By Mike Woitalla
What especially impressed the South Carolina youth coach about the boy wasn't what he did with his Carolina Elite club – although Andrew Hyslop was very impressed -- it was the soccer Sebastian Velasquez played own his own.
“There’s areas in Greenville where you’ll find hundreds of kids and adults getting together on weekends and at night,” says Hyslop, the co-director of Carolina Elite, where Velasquez played from U-12 to U-17. “There’s also some indoor here and Sebastian’s the guy you’d be seeing playing at 2 am with adults over at the indoor center.
“Obviously, that’s what we as coaches want. We want kids who play more on their own than on the training fields.”
The most remarkable rookie early on in the MLS season must be Velasquez. The 21-year-old midfielder, who started Real Salt Lake’s first two games and set up goals in both wins, took a non-traditional route to the U.S. pro league.
Velasquez did not play for a U.S. Soccer Development Academy club. He did play high school ball (2007 state champ with Greenville H.S.). He didn’t attend a Division I college. He played two years of junior college ball at Spartanburg Methodist. The No. 36 pick in the MLS 2012 MLS draft, Velasquez was the first JC draft pick in six years.
At age 2, he moved from Medellin, Colombia, to the USA with his mother. He spent most of his youth ball with Carolina Elite before teaming up with fellow future Real Salt Lake draft pick Enzo Martinez on the Discoveries SC team that won the 2009 U-18 USYS national title.
Velasquez left high school after his junior year, got his GED and tried out with Barcelona and Espanyol in Spain, but returned home disappointed until he ended up at Spartanburg Methodist, where in two years he scored 55 goals and made 33 assists in 33 games. His overseas tryouts made him ineligible to play for Clemson, but Tigers’ alum Miles Joseph, now assistant coach at Real Salt Lake, directed Velasquez to the MLS Combine.
He was back in Medellin with his mother when he heard he got drafted. “I started to cry,” Velasquez told mlssoccer.com. “I was so happy. I didn’t watch the ceremony, but I saw my name online and was shocked.”
Hyslop is quick to point out he’s not taking credit for Velasquez’s rise -- “many had a hand in that” -- but when Hyslop hears talk that the only pathway to soccer success lies with the Development Academy, or that certain college coaches turn away from evaluating players based on what league they compete in, he points to Velasquez as a reminder that players “get where they want to go in a variety of ways.”
“I think the Academy is a viable, great option, but at the same time, we’re also providing provide opportunities and developing players,” says Hyslop. “There’s no cookie-cutter guaranteed way to do that. I certainly don’t have all the answers. With the size of the country, it’s inevitable there’s going to be different avenues to reach a goal.”
Hyslop believes youth soccer, with the rise of the Development Academy and its increased influence -- which includes discouraging of high school play -- is at a crossroads.
“It’s not about Sebastian Velasquez,” he says. “It’s not about Carolina Elite Academy. It’s not necessarily about the USSF Academy. It’s really about taking a look and asking can we make sure we develop every possible player in this country? There’s more than one way to do it.
“We have to decide, are we going recognize everybody? Or are we only going to recognize some?
“It makes good sense to cast the net far and wide.”
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for Bay Oaks/East Bay United SC in Oakland, Calif. He is the co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper, and More Than Goalswith Claudio Reyna. Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)