Sounders FC 2's John Hutchinson on promoting American teen talent and the USL bridge from academy ball to MLS

One of biggest issues in American soccer is whether MLS clubs are providing young American players enough opportunities. The Seattle Sounders boast one of MLS’s most ambitious youth programs and are using their USL team, Sounders FC 2, as a bridge to the first team. Nine teenagers saw action in S2’s USL season opener, including two 16-year-olds and Ray Serrano, 15 years old when the 2018 season kicked off. We spoke with S2 coach John Hutchinson, who took the S2 head coaching helm after serving as assistant in 2017.

SOCCER AMERICA: What’s S2’s relationship like with the Sounders’ Development Academy teams and the first team?

JOHN HUTCHINSON: I think we've got one of the best academies in the country, at least in terms of player development and results, so far. We're seeing younger players getting into S2 and for me, I like it because what we're about is developing players for the next level.

I've got to give a lot of credit to the first team here. They're willing to give these players the chance to train and pit them against the pros. It's great seeing the young players train with them because it furthers their development quicker.

The speed of the game is much quicker, the thought process has to be much quicker. When you see the interaction between the first team, S2 players and the academy, it's a wonderful thing.

Having 15-, 16-year-olds train with guys like Clint Dempsey, Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Osvaldo Alonso -- it's really good for them.

SA: How are the academy teams linked to S2?

JOHN HUTCHINSON: We do double sessions once a week with S2 coaches and S2 players with academy coaches and academy players.

We get the best players from the academy and bring them all together and we split up into small groups and we train, and have 10-12 coaches on the field. It's an amazing thing to watch. All of these things are coming together nice and slowly. The pathway we have now is a big improvement from what it was in the past.

SA: You field several teenagers in USL games …

JOHN HUTCHINSON: We have Ray Serrano [16 years old], Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez [16], Marlon Vargas [17] and Azriel Gonzalez [17] all contracted to S2. All wonderful players and young talents.

We see them in the academy and try to implement them into our system, give them some time to adjust and educate them on and off the field. Having them practice with the first team sometimes is great.

SA: Any other young players you feel have great potential?

JOHN HUTCHINSON: One of the guys I'm most excited about is Sam Rogers. Local boy, 19 years old, incredible talent. He's trained with the first team and is just going to get better and better as we go along. We're excited about his future here.

SA: How are youth players adjusting to USL play from academy play?

JOHN HUTCHINSON: It's an amazing challenge for them. You've got to put them out there even if they're not ready.

In the first game of the season, we brought up Ray Serrano, who hadn't played a game for S2 to train with us before the game.

Our belief up and down the levels of the club is that it doesn't matter how old they are. They're good enough, so we're going to throw them out there and see how they handle the expectations and experience.

They're not going to get it right all the time. The players knocking on the first team are the ones who are putting in steady performances.

We had Marlon Vargas come in and start a game, he played a good 60 minutes. He didn't start the next game but we expect that, it's all a part of the plan. We'll put him back out there again and put him in sticky situations. We started him in Phoenix, a 17-year-old starting, Didier Drogba's out there and everything. It's a great experience. Developing talent is also about “we.” It's a we mentality and I think we'll improve on that mentality as the season goes on.

Marlon Vargas (Photo by Charis Wilson courtesy of Sounders FC)

SA: Vargas recently scored a hat trick at the U.S. Soccer Development Academy playoffs. What kind of player is he?

JOHN HUTCHINSON: We nicknamed him the Wizard. He's a little light at the moment but we don't really worry about that yet. We don't look at a player's height, weight, or ability; we look at his ability on and off the ball.

I actually traveled to Seattle before I got the job here and we were with Marc Nicholls [Sounders Director of Player Development and Academy Director] watching an academy game. Marlon came off, Marc gave him a bit of a rev-up, he brought him back on, and Marlon walked out and scored a hat trick.

And I said to Marc Nicholls: Who's that kid? And he said: Marlon Vargas. And I said: Oh OK, cool. I went home to Australia and came back six months later to become assistant coach at S2.

We watched Marlon play, we signed him, and we threw him out there in the first game, playing at the No. 10, an important position for our team. Of course, we can't claim all rights to his development, because he came through the academy with Chris Little, Mike Morris. I've watched him grow at the Sounders academy and the coaches here and the facilities they have can produce more players like him.

He's a wonderful talent, but there's plenty more of them. We have about 10-12 players we have our eye on to develop in the next year or so. We get a hold of them in a professional environment, they train with the first team. The pathways become much clearer for these players. I do think we'll see a lot of academy players coming through into the first team within the next two to three years.

There's quality coming from the academy, and we try to harness that. That's what S2's about -- harnessing that talent, improving it and them as professionals on a full-time basis.

SA: What’s the balance with S2 between getting results and player development?

JOHN HUTCHINSON: We try and develop a winning mentality first and foremost. You need to get results and win games. We usually treat the performance more important than the result. The academy is doing a good job in getting players through the system, and then we've got the job of instilling that winning mentality.

We travel to places like Vegas, Salt Lake, Phoenix, and we always get good games there in terms of development itself but again, it forces us to try and be a bit more deceptive.

Can we keep a clean sheet? Can we keep the ball? Our players understand that winning does matter. We've had some good performances this year where we've lost, and one time we had a bad performance but we won. We've got a bunch of young players, but that doesn't mean you can lose the game. We're slowly getting there and we'll hopefully get closer to where we want to be as the season winds down away from home.

Sometimes we play in areas where we probably shouldn't, but we try to teach them to keep the ball, move it, understand what it means to have the ball at your feet and play.

It's been up and down in terms of results. In terms of development and the players coming through the system, I think it's going really well.

SA: In his new book, “What’s Wrong With US,” Bruce Arena complains that MLS teams don’t give Americans’ enough playing time. What do you think?

JOHN HUTCHINSON: Well, I think it could become a problem. I know here at the Seattle Sounders the young American talent we have is incredible. The whole club is on board and we make sure we get the best out of them. And then when they're ready, they play.

If you look at our first team there are three wonderful American talents on that team. We know the first team is comfortable playing young players, so our job is to develop them into pros and get them ready to play at the next level. When they go into the first team, the winning mentality is already ingrained in them.

* * * * * * * * * *

Born in Mullwall, Australia, Hutchinson played pro ball in 1996-2015, starting out with the Gippsland Falcons and spending the last decade of his playing career, besides a loan stint with China's Chengdu Blades, with the A-League's Central Coast Mariners, for whom the central midfielder made a club record 268 appearances. Of Maltese decent through his grandmother, he was capped 11 times by Malta, debuting in a 2010 World Cup qualifier against Zlatan Ibrahimovic's Sweden. He started coaching with the Mariners before joining the Seattle Sounders' staff in 2017.

SA: Mexico has reintroduced a rule requiring a minimum amount of cumulative minutes for young players (21 and under) over the Liga MX season. Do you think MLS should adopt something similar to incentivize youth development?

JOHN HUTCHINSON: Yeah, I think it's important to have the local players playing minutes and get game time or else the American game stagnates and American players suffer because of it.

Coming from Australia, we kind of had the same problem. We had foreigners coming in, and they were better than the locals. I can only speak for the Sounders, but Marc Nicholls and I never had an S2 player sitting on the bench for three, four, or five games in a row. The young ones especially. We make sure their game minutes are up and manage their training loads and make sure they can manage.

Up and down the academy, players' minutes are logged. We always want everyone improving by getting minutes and not sitting on the bench for three games in a row. Players need to play. You can train for however much you want, but until you're out there in the heat of battle, that's the real test.

SA: You’ve got players from all over the West Coast, and Hawaii. What’s the scouting strategy?

JOHN HUTCHINSON: We have a scouting network through our club run by Chris Henderson, Sean Henderson and Henry [Brauner]. They run the scouting for us. We search for the players all the time. When we're playing other teams, whenever we're watching games we're looking for talented players. The network is great, but everyone plays their part. When we play an S2 game, we look for players. All Sounders coaches always know that they're on the lookout for talent. The first thing we tell S2 players when we sign them is that we're looking for players better than them now. It's a good system we have here and we're going to continue to improve it.

25 comments about "Sounders FC 2's John Hutchinson on promoting American teen talent and the USL bridge from academy ball to MLS".
  1. s fatschel, June 26, 2018 at 11:23 a.m.

    Excellent reporting from the field. Seems like scouting talent and the DA pathway is working, at least for the Sounders, contrary to other SA articles.

  2. Bob Ashpole replied, June 26, 2018 at 12:41 p.m.

    This does not contradict other SA articles. There is a significant difference between MLS academies and the vast majority of DA clubs that are not professional club academies. Furthermore if "working" means US eligible players playing for the first team, they are not working because numbers are declining sharply over the last 4 years.

  3. don Lamb replied, June 27, 2018 at 7:07 p.m.

    Bob - Where do you see that academy products on the first team have declined sharply over the past four years?

  4. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2018 at 10:02 p.m.

    It is not academy products. It is us eligible players starting on the first team. Some of the data is in Arena's book. Obviously players need a US passport to be eligible, and the MNT coach is not going to consider someone not starting regularly for the first team.

    The average last year was 3.75 players per playoff team (42% and down sharply from 4 years ago). 10 of the starters were keepers, not field players.

    Sounders were above the league average last year, and do have one of the best academies in the country. But 3 players ready for the first team within 2-3 years is not solving the problem with the majority of starters being ineligible. Other countries fix the problem by adjusting the limits on foreign players. I believe Mexico just went from 20/8 to 9/9.

  5. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2018 at 10:04 p.m.

    10/8 not 20.

  6. don Lamb replied, June 29, 2018 at 7:27 p.m.

    The way to fix that issue is by producing players who are good enough, which is a long process that begins with the academies. That is why this interview is interesting -- it details how teams are building the pathway from academy-->USL-->MLS. There are some who agree with your suggestion of mandating minutes for young homegrown players. There are others who say that it is better not to hand anything the youngsters so that they have to earn it. Also, there should be good players for those young players who do break through to play with when they do. Either way, how is a team like Minnesota United supposed to deal with that sort of mandate? While a couple clubs in MLS started focusing on player development in 2007, some just began within the last couple of years due to expansion. That alone is a major reason the mandate would not work.

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, June 30, 2018 at 1:24 a.m.

    Don, consider that the percentage of US eligible starters has dropped while the league is expanding. In an expanding league it should be easier for more US players to break into the first teams. But, that is not what is happening.

  8. don Lamb replied, June 30, 2018 at 6:18 p.m.

    Bob - The cold hard fact of the matter is that US players are not good enough. They aren't going to magically become good enough if they start playing professionally. They need to start in high level setups from a young age, move on to playing against men and other pro-level talent at a still relatively young age, and then they can be ready. This pathway is what this article details. This pathway is basically a brand new development in the infrastructure of soccer in the US. The players will come, but we shouldn't dumb it down for them so that we can say that we have Americans playing professional soccer. We should raise the bar for them and demand that they are up for the challenge and provide the resources to help them get there.

  9. Bob Ashpole replied, June 30, 2018 at 6:58 p.m.

    Don, you and I are not saying mutually exclusive things. A pathway is needed. It is a pretty good path through U16 or so, but there are not enough opportunities for U19 to U23. In other words, I am saying that the path needs to be widened to hold more people, especially at the most cruicial age for selecting and developing senior professional players.

    I seem to recall in the past that you have praised the job that the DA was doing and that we have lots of young talent on the way up. That is why I think what I am saying is not contrary to your beliefs.   

  10. don Lamb replied, June 30, 2018 at 10:59 p.m.

    Bob - This article is about how Seattle is using S2, which plays in the USL, as a developer of talent for teenage players (the U19/U23 groups that you reference). However... this "pathway" is still just taking shape and will not be fully mature for another decade or so. If you are familiar with my posts here, you will know that I have been saying that USL is huge reason the development landscape has gotten soooo much better over the last 10 years. Finally, we have a good competetive playing environment for players in the 16-23 age range!

    As for the DA... yeah the DA is definitely doing it's job!! Not only is it producing players like Carleton, Pomykal, Glad, Adams, etc... who are playing in MLS, but also players like Pulisic, Sargent, McKennie, etc... who are playing in Europe.

    It's funny how down on US Soccer and overall player development in the US some people are when it's an undisputed fact that the talent on our current U20 and U23 rosters is far superior to any groups that we have seen. The players that failed to qualify are products of what the landscape was like 15 years ago. The current top US players (named above) are products of what the system was like 5-10 years ago. The first kids who will benefit from all of the things that are currently going on are 10-12 years old right now. Things are developing very quickly, and the players are coming through... What we have seen so far is a few drips of a faucet that is going to start flowing more and more.

  11. s fatschel, June 26, 2018 at 4:09 p.m.

    BA as usual seems like you have trouble reading ..."at least for Sounders", i.e. an MLS academy.  What is happening at Sounders indeed contradicts the generalization in many other SA articles.

  12. Bob Ashpole replied, June 26, 2018 at 7:35 p.m.

    Sounders is slightly above average for numbers of US eligible starters on MLS teams. They are chock full of internationals and US eligible players are a minority. Maybe that will change this year. I hope so. 

    The MNT will trully be hurting if they are considering senior team callups for players on USL teams.

  13. Bob Ashpole replied, June 26, 2018 at 7:37 p.m.

    Just to be clear, Sounders were just above the average last year, which was the worse showing of US eligible players in starting roles ever.

  14. s fatschel replied, June 27, 2018 at 8:02 a.m.

    If you would read the article the metric the coach is using ... high school age kids getting time in USL and practicing with MLS. Obviously they can't impact the Sounders MLS side yet.  Also the majority of the kids mentioned are Latino.  

  15. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2018 at 11:27 a.m.

    Actually regarding the Arena book the coach said that they had 3 players on the senior team now. Elsewhere he said that a couple more youth players would be ready for the first team in 2-3 years.

    The problem with MLS as a developer of MNT players is that a majority of the starting players are not US eligible players. A couple more players in 2-3 years is not going to change this.

  16. Goal Goal, June 26, 2018 at 4:32 p.m.

    That is exactly what we need.  Players developed in the mold of an MLS player.  What does everyone think about that?  Just curious.

  17. Bob Ashpole replied, June 26, 2018 at 9:39 p.m.

    The quality of players is directly related to the amount of money spent on the roster. MLS could have great teams by competing for top players in Europe. Which would you rather have, big dollar rosters and an MLS bankruptcy or responsible limits on spending and a viable MLS? 

  18. Bob Ashpole replied, June 26, 2018 at 9:44 p.m.

    Perhaps I should be blunter. The best players developed by the US are sold to Europe, not kept in MLS. So better development alone won't improve the rosters; it will just increase the revenues from sales of player contracts.    

  19. s fatschel replied, June 27, 2018 at 8:16 a.m.

    Since your asking I don't really see a single mold in MLS. There is alot of diversity with players from so many countries. Are you saying do we want more players like Carlos Vela? Yes absolutely. BTW why the alias?

  20. humble 1, June 27, 2018 at 3:36 a.m.

    from what i read and observe, seems like best players developed in US (1) if they have ‘golden passport’ move to academies abroad b4 18, (2) otherwise wait until 18 to sign for foreign clubs.  The remainder stay here where talk is cheap and the reality is that a good portion of college (sorry dirty word fir many) scholarships and MLS roster spots are given to players from abroad.  Player development is not the priority here, yet.

  21. Goal Goal replied, June 27, 2018 at 12:12 p.m.

    Humble I can name you 3 youngsters who I know personally who are going to Europe to develop their skills.  Working in the academies of several different European power houses.  These kids were all identified in games played with our national teams internationally by scouts from these clubs.  They all are under the age of 18 and have the golden passport as you described.  If you want to develop it aint gonna happen here.  Not at this time.

  22. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2018 at 7 p.m.

    Right Winger, your are of course correct, but that is what is holding back the MNT player pool. Even of the ones that get picked up by a European club have, most won't make to the first team and be playing regular. Most either get released, don't play much or get loaned out.

    Going to Europe may be the best course for an individual player, but it is not a way forward for US Soccer. Too few players are going to be regular starters in one of the big 5 leagues. We need to improve the development and playing opportunities here in the US if we are going to significantly improve the pool.

  23. Bob Ashpole replied, June 27, 2018 at 7:03 p.m.

    I have auto-correct disabled on my operating system, but on this site and only this site, my posts are garbled by auto-corrections. Sigh.

  24. Wallace Wade, July 3, 2018 at 8:01 a.m.

    The DA is doing it’ job?? For who? 75% of the Country doesn’t even have access to “DA’s”!

  25. Bob Ashpole replied, July 3, 2018 at 6:54 p.m.

    I think that is an exageration. Most of the population is concentrated in a few metropolitan areas. If you mean geographically not covered, yeah there is a lot of less populated areas not covered. The vast size of the country will always be a problem. The primary problem with the DA is the differences between the amateur clubs and the professional clubs. Who pays for the training is only one difference. In my opinion some of the MLS programs are very good. I am only familiar with a few, so I cannot comment on most of them. 

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