John Harkes is D.C. United's Director of Youth Development.
Tony Quinn/MLS/

Q&A: Kevin Payne, John Harkes

Kevin Payne - President and CEO

What are the goals of creating a Youth Team system for D.C. United?

"We think it's important to make that kind of connection, a real playing connection, particularly with the elite players in the area. This is an area that produces a lot of good players. Certainly, in the early years, we've had a lot of successes. Several players off of our teams are now in the National Team pools and we have a couple of kids down in Bradenton. It's just something that we think professional teams ought to be doing and we want to become more aggressive in this area as the years go by. And, it's a great way to connect. We think it's a great way for these kids to develop aspirations to eventually play for their home team in the big stadium."

D.C. United has made great strides getting into the less soccer developed areas in the region. Is that one of the keys to this program's success?

"It's a real focus. We want to make sure that we're active in the inner city, not just with the Y-League teams, but with all of our programs. We'll do some clinics and other things this year. We also want to look at maybe even doing a team that's specifically kids from the inner city, whether they're ready to play at a higher level or not, we want to get them introduced to the game with the right kind of coaching. And then in the Hispanic community we've asked John (Harkes) to make sure that we get a lot of those kids out to the try-outs and get them into the mix because there's probably talent there that we don't know enough about. For those kids, it's much more part of the culture to believe that as they progress, and if they eventually become professional players, they want to be part of their local team, and we want them to feel that way about D.C. United. We certainly feel that way about them."

Is there any time line for the development of a true reserve system in the league?

"I think it's coming sooner rather than later. It's not going to happen this year. I think we're pretty focused on it. There are some issues that need to be worked through on the League's side of it, with the union and so forth. But we believe it's something that has to happen and the League agrees with that. I think we're all on the same page and now we just need to make it happen."

John Harkes, Director of Youth Development

Describe what your responsibilities and duties are with D.C. United's Youth set-up?

"Basically, we are trying to develop and accelerate a program we have with the elite youth players in the area. We want to give them an opportunity to be recognized and to give them a chance to go into the youth National Team. But even down the line, we're trying to set up a reserve-type system. If MLS eventually moves towards that system, we'll already have it in place. We can do it from the U-10s, U-12s and all the way up. This year we have six teams - three boys, three girls, each at the U-14, U-16, and U-19 age levels. But it's something that needs to be looked at. The club wants to get involved more in the community under the D.C. United umbrella. And we've got some of the top coaches in the area overseeing these kids, giving them a great competitive environment, but letting them enjoy soccer at the same time as being taught soccer the right way."

What are the parameters of the training for the youth teams? How often do they practice?

"It will develop into a year-round program, I imagine. Right now, it's just a summer league, which we compete in the Super-Y League, which is recognized by the Olympic Development Program. So these kids will be able to be viewed by top coaches, as well as college coaches or youth National Team coaches in the area. It's a good, competitive league. We're traveling quite a bit, probably within four hours in our region. These kids are being exposed to other clubs, and not just those in this area. They're playing clubs all over this region, up and down the east coast."

What are you and D.C. United doing to go out and find the "hidden gem" in the urban areas of the region, or those local places that do not have established soccer programs?

"Well, we've actually had a lot of latino and urban city kids come out. Dave Kasper and I have been aggressive in getting the word out to people and the clubs that haven't been hit before, whether it's going to the training sessions and talking with the coaches or making sure that these kids are visible, that they have the information to be a part of the program. The other side of it as well, you can't just over concentrate in the inner city, there's a lot of good kids with clubs in our area that aren't being looked at properly or aren't being pushed in the right direction. It's important that we recognize that straight-away and try to develop that."

Although the consensus is that stadiums are the most important issue facing MLS, do you believe that the lack of Reserve Teams is also a major key to the success of the league?

"Yes, that's one of the keys that goes back to 1996. That group of players, playing in Europe came back to help establish the League. When we were asked, 'What's it going to take to make this league successful?', 'It's going to be Reserve Team systems and it's going to be the stadiums' were our answers. We are making strides; it's been very slow, but we are getting there. It is imperative that we have a reserve system in place. It makes total sense for these kids to have the opportunity, whether it be first team players coming back from injury having a chance to play in a reserve system . . . I can remember playing in the reserves for Sheffield Wednesday, or Derby County, or West Ham and playing against John Barnes and other top players. That's where you get your games in, and get your fitness back before you get on the field.

Also, guys that aren't getting the games with the First Team, if you can extend the roster, which we are doing with the Developmental Players coming into the sides, and the Youth International players, and the Project-40s, you've got to get these kids games. And if you compete in an actual league, a Reserve Team league, whether they are competing on a Monday night, or just after the First Team plays, then that's just going to be better and make our league stronger."

Is there any kind of time frame that you know of from the League that this might be established?

"Well, I think that's a question for Don Garber, the Commissioner of MLS. I know that he's had many discussions, but that hasn't been directed towards me in my role right now. I talk with Kevin Payne and Dave Kasper and that's something that we're like to work towards. I know that Chicago Fire has done a very good job in putting together youth clubs and putting them under the Fire umbrella, helping to develop kids and allowing them to identify kids as well. It's something that's going to save the league money as well. If you can recognize players in your own country and develop them, you don't have to pay a transfer fee, and it's going to save you in the long run. It's something that's smart down the line. It's looking at the big picture."

You also are involved with "MLS Wrap" on Fox Sports World, Saturday nights. How much fun are you having doing that job?

"It's a lot of fun! And you've got to be very disciplined because we don't use tele-prompters at all, we ad-lib everything on the show, and we basically write everything that we're going to do. It's basically reacting to the games. I have to watch all the games on the weekends, which is the hard part because a lot of them are on at the same time. So, it's always difficult in doing that and trying to break down plays and spend time getting the rhythm of the game if you're watching three or four games at the same time. That's the hard part."

"The fun part is that I get to stay involved with the game, and give my opinion after playing so many years at a high level. I'm not there to criticize and knock down players straight away, I'm there to tell it like it is - my honest opinion of what's happening on the field. It's a great hour of TV. It's fast moving, it's highlights . . . Fox Sports World does a great job of letting people know what's going on in MLS."

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