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Postcard from Europe: Ajax set up camp in New York City

Postcard from Europe: Ajax, American style

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AMSTERDAM — If the Ajax-ification of American soccer planted a seed when the US national team overhauled its entire development system to emulate the Dutch club's vaunted De Toekomst youth set-up last year, here’s the next step: The roots are about to take hold in New York this week.

Players out of Brooklyn, Manhattan and New Jersey ages 9-14 have already kicked off a four-day camp with a traveling group of academy coaches and old stars from a club that boasts 31 Eredivisie titles and four European crowns. On Saturday, the Ajax contingent will hold a seminar for coaches and academy directors.

The basis of Ajax' success over the last half-century has been its world-famous youth development campus, located a short bike ride away in the shadow of Amsterdam Arena. When the US Soccer Federation dove in to learning from the Dutch masters, it eventually opened the door that now has New York area kids and coaches joining class, all learning to do things the Ajax way.

Among the men who visited the Ajax camp a few years ago was New Jersey native and current US Soccer youth technical director Claudio Reyna, who met with Ed van Schaick, the Ajax consultant that organized the current American excursion.

"When I read his over development plan,” van Schaick told MLSsoccer.com, “there are a lot of ideas in there that are coming from Ajax."

In addition to remodeling the overall US approach to development and play, Reyna (right) also inspired friend Jeffrey Saunders — a filmmaker, former player and co-founder of Brooklyn club Saba Player Development — to sign up for lessons. Saunders brought a group to Amsterdam and trained at the Ajax facilities in 2011, then returned again earlier this year before he began to spread the Ajax seed across the New York metropolitan area.

"I feel that he wants Ajax to have a more permanent role in New York City," van Schaick said. "I'm interested in that opportunity because I think it's good for our name to have a presence again in the United States.

"My interest is to conduct a coach education program [in New York] on a more permanent basis, where we would come visit two or three times a year and have that as a starting moment," van Schaick added. "To me, it fits like a glove."

For all those not near New York, don't bother with envy just yet. The partnerships spawned by Reyna's initial Ajax experience aren't going to stop there.

In fact, van Schaick said the club will send legends like Arnold Muhren to the NCAA Coaches’ Convention in Indianapolis for practical sessions and meetings, all with the goal of stressing the club’s focus on a mix of academics and athletics.

As for what Ajax get out of these arrangements, it's not about expanding their revenue or scouting rolodex. Yes, there could be merchandising opportunities or a better scouting network, but that’s not the ultimate goal.

Ajax, after all, are one of the world’s best at fostering talent in the Amsterdam area, and they’ve proven to be a prime example of how to win with local talent.

“That's also the message that I need to bring; that you need to build your own environment with the ingredients you have,” van Schaick said.

That also means there isn't another Ajax-operated club on the drawing board.

"What we are doing is building up the clubs from the bottom, educating players, trainers and parents — especially in the age range of 8-13, when we set the foundations of soccer," stated van Schaik. "It's going to be different than the other places where we have a presence. We want to focus on coach education, linked to staff members.

"We don't want to invent the wheel for the US,” he added. “We know there's great characteristics for sports you need to retain. But we also have some elements here that can be useful."