Sporting Kansas City have made their academy an increasingly central facet of their operations, and added another homegrown player to their roost this week with the signing of Wilson Harris, who has lit up the USL Championship with 23 goals over the past three seasons with SKC’s second team.
Harris, you may have noticed, is not from KC. Nor did he grow up in the Midwest, where Sporting have built a sprawling network of affiliate youth clubs to help identify talent across their wider region.
The 20-year-old striker is from Los Angeles, the latest in a growing list of SKC academy imports from across the United States – and in the case of Hungarian-born attacker Daniel Salloi, beyond.
Gianluca Busio and Jaylin Lindsey arrived from North Carolina. Wan Kuzain is from Carbondale, in Southern Illinois. Felipe Hernandez was born in Colombia and grew up in Nashville. Goalkeeper John Pulskamp, who signed his homegrown deal back in February, is a native of Bakersfield, California who logged time in the LA Galaxy’s academy before joining SKC II last year, necessitating a trade of $50,000 in General Allocation Money to the Galaxy in order to secure his MLS rights.
Watch: SKC's newest signing, Wilson Harris
Prospects like these are invited to relocate to the KC area at as young an age as 8th grade, and they are carefully matched with a homestay family and local school. They’re then given a full spectrum of support as they grow up in the SKC culture, including a chauffeur program (underwritten with support from Audi) to help them get around, home economics and other life lessons, and constant checkups from staffers in the club’s player care department. Upwards of 20 kids are taking part in the program at present.
“Some players you identify, you move them six, eight, 12 hours [from home]; they sacrifice a lot,” explained Betsy Maxfield, Sporting’s director of player care.
“Our ideal is to get them in here as early as possible. So if we can get them in here before 14 years old, we all know that those boys change so much between 14 and 16, our depth charts change, like, overnight at that age group. So yeah, you've got to be in it for the long haul … you’ve got to have the commitment, you have to have the vision, you have to have the patience.”
Market size is the main impetus for all this – and it’s no small undertaking, requiring substantial investment in a nationwide scouting network as well as the aforementioned support structure. With a metropolitan area population of just over 2 million, a fraction of the size of Southern California’s (more than 13 million) or the New York metropolis (18.3 million), just to name two examples.
That limited local player pool, combined with the fear of being overwhelmed by the raw spending power of bigger-spending counterparts around the league, prompted Sporting – as well as fellow “Play Your Kids” pioneers FC Dallas, Real Salt Lake and Philadelphia Union – to augment their options with academy imports.
Watch: Houston families welcome academy prospects
“Maybe the 50th-best player in the LA market might be my third-best player,” SKC director of player personnel Brian Bliss told MLSsoccer.com.
SKC has a particular focus on the Great Plains, but they are by no means limited to that geography. It’s a key facet of their intent to spend smarter rather than bigger, and also extends to their use of their USL Championship team and a willingness to scour the college soccer scene for diamonds in the rough even as other MLS clubs effectively write off the NCAA as a recruiting ground.
“If you’re not what I would say is a high-flying, spending team – Atlanta, maybe Miami, LAFC – you’ve got to be digging under rocks and using all your resources you can to find the next best player at a price that you can afford,” explained Bliss. “So we do put a little bit extra effort into that area. Not saying that's paid off every time, but we've hit some gems along the way. And we've got to keep doing that. That's a core part of our business.”
In doing so, Kansas City have helped spark a leaguewide trend. Other clubs are making similar pushes to augment what’s in their backyards, with the likes of the Columbus Crew, FC Cincinnati, the Houston Dynamo and the Seattle Sounders quietly committing significant resources on this front.
In terms of sheer scale, the Vancouver Whitecaps may have taken the concept to its utmost extent by laying claim to nearly all of Canadian soil outside of Toronto and Montreal’s catchment areas, setting up a web of academy centers across eight of the country’s 10 provinces. Alphonso Davies famously made the move from Edmonton to join the Whitecaps and a few years later earned a record transfer to Bayern Munich, a team he helped to win the most recent UEFA Champions League.
In cases like Pulskamp’s and that of hyped New York Red Bulls newcomer and Minnesota native Caden Clark, out-of-market suitors must acquire homegrown rights from their previous or local MLS club. Players from regions without a nearby team have no such strings attached, though the most promising such cases are likely to have multiple offers. Some prospects have even moved to multiple clubs by the time they become legal adults as they seek the best fit and opportunities.
Harris spent time in Seattle’s system before joining SKC. Recent Philly academy recruit Diego Lopez, 15, previously played for RSL and LAFC at youth level. Another Union talent, highly-rated US youth national teamer Bajung Darboe, was courted by several MLS academies before picking Philadelphia after stints with Minnesota United and Chicago Fire FC.
If you’re interested in learning more about the human stories behind this, check out “The Academy,” a five-part, all-access documentary produced by Bleacher Report that follows the journeys of several SKC academy players chasing their pro dreams.