversation has evolved over time as the club has evolved and we’ve been able to add a piece here and a piece there. It’s not that we took exactly from that they do. But we said that maybe we could do this and it’s not feasible to do it like that, but we could add that to what we do. It’s like building a house. Building the foundation first and then everything else comes after that.”
Furthering coaching education was another element of the relationship with Feyenoord that applied to Decker and the club.
“There are two different experiences - three, really - from a coaching education opportunity,” Decker said. “When we travel over there with teams, we have the coaches go over there and they are interacting with the staff that is training our group. It’s been the predominantly the current Feyenoord U17 coach Melvin Boel has been involved since the very beginning. Usually someone else from the academy is there assisting. During that week, they are running training in the morning and then we’re interacting with them all afternoon.”
Coaching education also happens when players are sent over there on internship opportunities during the season.
“The other piece that we do is the internships,” Decker explained. “We send coaches over there. We, usually, send two coaches with two players. Those are extremely valuable because they set those up essentially based on who we are sending. If we send a coach who works with Zone 1 (U6-U12), he is spending the week watching their Zone 1, interacting with their Zone 1 coaches, meeting with their scouting director and learning how they identify talent at that age.”
Decker also gave a specific example for how Feyenoord has designed these opportunities for specific coaches.
“We’ve sent over Dale Schilly, who is the Youth Technical Director for SLSG-IL now, but at the time we has the head coach for Saint Louis FC and he had the opportunity to meet with Martin van Geel, their technical director, and be around the first team. Those experiences are Taylor-made based on the current working context of the coaches who go over there.”
The trips to Rotterdam are not designed so the coach just gets off a plane and is given the keys to the castle. The learning experience is meant to help further curiosity and really assist the prepared coaches.
“They never will hand you something and say this is how we do it,” Decker said. “But they will take 90 minutes out of their day and if you have questions and come in prepared, they will sit with you for 90 minutes and have a dialogue about their working environment, how they do things, and why they do things. From what we found you get as much out of it as you put into it. If you send the right people and they are prepared, they are going to spend the time with the right counter-part in Rotterdam who will answer their questions and talk shop.”
The club development, coaching education, and international experiences for the players have helped the club establish a firm foothold as one of the best places for youth soccer in the Midwest. The recent success in the Academy playoffs and the signing of an Academy product to a professional USL contract have generated attention as well.
“We have real life examples now that we can point to - not that we didn’t in the past,” Decker said. “Saint Louis has a rich soccer history, but it’s a little bit removed from our current players everyday experience. With us signing Nichi Vlastos directly out of the academy after the academy finals last year, it is the first time that we have ever done that in the five years we’ve had the USL team. Instead of talking about this pathway that hypothetically exist for players, we can point to a guy, who has a good story as well. He was in training with the first team for a year, then he was out of it. Then he was in it again and then he was the first guy who got signed. You can point to examples.”
Vlastos represents an important step for the Academy - after all the goal at Feyenoord is to produce players for the first team, and STLFC looks to have ambitions to do the same. The first one through the door is perhaps the player with the most unique background.
Vlastos came to the Saint Louis area in his teenage years after growing up in rural Casper, Wyoming.
“He came after his freshman season in high school,” Decker said. “At that time, we had a coach from that area. Through that connection, we learned about Nichi [Vlastos]. He had aspirations of being a professional player. The opportunities in Casper, Wyoming are less than for someone in Saint Louis. He started coming here, he trained a little bit and then he moved and lived with an aunt and an uncle. He played with the SLSG-Missouri program and then we merged and he played with the STLFC program. As a U17 with SLSG MO, he was with the first team during the preseason. He went down to Orlando and played games with the first team when Preki was the head coach. As STLFC GM Jeremy Alumbaugh likes to say, he went from trying to meg Kaka to being out of the picture a month later.”
Despite his appearances during the preseason, Vlastos fell out of favor with the first team staff. He went from being the favorite for the club to sign as the first academy product to a guy who might not have any chance at a deal.
Decker said the midfielder refined his game - worked on the shortcomings of his game to better suit the style of play in the United States, and the extra training earned him another chance with the first team.
“He was the last of the five guys that we had on Academy contracts with the first team last year,” Decker said. “He got a second crack at the apple, and flourished.”
Vlastos triumph is just the start for the club, as now other players see the path to the first team is possible.
“It is no different than Roger Banister and the four-minute mile. When someone else has done it, they’ve knocked down a door,” Decker said. “You’ve removed that block in a player’s head. A block that says yes this is possible, but is it probable? Now someone they’ve sat on a bus with for 10 hours on a trip to Minnesota was signed out of the academy to a professional contract. There is somebody they sat on a bus with to Cleveland that made it to the Academy finals. It becomes more real, and by becoming more real it becomes more possible for them. Certainly we’ve seen that in terms of the expectations that our players are putting on themselves.”
“Many factors over the past several years have contributed to our progress as a club and as an Academy, most notable is the return of professional outdoor soccer to St. Louis,” Decker added. “The vision of SLSG to bring the professional game back to St. Louis via Saint Louis FC filled a major gap in the player pathway. Furthermore, the investment of resources and the belief of the club leadership in our Academy project coupled with the emergence of the Double Pass which is designed to measure, motivate and support talent development projects like ours have all played a crucial role in our more recent successes. Throughout this evolution in the national, local and even our own internal landscape, Feyenoord and the Feyenoord staff have been a reliable and valuable partner.”
Decker gives a lot of credit to the people within Feyenoord’s club for facilitating this relationship to develop, grow, and evolve.
“Between Sevy [Sucurovic] (Feyenoord Director of Business Affairs - USA), Melvin [Boel], and Gido Vader (Feyenoord International Relations Manager), it’s the personal relationship that allowed this partnership to continue,” Decker said. “That would not be possible if you were dealing with a new guy every week. We’ve essentially dealt with the same guys for six years. They know the club, they know Saint Louis. They’ve all been here, they’ve all seen the club. We’ve interacted with them over there. Without those people, their knowledge of our club, our ambitions, our staff and our players, I don’t think the relationship would have been able to grow in the way it has. Because of these relationships, as the landscape and our needs changed so to our partnership was able to change, evolve, and improve.”