Last month, nearly 16 years to the day since Freddy Adu made history as the youngest athlete signed by an American professional sports team in more than a century, the San Jose Earthquakes inked a 14-year-old wunderkind of their own.
As the math suggests, Emmanuel Ochoa wasn’t even born when Adu made his professional debut with D.C. United in 2004, a historic event that made headlines around the world. Ochoa is unlikely to draw even a fraction of the attention that Adu, the No. 1 selection in that year’s SuperDraft, did. He probably won’t shoot any soda commercials with Pele or date teenage pop stars or be anointed the savior of North American soccer. It might well be years before he even takes the field in an MLS match.
Ochoa hasn’t been thrust into the spotlight, and that’s part of the plan.
The US youth international goalkeeper isn’t even the only kid his age to turn pro in the past 12 months. Chicago Fire FC signed their own 14-year-old ‘keeper, Gabriel Slonina, in March (he’s since turned 15) and USL Championship side Orange County SC turned heads in August when striker Francis Jacobs broke Adu’s record as “the youngest male to sign a professional contract in United States soccer history” at the tender age of 14 years, 4 months, and 29 days.
So far in 2019, 11 players age 16 or younger have signed with MLS teams, and more are likely on the way.
“I think we’ve learned a lot, as a league,” D.C. general manager Dave Kasper, who was United’s technical director in the Adu era, told MLSsoccer.com.
“Since the advent of the academy system, [we’ve learned] how to develop and create development plans for young players … clubs that have USL teams [or] partnerships — they may not have their own team but they have an affiliate — those have provided great platforms for these young players to get professional minutes and not be pressured to play in MLS games when they’re not ready. I think that’s really helped a lot, and certainly in our case, we’re signing more Homegrown Players now than we ever have. And that trend will continue.”
Lessons learned, infrastructure built
At the time, Adu’s arrival in MLS was a coup for the league, beating the likes of Inter Milan to the signature of the nation’s top youth soccer prospect. It was also a fairly logical next step for a player who’d dominated every level he’d competed at to that point. It took a hefty amount of hindsight for the gambit to be branded a failed experiment, with the correspondingly harsh headlines to match:
“Too much, too young for 'wonderkid'?”
“The ultimate case of unfulfilled potential”
“From wonderkid to wanderer...”
“A kid in an adult world”
“Whatever happened to Freddy Adu?”
Today’s landscape, however, bears little resemblance to the one that Adu and his family had to navigate. Sprawling academy systems did not yet exist at that point, but are now the norm across the league — and even, increasingly, in USL. Individualized, multi-year plans are now laid out for every player, with carefully monitored transitions from youth competition to first-team acclimatization to USL action and eventually, hopefully, regular MLS minutes.
“When it comes to speaking to young players such as Emmanuel or Casey Walls,” explained Quakes GM Jesse Fioranelli, “or before that it was Gilbert [Fuentes] and Jacob [Akanyirige] and Cade [Cowell, all teenage Homegrowns], we spent up to six months with the parents and the player to set up a plan in order to put them in a position to live closer, study and at the same time be accompanied in the development path, one year at a time.
“As it pertains to strength and conditioning, nutrition and even the mentoring part, we have put a lot of time and effort and resources into making sure that those players that we have made a commitment toward, that they get the best possible support from us.”