Piakai Henkel has never appeared with a U.S. youth national team, played in the Development Academy, or followed any traditional path for player development in the U.S.
Yet, the teenager from Northern California finds himself at one of the most prestigious youth academies in the world, Paris Saint Germain.
And how he arrived there is a bit serendipitous.
“In 2010, I was in Paris on vacation when a PSG scout saw me play,” Henkel told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “He immediately scheduled a try-out with PSG. I spent three days at the academy and after that they offered me a spot on the team.”
Henkel thanks his mother, who is originally from Singapore, but now a resident of France, for the trips to France that eventually led to his discovery by PSG.
He is the first American accpeted into the professional academy at PSG, according to a director at the club. Previously, PSG had accepted a couple of U.S. players into the amateur section of its youth club.
The 17-year-old midfielder is in his second season with PSG’s U17 squad, which is top of the table in the Championnat National Group F and recently won the Al Kass International Cup in Qatar.
“Our first game was against Al Ahly an Egyptian club, we won 7-0,” Henkel said. “I had a goal and an assist in the second half.”
Henkel added that all of the games from the event were broadcast on television both in Qatar and in Europe.
“I remember watching TV in the hotel room after the match and seeing my goal getting played over and over again,” Henkel said. “It was a special feeling.”
PSG U17 recorded a 2-2 draw against Barcelona in the second game of the event, and advanced as the top team in the group. PSG beat Kashima Antlers in the semifinal before topping Juventus in penalty kicks in the final.
“Once our last penalty kick taker made his shot, we all sprinted to corner flag and proceeded to crush each other in a huge dog-pile. Epic! Afterwards, under gold confetti we were awarded the tournament trophy, which looked very similar to the world cup trophy. I remember thinking, that this is why we play sports, to experience things like these.”
It has not all been good news for Henkel; the midfielder suffered an injury shortly after the tournament, which kept him out for a month.
His team is still cruising to another league title, despite his absence, with a 20-2-3 record on the season and an absurd plus 54 goal differential. Henkel estimates he has chipped in two goals and seven assists this year.
“Not too great, but still solid. I would say that because of my injury, it was still a difficult season.”
Given FIFA laws on the signing of underage players, Henkel has been put on a year-to-year scholarship with the Paris club, but that will soon change.
“However, next year that will not be the case because I am leaving the club,” Henkel admitted. “Next season, I will be integrated into the AS Amiens U19 squad.”
AS Amiens played in Ligue 2 in 2011-12, but did not fare well with only four victories, and will be relegated to Division 3 for next season. The club’s U19 squad is third (out of 14) in Championnat National Group A behind PSG and Rennes Stade F.C.
As for his national team future, Henkel has been frustrated by the lack of attention given to his plight in France.
“One of the problems is since there are no scouts in Europe, they can't see me,” Henkel said. He went on to say that there is a possibility he gets a look at the U18 Men’s National Team this summer.
Miami teenager talks about training with Real Madrid
Tomer Bitton gained notoriety last summer when he seemingly came out of nowhere and earned a trip to Spain to play with Real Madrid's academy as part of the adidas ITP tour.
The high school junior, who plays for Boca Raton Community High School and Boca United, was also surprised by the opportunity.
“Honestly, my dad called me one day while I was on vacation in Brazil, and told me that I had an opportunity to go to Real Madrid,” Bitton told TopDrawerSoccer.com.
So on August 21, 2011, Bitton began a weeklong training period with Los Merengues.
“The experience was amazing,” Bitton said about the opportunity. “It gave me a new perspective on soccer and it changed the way I play. I think I could have done better but of course I didn’t know anyone, I don’t speak Spanish, and the style of play was very different.”
Still, the teenager left a good impression on the coaching staff, which invited him back for another trip to Spain this summer.
“They invited me to go again this summer, but I need to talk with my parents about it.”
The 16-year-old said his preferred spot is center mid, and likes to ‘play smart and simple.’
Bitton was born in New York, and lived there for 10 years before moving to Miami. He is a product of Manhattan Kickers FC.
Center back from Tennessee tries his luck in Germany
Everything seems to be going Tanner Dieterich’s way recently.
The towering defender from Tennessee recently shined on the Region III ODP trip to Mexico. Prior to that, he was part of the Sunrise Elite U14 squad that won Dallas Cup in early April.
Last summer, thanks to his club coach Ajit Korgaokar, Dieterich went on trial with FC Koln’s youth academy.
“The experience was a wonderful opportunity for me, as a young player, to see what it is like for kids my age playing in Germany,” Dieterich told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “Training was very different from my own club. In Germany, you get a sense that you are being watched and evaluated at all times.
“Training was very intense. I even got to spend some time with the Koln youth players and when they are off the field they like to have fun but as soon as they lace up their boots it’s all business for them.”
The center back, who was called into camp with the U14 Boys National Team last year, added that the main thing he realized from his time in Europe is how physical the game is there.
“The main thing was aggression and physicality,” he said. “My first match back in the U.S. was very frustrating for me because of the change in officiating style.”
He had plans to return to FC Koln in April, but could not make it. He does intend to return in the fall for another trial.
UPDATE: This story was updated at 11:54 a.m. (ET) to include another player at PSG's academy. We apologize for the previous error.
J.R. Eskilson is a staff reporter at TopDrawerSoccer.com. Send him an email.