EDITOR'S NOTE: When you've been around for 25 seasons and you've come as far as Major League Soccer has in a quarter-century, you can bet that there are more than a few rich stories to tell. We're picking out the best ones for a 12-part LEGACY series running throughout 2020: long-form storytelling authored by one of MLSsoccer.com's all-time top writers and fan favorite, Nick Firchau. This installment originally ran on April 2.
Sometime just before sunset on a warm, clear night in El Paso roughly 22 years ago, Tim Hankinson had a realization. Maybe it was after he first heard the mariachi band serenading the South Texas locals, or before he addressed a team of wide-eyed young American soccer players — he can’t quite remember. It’s difficult now to recall all of the minute details of an otherwise inconsequential Thursday night soccer game played way back on April 23, 1998.
Just two years into MLS's existence and more than a decade before multi-million dollar youth academies and full-fledged reserve teams would become an extension of every club, the league and US Soccer joined forces in 1997 to fill the gap of player development by launching the "Project-40" program. In 1998 Hankinson was given the job of taking 22 of the nation’s best young players — mainly college underclassmen and U.S. youth national team prospects — and forming a team that would compete in the second-tier of American soccer (then known as the A-League) with the goal of giving those players the experience that would accelerate their development.
The project wasn’t dependent on winning matches or producing immediate returns, but instead the focus was first on developing players for the 2000 Olympics and then the slow and steady march to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, when Hankinson’s players would be in their primes. Theoretically, that’s when this group of players — or at least the ones still standing — would lead the United States beyond all expectations and into the final, ruthless rounds of the World Cup.
On this night in 1998, however, the World Cup final was a distant dream. The stark reality was Socorro Stadium, less than a mile from the Mexican border and bubbling with a crowd feverishly rooting on the hometown El Paso Patriots, one of 28 teams in the USISL A-League. This was the top tier of minor league American soccer, where Hankinson and his players spent that spring and summer suiting up at times in barns and military pup tents, scrapping with bitter A-League players and each other, and criss-crossing North America at a frantic pace, playing everywhere from San Diego to Staten Island.
"This," Hankinson thought to himself that night in El Paso, "is going to be much harder than I thought.
If you imagine these young men as the future luminaries of American soccer, then perhaps it’s best to understand how exactly stars are born. Effectively it’s a process of separate particles drawn together via a gravitational pull, and those particles are then exposed to tremendous pressure. That pressure creates enormous heat and energy via a powerful fusion reaction, and if the star can withstand both the inward force of gravity and the outward force generated by the fusion reactions, the star remains stable.
Simply put, if the players could come together and withstand the pressure of this game and all the others still to come, perhaps they could survive and eventually light up the sky.
"Each one of them looked like a deer in the headlights," Hankinson says now. "I told them the truth: ‘They don’t respect you. These guys are gonna kick you tonight. They want you to know they deserve to be in MLS, not you.'"
The first-ever game played by the top developmental team in MLS went down as a loss. Hankinson's team twice rallied from a one-goal deficit to force a shootout, but the Patriots triumphed in front of 3,420 fans, marking an inauspicious start for a Project-40 team unlike any seen before or since in American soccer. The Project-40 players crashed in a local hotel and got up early the next day, ready for a four-hour bus ride winding North through the high desert of New Mexico, on to Albuquerque for a second game in three days.
“We were boys against men”
The first player signed to a Project-40 deal was Carlos Parra, a 19-year-old defender and two-time high school All-American from West Haven, Conn. There were 22 underclassmen initially signed to contracts in 1997 and 1998, and each of them was assigned to an MLS team. Parra, like most of the players signed, opted to turn pro instead of seeing out his college career at an NCAA powerhouse — he was slated to play for Maryland — in hopes he could break through.
"It feels good to be the original guy who started this program," Parra said. "When I see young kids signing now, I can say I was a part of that, and so were all the guys on that first team. How many people today would do anything for an opportunity like the one I got?"
The opportunity offered to Parra and his teammates was the brainchild of Sunil Gulati, who in 1997 served as the Deputy Commissioner of MLS. Though he would later spend 12 years as the president of the U.S. Soccer Federation, in the late 1990s he was still focused chiefly on player development, and enticing the country’s best young players to sign with the league.
Each player was offered a $24,000 contract, the league minimum at the time. It wasn’t much money then and even with inflation only amounts to roughly $38,000 today, well below the league’s current reserve minimum salary of $63,547.
"Nobody was negotiating anything," said Eric Quill, a midfielder from Texas who left Clemson after one season to sign his Project-40 contract.
Players were also provided a five-year academic package that covered tuition up to $37,500 if the players used the money within 10 years of signing their pro contract, mitigating the risk of abandoning a college scholarship for the pros.
"I don't have any regrets," Parra said before the 1998 season. "At first, my parents really wanted me to go to college. But they recognized that I wanted to concentrate on becoming as good a player as possible. I don't think they would have let me sign if I wasn't getting money for school that I can use later on."
The "40" in Project-40 stood for the aspirational goal of players appearing in 40 games a year, either with their designated MLS teams or, if they couldn’t make the MLS gameday roster, another route. But unlike today, there were no reserve or academy teams in the late 1990s, which meant Gulati and MLS had to get creative in order for its young players to get games. The result was an agreement with the second-division A-League that would allow the Project-40 team to join that league and play a full 28-game schedule beginning in 1998.
But the Project-40 team was no ordinary club team. Each player would train with his designated MLS club every week, Monday through Wednesday, and would typically leave on Thursday to meet up with the Project-40 coaching staff ahead of a Friday night game. Oftentimes they would stay with the team and travel for a second A-League game on Sunday night, then return to their MLS team for Monday training.
If they were lucky enough to make the gameday roster for their MLS team that week, however, they would skip the Project-40 trip entirely. That meant the Project-40 roster fluctuated nearly every week, with players coming and going on flights all over the country, all the time. Sometimes the team had just one or two substitutes to work with and since not every Project-40 player was available every weekend, other first-year MLS players who were technically not on Project-40 contracts were made available to Hankinson.
"You definitely had the feeling that the league was trying to figure this entire thing out for the first time," Quill said. "For us to even look the part and move the ball around was tough."
Said longtime MLS color commentator Brian Dunseth, who was part of the 1997 Project-40 class: "It was the Traveling Wilburys out there — guys would just show up and randomly play."
The Project-40 team also never played a single home game in its three-year existence in the A-League (1998-2000), totaling 86 straight games without the comforts of a familiar training ground, or the luxury of adoring fans. Instead the players shuttled in and out of markets like Montreal, New Orleans, Minneapolis and Jacksonville, playing in front of crowds that ranged from less than 150 fans in Worcester, Mass., to more than 12,000 in Rochester, N.Y.
"It felt like we were some kind of traveling band, out on the road all the time and living out of the back of a van," said Tim Sahaydak, a defender who signed a Project-40 deal after his freshman year at North Carolina. "We might as well have been carrying amps and guitars."
The job of running the team’s unique set of logistics fell to Jan Osborne, who in 1998 received a call at her home in Montana and a request from Gulati to take charge before the A-League season started. Osborne was a respected and effective administrator in the game, and she served as the Director of National Teams for the U.S. Soccer Federation before she left the organization in 1995. A year later she organized the first-ever MLS Player Combine.
During her run with Project-40 she remained based out of Montana with her husband, sometimes taking as many as four connecting flights to eventually land in market ahead of the team’s game on Thursday or Friday night. She was simultaneously calling each of MLS's 10 coaches and asking which players would be released, booking flights for those players and, if she was lucky, giving Hankinson 12 or 13 players he could use for the weekend.
"The week-in and week-out work to field that team was an incredible challenge," Osborne said. "Most [MLS] coaches waited until Wednesday night to tell us which players they would release to us, and then we’d have to build out a roster. That was a new experience for me."
It was new to Hankinson too, despite a nearly 20-year coaching career in American soccer that included college stops at DePaul, Syracuse and stints in the A-League with the Charleston Battery and Raleigh Flyers. Hankinson worked closely with Gulati and MLS to develop the Project-40 initiative, often scouting the top U.S. youth teams and helping recommend which players might take the leap to MLS and earn the next Project-40 contract.
Once he took over the team itself, it was Hankinson’s job to run sometimes makeshift training sessions, piece together a functioning lineup, coach two games over 72 hours, then report back to various MLS coaches about how their players had performed.
"We were boys against men," Hankinson said. "And in the early stages of anything, boys can’t beat men. You just have to grow up fast."
“Everything in life needs a starting point”
Five games into its first season the Project-40 team swung east from San Francisco to New Jersey for a game against the Staten Island Vipers. While the Vipers typically hosted teams at a high school football stadium, their game against the Project-40s was held at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J, home to MLS's New York/New Jersey MetroStars at the time.
During the trip Hankinson loaded his team onto a bus for a day trip into Manhattan, where the players eventually disembarked and took a tour of the MLS corporate headquarters. This was the closest thing the team ever had to a home base, and they stopped periodically in the hallways to shake hands with wide-eyed MLS employees and sign autographs.
The star on that brief tour was a 19-year-old goalkeeping prospect from New Jersey named Tim Howard, who earlier that year signed a Project-40 contract as one of the prizes of the 1998 class. Howard appeared in just one game for the Project-40s — he made seven saves in the 3-1 win over Staten Island at Giants Stadium — before he made his pro debut with the MetroStars that same summer. By 2003 he was starting for Manchester United, and he went on to star for the U.S. at the 2010 and 2014 World Cups.
“They thought we were the spoon-fed kids who hadn’t learned to grind”
– Eric Quill, former Project-40 player
The other star of the 1998 class was Ben Olsen, a gritty 21-year-old midfielder from Pennsylvania who was named the 1997 Soccer America Player of the Year as a junior at Virginia. But much like Howard, Olsen played sparingly with the Project-40 team because he acclimated to MLS so quickly. He never flinched under the spotlight in his first season at D.C. United, and went on to win the MLS Rookie of the Year award. Olsen eventually played on the 2000 U.S. Olympic team and at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
And then there was Josh Wolff, an electric forward who left college after his junior year at South Carolina and was assigned to the expansion Chicago Fire. Wolff struggled mightily to break through on Bob Bradley’s veteran Fire roster and was consistently shipped out on the road to stadiums and hotel rooms across the country with Project-40.
"I wasn’t playing games for Chicago because honestly, I wasn’t good enough," said Wolff. "In fact, most of us weren’t good enough yet, but we needed some introduction to the game to show what we were capable of."
Wolff helped carry the Project-40 team to a respectable 7W-10L record into the dog days of summer, but then they stumbled in Seattle, Vancouver and Orange County, eventually falling to 8W-16L when the team hit the homestretch. By then the players had not only come to understand the rigors of the road, but also that they were marked men in the A-League.
"This opportunity had never been given to the A-League players. They looked at our guys as privileged, even spoiled," said Hankinson, who moved on to take over as head coach of MLS’s Tampa Bay Mutiny after 10 matches. "And they were there to knock the shine off our boots. You could feel that throughout every match."
Added Quill: "They thought we were the spoonfed kids who hadn’t learned to grind yet. They had a lot more bite to them when they played us."
The Project-40 team also frequently struggled to find adequate training grounds in various markets, and dealt with adverse situations that served as tell-tale signs of soccer’s place on the American sports landscape in the late 1990s. They picked up hypodermic needles off a field in Toronto. Before a game against the New Orleans Storm they changed in a military pup tent with no plumbing. In Vancouver fans hurled beers on the Project-40 goalkeepers with glee.
"It was all we knew. We hadn’t been exposed to anything other than that, so we didn’t think twice about it," said Wolff. "It wasn’t glitz or glamor, but if you wanted to be a pro, this was the pathway. This was the opportunity."
The Project-40 team won 10 of 28 games during their first season in the A-League and finished in fifth place in the Pacific Division, but Wolff ultimately leveraged his team-high 12 goals to crack the lineup in Chicago. He appeared in 14 MLS games during his rookie season and another five in the Fire’s run to the 1998 MLS Cup title, moving up to regular starter status the next season in 1999. By 2002 he was on the U.S. national team that reached the quarterfinals of the FIFA World Cup.
"Everything in life needs a starting point," Wolff said. "And this program was the starting point of something. A lot of the guys take a lot of pride in being part of that at the beginning."
“All 11 of them are left-footed”
Hankinson’s departure to coach Tampa Bay midway through the 1998 season opened the door for Lothar Osiander, who coached the U.S. national team during the 1980s and piloted the 1992 U.S. Olympic team in Barcelona. He was also the head coach of the LA Galaxy during MLS’s inaugural season in 1996, leading them to the MLS Cup final.
In Osiander’s first full season at the helm in 1999, the Project-40 class added 14 more underclassmen signings, including a handful of headliners. Chris Albright was an All-American forward at Virginia, and Dema Kovalenko was a national champion and All-American midfielder at Indiana. But the most potential loomed within the wiry, 5-foot-8 frame of 16-year-old DaMarcus Beasley, a lightning quick left winger from Ft. Wayne, Ind., who eight months after signing out of the US Under-17 national team residency program would win the Silver Ball as the second best player at the 1999 FIFA Under-17 World Cup.
“Some were professional, some were college brats.”
– Jan Osborne, former Project-40 GM
Despite a new crop of players and a new head coach, a lingering issue that carried over from the first season to the second was a psychological one for the players. After training with their first team for the first three days of the week, a number of players began looking at a Project-40 trip as a demotion, and they began acting out.
"It was very hard for the players emotionally, because they just didn’t want to be there," said Osborne. "For some guys it was, ‘Okay I’ll do this for now, but I’m going to make my [MLS] roster. And then they ended being down there [with Project-40] almost all the time. Dealing with their attitude and their disappointment was a big challenge."
Said Dunseth: "That was always a problem. There were plenty of guys who would look at the Project-40 staff and say, ‘Bro, you’re not my coach.’"
The strategies to avoid a Project-40 trip varied. Some players would play exceptionally rough while with the team, aiming to get a red card and not be asked or allowed to return. At least one player had a reputation for intentionally missing his flight. Some would make their flight but never show up for the game, or perhaps show up in street clothes at halftime, indifferent to any discipline they might face.
And some would simply cause trouble whenever they could, a result of intentional disobedience or simple immaturity.
"Hotel incidents, girls, just general trouble," Osborne said. "Some were professional, and some were college brats. For the coaches and I, it was basically about being a parent and a teacher, and trying to be tough on them so they might actually grow up and make it as a pro."
Osborne herself got thrown in the mess of emotion one night in Vancouver, when a scuffle broke out on the field between players from the Project-40 team and the hometown 86ers. When punches started flying Osiander motioned to Osborne to come down from her spot in the stands to help break up the fight.
"He didn’t move an inch. I think he knew none of the players would hit me," Osborne said with a laugh. "And he was right."
The logistical issues carried over too, and became even more challenging. By the 1999 season, in order to make up the roster numbers, spots were regularly opened up to non-Project-40 players who needed extra minutes. Suddenly Osborne’s flight itineraries included other youngsters looking for reps, slightly older players looking to stay sharp or players coming back from injury.
That influx of chaos at times led to squads largely unimaginable in soccer, other than in the world of Project-40.
"One week Jan sends me this group and when I put them out on the field, I realize all 11 of them are left-footed," Osiander said. "I had spent my whole life looking for lefties and then I put out this lineup, and every single one of them is left-footed. All 11 guys. But we didn’t care. We had five balls and 10 bibs, that’s all you need."
Osiander endured and the Project-40 team exceeded expectations in its second season, securing a playoff berth by finishing second in the Central Division. That led to a one-game playoff in the Western Conference quarterfinals against Vancouver that the team won, 3-1, behind two goals from a midfielder from El Paso named Kirk Wilson, who wasn’t even a Project-40 signing.
The next week they traveled to Minneapolis to play a two-game series over three days against the Minnesota Thunder, the top team in the Western Conference. The Thunder won the first game 1-0 and finished off the Project-40s in the best-of-3 series with a 2-0 win in the second game, on their way to the 1999 championship.
“That Project 40 trip changed my life”
One of the great ancillary benefits of the Project-40 team was the international travel afforded to the team during the offseason. Over the first few years of the program Osiander and third-year coach Alfonso Mondelo took players abroad to play in Portugal, England, Argentina, Germany and Holland, exposing them to the ambitious reserve squads and stately training grounds of some of the finest organizations in global soccer.
Following the 1998 season in the A-League, Osiander took the Project-40s to Manchester, England, where the team played in five friendly matches over two weeks against the reserve squads from Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday, Sunderland, Everton and Sheffield United. Osiander added England-born Canadian international and future MLS Cup champion coach Frank Yallop as an assistant — "I needed someone who knew how to drive on the other side of the road," Osiander quipped — and the Project-40s won all five of their games on the trip.
In 2000 Mondelo took the Project-40 team to Argentina, and the roster was loaded. The 2000 class added names like Carlos Bocanegra, Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, and they joined 1999 alum Beasley to knock off the reserve teams from both River Plate and Huracan on the trip.
In November 2002 former Colorado Rapids coach Glenn "Mooch" Myernick took the Project-40 team abroad to Europe for games against the reserve squads from clubs like PSV Eindhoven, Borussia Mönchengladbach and Borussia Dortmund. That squad wasn’t as star-studded as Mondelo’s squad in Argentina, but it included a promising 18-year-old striker from Florida named Eddie Johnson as well as Beckerman, who up to that point had been struggling to find his footing in MLS.
Assigned to the Miami Fusion after signing a Project-40 contract in 2000, Beckerman appeared in just two games as a 17-year-old rookie in South Florida. He broke his leg during a game with the Project-40 team in 2001 and a year later had been dealt to Colorado, where he found Myernick.
Beckerman was considered one of the top prep talents in America when he turned down interest from Maryland to go pro, but his skills didn’t immediately translate to MLS. When he played with Beasley and a teenaged Landon Donovan at the 1999 Under-17 World Cup he played as a creative center-mid in a 4-4-2 diamond formation, but as a pro Beckerman had only found minutes out wide, in deference to more established offensive playmakers.
During the team’s game against the Borussia Dortmund reserves in November 2002, however, Myernick went with a hunch and dropped Beckerman back into the holding midfielder role. The position was a natural fit, and Beckerman’s career took off. He became a regular for the Rapids, eventually emerged as the face of the organization at Real Salt Lake and helped anchor the midfield for the U.S. national team at the 2014 World Cup.
"I never looked back," said Beckerman, who is now MLS’s all-time leader in appearances and minutes played among field players. "That Project-40 trip found my position, and changed my life."
“What am I doing here? Did I make the wrong decision?”
The majority of Project-40 alums speak of the initiative in nostalgic and celebratory terms, but the project certainly had its share of critics and chief among those were the coaches of high-profile college programs worried about getting raided by overzealous agents and MLS executives.
Armed with a pro contract that also included a $37,500 tuition package, MLS signed two players from Maryland to contracts in the span of two weeks in January 1998 — sophomore goalkeeper Andy Kirk and standout junior midfielder Judah Cooks. Virginia also lost three players that winter.
MLS managed to sign 15 players from the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference over the first four years of the Project-40 program, far more than any other conference in the country. In the winter of 1999 a group of ACC coaches met to address their concerns that MLS was taking the initiative too far and leaving gaping holes in the college game.
It was the beginning of the age-old debate as to the optimal development path for young American players.
"I have very mixed feelings," Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski told The Baltimore Sun at the time. "We're all grateful that MLS is here, but I would like to see better communication with the league about their intentions."
Elmar Bolowich, who coached North Carolina from 1988-2010, watched MLS frequently swoop in and sign the conference’s best players with the hopes they would make the grade in MLS.
Today he admits that the nation’s top programs often used Project-40 signings as marketing tools for the next crop of recruits, and that MLS coaches like Bradley, Myernick, Bruce Arena and Sigi Schmid worked intently with college coaches to evaluate which players were ready to leave school. But once it became clear that players were interested in signing a Project-40 contract, MLS rarely hesitated to take a risk.
"MLS was a little bit reckless in that regard. Why sign a kid who won’t play, why not leave him in college?" Bolowich said. "Sometimes MLS would jump on a player and I was thinking, ‘There’s no way this guy is going to get playing time.’ And it wasn’t one, sometimes it was two or three."
"We want to give the players the option of using the money when they feel they are ready to continue their education," Gulati said as MLS Deputy Commissioner in 1998. "We do not want to discourage any of our players from furthering their education. But at the same time, we need to develop players at a faster rate than the college game is doing so that they are able to play at the level of our league now, and where we expect it will be in the near future. Project-40 is a win-win situation because it allows MLS to develop players and gives players an opportunity to complete their college education."
“Everyone had to put in their own little grain of sand along the way to help this thing grow.”
– Alfonso Mondelo, former Project-40 coach
Hankinson said he recognized how difficult it was for many of the Project-40 players to make the leap to MLS, and that some of them likely had their regrets about leaving college early. The trick, Hankinson insisted, was how to best explain to players that humility was simply part of the equation, even if they’d never truly experienced it before.
"From a psychology standpoint, it was important to us to help them understand the process. At this point in American soccer, kids had never heard of the idea of being an apprentice," Hankinson said. "We had to convince them that this was a fight, and it was an uphill fight. It was a fight up a mountain to become a better player, and to do it as fast as they could."
Some climbed faster and further than others. For every Howard, Wolff, Beasley and Beckerman, there were several Project-40 players who failed to have notable careers, and their names are largely footnotes on the margins of MLS history. The average MLS career appearances for the first class of 10 Project-40 players was just 53 games, and five of those players failed to appear in even 15 games. Those numbers improved with the 1998 class, but the 1999 group had four players who never even played 10 games in the league.
While Project-40 players did not count against team rosters, some coaches were less inclined to play youth prospects with their jobs on the line. The league was also slightly older than that it is now — the average age in 1997 was 27 years, 32 days, compared to 26 years and 113 days in 2019 — and, as a number of Project-40 players indicated, there was little or sometimes no support for young players trying to break through. At the time there was no proven formula or established culture for blooding younger players in MLS.
"It was, ‘Figure it out on your own.’ There wasn’t anyone on the staff checking up on the younger players," said Quill, who ultimately appeared in 143 games for four MLS clubs. "The first year the physical level between me and the older players became larger and larger, and then your confidence was shot. And suddenly you’re asking yourself, ‘What am I doing here? Did I make the wrong decision?’"
Said Mondelo, who coached the MetroStars in 1998 and the Tampa Bay Mutiny in 2001: "As a coach, you still had to win games. You had a number of more experienced or veteran players, and you took your chances with those guys. The minutes for the young guys were given with an eye-dropper — little by little."
Seth Trembly was just 17 years old when he joined Project-40s as part of the 2000 class. A native of Littleton, Colo., Trembly was assigned to the Rapids so he could stay close to home, and the story of his skipping a Rapids home game to attend his high school prom made him a dream come true for the media relations department.
But he struggled to make a dent in the Rapids lineup, even with the benefit of playing games for the Project-40 team. Trembly appeared in just 12 games over his first three seasons in the league.
"Had I gone to college and then gone into the draft and been selected by the Rapids instead of being allocated to them as Project-40 kid, maybe they would have had more invested in me as a first-round pick," Trembly said. "If you’re a first-round pick, people want to see you play. No one had to stick their heads out to play me or give me a shot. For me, the back and forth between the Rapids and the Project-40 team was never quite consistent enough on either side to serve its purpose."
Scott Vallow was a regular on the 1999 Project-40 team that made the A-League postseason, but he would rather have been playing in Dallas. The two-time All American goalkeeper from Bowling Green was assigned to the Dallas Burn after signing his pro contract, but he couldn’t crack the lineup at all during his rookie season. Goalkeepers faced a unique challenge in the system because they couldn’t play the final 10 or 15 minutes of a game like Quill or Wolff did to prove their worth, so they largely watched the games from the stands or a club suite.
Vallow grew so frustrated by the situation that after the 1999 season he asked Dallas head coach Dave Dir to be released from his contract so he could play in the A-League full-time, and increase his chances of being called back up to MLS in the future. He landed with the Rochester Raging Rhinos and eventually resurfaced in MLS with the Rapids in 2003, when he played in four games, the only appearances of his MLS career.
"The concept for Project-40 was right," said Vallow, who ultimately appeared in 167 games for Rochester. "But there were a lot of young guys who got a year or two in the program and if it didn’t work out, MLS would just find another set of younger players.
“It was a brotherhood then, and it still is today.”
The Project-40 team played its third and final season in the A-League in 2000, winning just eight of its 28 games under Mondelo and missing the postseason. It was simply too expensive to continue funding the team’s weekly travel and logistics, so after 2000 the team was limited to offseason trips and training opportunities with international clubs.
"I was devastated," Osborne said. "I really believed in it, and I was willing to continue to fight to get those players released who would benefit from the program — maybe they needed minutes on the field, or they needed to grow up. We were there for both."
Said Mike Flaherty, who served as the Project-40 equipment manager and team coordinator: "Just to see all the different aspects of the game in America, it was the most amazing soccer experience I’ve had."
The project continued under the Nike banner for three more years, signing players such as Edson Buddle, Brad Davis and Ricardo Clark, all of whom appeared in World Cup matches for the U.S. national team. Adidas signed a deal to partner with the league beginning in 2004 and the Project-40 initiative became Generation Adidas, which still serves as the league’s flagship program for identifying top college talent in America.
The names who have come through the Generation Adidas program are staggering. Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley all appeared in multiple World Cups for the U.S. national team, and when the U.S. lost in the Round of 16 at the 2010 World Cup, the roster featured 11 graduates of the Project-40/Generation Adidas program. They made up roughly half the U.S. squad for that tournament, which the original Project-40 architects had targeted as the culmination of their plan.
"Look at the careers that some of these players had and all they accomplished," Mondelo said. "So many of those guys went on to become national team players. It was a different time without the investment or the exposure we have today, but it was the right thing for that day. And in identifying and developing elite players, it was a tremendous positive."
More investment and exposure over the years has also led to much bigger paychecks. The seven members of the 2019 Generation Adidas class averaged nearly $125,000 in guaranteed salary last year, despite making just 52 combined appearances in the league. All but one of the players played in at least one game, but six of the players found themselves loaned out to USL clubs to help them get minutes as they acclimated from the college game.
“We need to develop players at a faster rate than the college game.”
– Sunil Gulati, ex-MLS Deputy Commissioner
Some veterans of the early Project-40 teams worry that today’s booming contracts might give a young player a false sense of confidence upon entering the league. That was never a problem for those who slogged through the A-League.
"We got humbled," said Quill. "Sometimes today you see a kid sign a $100,000 contract and he thinks he’s rich before he’s even stepped on the field. He likes the lifestyle but he doesn’t want to roll his sleeves up, and maybe he thinks he’s going to earn that contract for the next 12 years of his life. Those are the guys who don’t last long."
By 2006 MLS implemented the Reserve League to help young players pick up minutes if they couldn’t make the first team, but the season schedule only included 12 games. The Reserve League lasted through 2014, at which point MLS began building out formal affiliations with USL teams or forming their own USL teams to serve as their minor league proving ground. It’s a system that’s proving critical today with MLS clubs pumping out a pipeline of young homegrown academy talents who need the experience.
In 2019 USL League One began play, serving as the third tier of American soccer and an additional developmental step for young players. Though USL1 boasted big names like John Harkes and Hankinson among their coaching ranks, it was the Project-40 alum Quill who won Coach of the Year after he led his North Texas SC club to the league title.
Quill was also one of the first coaches to identify and develop a lanky central defender from Alabama named Chris Richards, and Quill ultimately led Richards to sign with FC Dallas. FCD loaned Richards to the Bayern Munich reserve team in 2018, and the Bundesliga powerhouse paid a reported $1.2 million transfer fee to bring the American prospect to Germany in January 2019, something practically unheard of when Quill played Project-40.
Many of that era’s other players are helping to develop the next generation as well. Sahaydak and Trembly both coach in the college ranks, while Parra runs an elite youth program in Seattle, and Vallow coaches in the NWSL.
Wolff is head coach of the 2021 MLS expansion side Austin FC, while Olsen has been the head coach at D.C. United since 2010. Bocanegra is the Technical Director at Atlanta United and won an MLS Cup title with the club in 2018, and Albright serves as Technical Director for the Philadelphia Union. Other names from the early years dot the current soccer coaching landscape in some form or another in New Mexico, Texas, Maryland and other regions of the country.
Mondelo, meanwhile, has served as the Director of Player Programs for MLS since 2010 and has watched the league build its youth academy structure and partner with or create 14 USL clubs to help bridge the developmental gap, just as Project-40 aimed to do more than two decades ago.
"The young players coming into the league right now are in a professional environment, and they’re being guided and developed to be professional players," Mondelo said. "Those players in the early days, they had not been guided to be professional players ... Everyone had to put in their own little grain of sand along the way to help this thing grow."
Hankinson coached largely in the college and USL ranks after his MLS coaching days ended with the Rapids in 2004. He’s currently living and working in Texas, where he does color commentary for San Antonio FC of the USL. Osiander still lives in Northern California, where he has served as a consultant and coach for a youth soccer program in San Ramon.
Dunseth has found a home in the broadcast booth, working as a color commentator for Real Salt Lake. Flaherty has been the equipment manager at Sporting Kansas City since 2009. Osborne left MLS in May 2018 after years of helping coordinate the annual MLS Player Combine and the MLS All-Star Game. She still lives in Montana.
What binds them all is a shared experience like no other in league history. Many of them stay in touch and still recount some of the memories from back then. The mariachi band in El Paso. The uncut grass in Nashville. The broken-down team van in Hartford.
And the collective struggle of aspiring players to find their way from on the backroads of American soccer.
"Everybody that was Project-40 can always connect over that experience, we all knew what it was like and what we went through," Dunseth said. "It was a brotherhood then, and it still is today."
Nick Firchau is a longtime journalist and a former senior editor at MLSsoccer.com. During his time at MLSsoccer.com he profiled players and personalities such as Thierry Henry, Landon Donovan, Merritt Paulson, Pablo Mastroeni, Bobby Rhine and others, and he braved the entire US national team’s Snow Clasico game in March 2013 from the outdoor press box. He is also a veteran podcast producer, and the fourth season of his acclaimed podcast Paternal will debut later this year.