Those paying close attention to the steady stream of Homegrown signings across MLS may have noticed a trend in recent years: “Homegrown” no longer exclusively means “hometown.”
Some of the Seattle Sounders’ HGPs, for example, hail not from Washington State but places like Las Vegas (Danny Leyva) or Merced, California (Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez) Two of Sporting Kansas City's top academy products are from North Carolina (Gianluca Busio and Jaylin Lindsey); another hails from distant Hungary (Daniel Salloi). The Houston Dynamo have brought in promising prospects from Austin, San Antonio – though Austin FC now lay claim to much of the central Texas region – and the Texas Panhandle.
Even FC Dallas, who are nestled in one of the largest and most competitive youth soccer markets in the United States, have imported future pros from places like El Paso, Texas (Ricardo Pepi), Little Rock, Arkansas (Thomas Roberts) and Birmingham, Alabama (Chris Richards and Tanner Tessmann).
Clubs are searching further and further afield in search of top talent, often striking up affiliate relationships with youth clubs in faraway places to do so. They have crafted residential programs, often using funds from the Audi Goals Drive Progress program, to allow those kids to relocate to their adopted locales and chase their soccer dreams.
Most rely on homestay arrangements with local families, like the most recent arrival in this space, FC Cincinnati, who announced their new residency program this week. Others host players in group houses managed and overseen by club staff. Real Salt Lake operate what may be the most immersive system of all, with a dormitory and public charter school on site at their Zions Bank Real Academy facility in Herriman, Utah.
Casting a wider net
“We've opened up our scouting network and we're looking all over the country now,” said Larry Sunderland, Cincinnati’s director of player development, who previously led the academy programs in Portland and Chicago. “At the moment our academy is, I’d say regional, we have kids coming in from Louisville, from Lexington; we have one player in homestay. But next year it'll be much broader. We've been scouting much more depth for next year.
“We're going to start off with a homestay here, we believe that there's enough civic pride and interest in the program here that we’ll have people stepping up to want to homestay the kids.”
Columbus Crew SC central midfielder Aidan Morris is a native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and at age 15 was playing for nearby club Weston FC when former Crew academy director Dennis Sanchez approached him at a U.S. Soccer Development Academy showcase event.
“At the time, I was like ‘Columbus? I don't know about moving to Ohio,’ because I’m a Florida boy. I thought when I came here I was going to see a bunch of farms and stuff like that,” Morris, whose big brother Jake embarked on a similar adventure with the Sounders, recalled to MLSsoccer.com with a laugh last month. “But I came here and immediately it just clicked for me. I loved it. The academy director set me up with a host family, and from that point on I've just been living with them.”
Identifying appropriate homes away from home for adolescents as young as eighth grade, arranging and monitoring their education and building a support structure around them is no small job. Most clubs have employees tasked with that specific responsibility, like Betsy Maxfield, Sporting Kansas City’s director of player care.
Making kids feel at home
“I deal with and manage the residency program, all the education, the relationships with all of our high schools, do the grade checks, deal with behavioral issues and kind of everything in between,” said Maxfield, who also provides similar assistance for Sporting’s first-team players and their families. “I'm like everyone's second mom or big sister.”
Sporting have nearly two dozen residency players at the moment, ranging from eighth grade to college age. A diverse list of homestay families in both Kansas and Missouri are carefully selected and matched, and provided with a modest monthly stipend to cover costs. Some, but not all, are Sporting supporters or have children of their own in the academy.
“They go through a crazy in-depth lengthy process of validating them to become an official host family that includes background checks, phone interviews, questionnaires, in-house visits that are two to three hours in length,” said Maxfield, who also guides the players through scenarios to help show them how to be considerate and helpful members of the household. One anodyne example: If you're thinking about using the last dollop of milk in the refrigerator for your morning cereal, might that leave your host family in the lurch? What are your options in that situation?
Importantly, she “makes sure that there's some longevity involved” with the relationship between player and host family.
“Busio has been with the same family for four-plus years, and that's the point. It's not like it's a one and done,” she added. “If you take on an athlete when they're an eighth grader or a [high school] freshman, are you are you willing to see it through? Because we all know kids need stability and constant support and love when things are bad and tough. So that's obviously a key … We have very religious families, non-religious, we have same-sex couples, we have families that live out in the suburbs and high-rises in the city center.”
Dallas Homegrown rookie Tanner Tessmann was a surprise standout of their first two games of 2020. His quick transition to the MLS level was surely helped by the fact that he’s been part of the club since age 14, when he left his family in Alabama to live with fellow academy prospects in a group house near Toyota Stadium in Frisco, where he grinded away on a full-time professional training schedule while studying on a customized curriculum at Lone Star High School.
“Moving at 14, it's just tough leaving your family, but at the time I was really ready for it,” he explained to MLSsoccer.com. “I didn't really have any concerns or worries, I was just going to come out here and fight for my spot and try to earn everything, and I knew nothing was given.”
Crafting a crucible
In the early stages, this type of national scouting was led clubs in smaller markets like Portland and Kansas City who were concerned about the limits of their player pools compared to big cities like Los Angeles and New York. But these days it’s also about the relentless search for both quality and quantity.
In Houston, the Dynamo’s revitalized academy sits in the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the United States (the population is approximately 7 million and growing), but also seeks to augment that player pool via residency, whether to address specific needs or stoke competition in a given age group.
“Our number-one focus needs to be our own market, and make sure that we have all the best players in our own market,”said Dynamo Head of Recruitment and Grassroots Director Daniel Roberts. “But at the same time, we also have to be seen as recruiting nationally, going out and finding other talents from various green areas that we have access to.”
The Dynamo have found it effective to pair two out-of-region players in the same homestay, and try to arrange extended training periods to give both kids and their families a taste of the experience, and intensity level, before relocating. Like SKC, they prefer to bring in prospects as early in their development as possible — ideally the “formation phase” in the 12-14 range — to maximize their time in the club’s environment.
“It's tailored towards the younger age groups, because quite honestly, it's very rare that you find that 17- 18-, 19-year-old that is going to come in and warrant the spot without having any previous experience at one of the higher levels of competition,” said Roberts.
Noted Maxfield: “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 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.”
In many cases, these players leave their families as boys and return as men, whether they make the cut for a pro contract or not. Competing for a job far from home, often alongside grown men, nudges them to grow up fast, and their clubs are keen to provide them support along that path. It’s not for everyone. But for those cut out for it, it can be a life-changing opportunity.
“We truly feel like we're making a lot of progress, which is the ideal goal of the Audi program,” said Dynamo academy coach and Academics and College Coordinator Brian Reed. “The success of the homestay program and the players that have gone through it and have enjoyed it, it's just enabling us to continue to identify more families who are excited about the program and continue to help Dan and his crew of scouts really continue this national search for the best and the brightest to come in and supplement the core of the Houston-based players that we have.”
Audi is proud to contribute in one of the most important catalysts for building on-field talent in the league – the MLS Club Youth Academy system. Audi Goals Drive Progress provides young soccer talent in MLS Academies with the necessary tools to excel both on and off the pitch.