Marc Nicholls serves as the Seattle Sounders’ Director of Player Development. Last year, when 22 teenagers played USL ball for Sounders FC 2 (before it transformed into the Tacoma Defiance), the Sounders won the U-17 U.S. Soccer Development Academy national title -- and two dozen Sounders players were called up by U.S. youth national teams.
SOCCER AMERICA: It's expensive to run a professional youth program, there's no guarantee that it pays off, and that money could go to acquiring pro-ready players. In other words, you can win championships without investing in a youth program, so why make the effort?
MARC NICHOLLS: I think in many ways we’re obliged to. Also, the Seattle metropolitan has a population of three and a half million, within an hour. That’s the same as Uruguay. It produces players like Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin, Nicolas Lodeiro. Why can’t we do that here? That’s sort of our mantra.
Then we look at various stats. A recent one I’m not tired of using is: In the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals in the last decade, 86 percent of the players who participate in those games made their professional debut at age 17.
So you start to look at that, and you realize we need to be progressive, we need to promote, we need to plan and we need to build up these players for them to maximize their potential. Now we have that avenue with the USL.
SA: Indeed, one of the biggest challenges MLS clubs have had in moving young players up was that even if they have had great potential, they weren't ready for MLS action ...
NICHOLLS: The bridge between the U-19 and the first team was awfully significant. The USL means those 17-year-olds -- and last Friday we started a 15-year-old [in a 1-0 win over Rio Grande Valley FC in front of 3,432] -- are playing against 28-year-olds who are fighting for their careers, to feed their families. It’s real.
They’re playing for a city, Tacoma. It’s not just a reserve game where you’ve got a couple of fellows with their dogs at the match. There’s a crowd there. It’s meaningful. It’s tough. It’s reality. For us that is the key.
Danny Leyva, 15, was one of Sounders' teen products who saw action for the Tacoma Defiance last week. (Seattle Sounders FC Communications/Charis Wilson)
SA: Some of the young players who have starred for your academy teams and cracked the USL team are from outside the area.
NICHOLLS: We sort of have an 80-10-10 policy, which seems to be working well for us: Eighty percent of our players are from Greater Seattle. Another 10 percent come from territories, if you like, in terms of MLS. That would be Central Washington, Eastern Washington, Northern Washington, and a sprinkling of players from Hawaii.
The other 10 percent are players who we target are from so-called neutral territories. Rather than go pluck and poach, we made relationships with like-minded people across the country in terms of player pathway.
When it comes to making a decision about a player from another territory and bringing them to Seattle, it’s very important that you get it right. That it raises not only the standard and potential of that player, but also of the program. I think we’ve seen what that can do.
SA: How do you care for the players who aren't from the Seattle area?
NICHOLLS: About three years ago, we started the home-stay program for 10 to 12 players. We hope to extend that to 15 next year.
SA: They live with families, as opposed to a dormitory situation?
NICHOLLS: Yes, with families. I think that’s very important. We want the players to have as normal an existence as possible. At the same time, it’s very important that we keep the fabric of Seattle. We want Seattle fans, we want Seattle players.
SA: Are the families they live with parents of other players?
NICHOLLS: Typically, they’re not. We’re very fortunate here that we have a massive supporter base. There are all different types of people who are home-stay hosts. We can tap into the wonderful support we have around the club. Many of these families are excited about hosting a Sounder and to be a part of that player’s potential, growth and development.
SA: It seems to me that's very beneficial to American soccer in general that professional clubs scour the nation for talent. Otherwise, talented kids might not have access the ladder that leads to the top. That of course is a major problem in a huge country like the USA. In England or Germany, a professional club is never far away. ...
NICHOLLS: Often, in those countries, it's several clubs. I’ve traveled around. I was at [English Premier League] Wolves recently. There are 10 clubs within 60 miles. These clubs have as many as 30 or 40 local scouts.
That's where maybe where we’re missing things, just in general, is in the recruitment and scouting department. So it’s no wonder that players slip through the cracks and we miss players.
I think that’s where we – we being all of us, MLS, U.S. Soccer – have to invest more: in talent ID, scouting, the networks, and making sure that we don’t miss anyone, which of course is very difficult.
That’s what we’re trying to do with the clubs in our network. We have a very bright young player called Ray Serrano who’s from Moses Lake, Washington. He played for the Spokane Sounders. Spokane is the second biggest city in Washington but it’s a five-hour drive from Seattle. [The Sounders signed Serrano to a USL contract a year ago when he was 15.]
SA: What kind of arrangement do the Sounders have with other youth clubs?
NICHOLLS: When we have official partnership, we send them curriculum ideas, they come visit training, we do coaching education. We make visits. They help us make sure when there’s a player like Ray, we can bring them in, trial them, get to know them, meet the family, and take it from there.
It depends on where the club is. We have clubs in the rest of Washington. We have a couple clubs in California. It’s difficult to make a weekly training session in Bakersfield [California], but we have an annual symposium, coaching education, access to the first team. Our first team does a great job in supporting that. We have a curriculum for the ages, we send coaches for coaching sessions and clinics. We take recommendations for players.
There’s a business component to it that I don’t have much to do with in terms of adidas and a whole host of tangibles that we work together on.
I think for those clubs it’s creating a pathway. You go to one of those clubs and they say, We’ve got these three players with the Sounders and we can provide that for you. It’s another way of unifying the system.
The Tacoma Defiance celebrates its USL opening day win. (Seattle Sounders FC Communications/Charis Wilson)
SA: One of the big concerns in American soccer is kids from the Latino community not getting the opportunity to climb the ladder, especially when they're far away from MLS or DA clubs. What's been the key to the Sounders connecting to players from the Latino communities?
NICHOLLS: You’re right, the majority of our talented young players who we’ve signed are of Latino heritage.
There are some certain cultural factors involved. One is, for example, these kids often play with their uncles, in men’s leagues, and have been brought up with the culture of soccer being the No. 1 sport and very meaningful to the family. It’s also seen as a potential way out, still. Whereas we’re very lucky in mainstream America that the Plan B of college is all-encompassing. If I don’t make it, I’ll just go to college and my life’s set. For a lot of those communities, that’s not always the path, so there’s an element of hunger and fight and commitment in order to progress.
I think it’s been a snowball effect where we’ve attracted some good players and that’s led to others.
SA: There have been reports of MLS clubs leaving the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Where does that stand and what are the issues?
NICHOLLS: It’s under discussion. It pretty much stems from the competition standards and investment. We’re a club for example that can only drive to a few games. Pretty much everything for us is a flight.
Then you say, OK, where are we flying to, what’s the cost, what’s the environment, what’s the competition, what’s the format? And if you go and look at some of our scores -- we’ve been on trips where we’ve played two games on a weekend, and we’ve won each game by three or four goals. Where is the accountability for our players when the weekend is not tough? That doesn’t raise standards. That leads to average.
If we’re going to continue this mission, of developing world-class players, then we need high-level weekly competition. Whether that’s a separation of MLS and U.S. Soccer or whether that’s working together, because there are some very good youth clubs also. I don’t know. But I think we are headed in a direction that for us, for example, is becoming very close to becoming a necessity that we have a more challenging schedule.
SA: What would be the alternative to the status quo DA situation?
NICHOLLS: The alternative would be to play against like-minded clubs, tough competition and perhaps selective travel where you look at your budget, and you ask, How do we spend it?
SA: So more flexibility with orchestrating your own schedule and deciding what kind of travel?
NICHOLLS: A balance between league obligations and how we could put our budget to good use. It's not just soccer. It’s life and cultural. We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve been to England, Belgium, France, to Iceland. We were in Japan this last summer. What a wonderful experience, and the competition was very good. Conditions were quite tough. You’re dealing with jet lag. Playing against some top teams. You’re representing not only your club but your country. The players are well and truly out of their comfort zone. And that is the larger point. We have to challenge players but we’re not quite getting that as much as we need to right now.
The 17-year-old Alec Diaz helped the Sounders win the 2018 U-17 DA national title, and scored in the Tacoma Defiance's USL opener. (Seattle Sounders FC Communications/Charis Wilson)
SA: There are stats that show that MLS's young domestic players get far less playing time than in other leagues around the world. Would you be in favor of a rule, such as Mexico's Liga MX has, requiring clubs to field young domestic players for a minimum number of minutes?
NICHOLLS: I’m not sure about quotas, although eventually we might have to get to that point.
But I think MLS is primed to play young players. There’s no relegation. It’s not like the club has to fear going under every year. And seven teams in each 12-team conference make the playoffs.
So when you think about those two facts, surely that’s an opportunity to give young players a chance.
The popular comparison right now is the Germans, and it's wonderful. In Germany they’re blooding 17- 18-year-olds when there’s a Champions League spot on the line. When there’s a fear of relegation, and that doesn’t stop them.
I think when it comes to giving young players a chance, it’s more of a mindset, an attitude and ultimately a plan and a vision that we have to have.SA: How will the Seattle Sounders ultimately judge whether its youth program is worth the investment?
NICHOLLS: The return on investment is a key question that we have to answer. I have been lucky in Seattle that the investment in youth development has been significant. And everyone understands that it takes a while.
At the same time, in the next few years, we’ll really need to look at that return. The key way to measure it is are we developing players for our first team.
We’ve done OK with that. The average is 1.5 a year who have signed from the academy program into the first team. But that also includes college players. A new metric that we’re talking about now is we want to sign two per year from the academy/USL into the first team. That’s one way to measure it.
Other ways to measure it right now is, because the crop of players we’ve really invested in began in this project a couple of years ago, is national team call-ups. We’ve had 20 of those last year for our young players. Our U-17s last year won the Generation adidas Cup and the Development Academy national championship, which of course isn’t the priority, but is an indicator that the talent is here and that we can do it. So it gives us great belief and hope that these players coming through are not only talented but are winners, which I think is important.
And I think what you’ll see over the next two to three years is us not only sign young players for our first team, but also consider offers for some of these players, which we have to be open to.
Marc Nicholls ...
... was born in Wolverhampton, England. "Like most kids in England, I started playing in the park from a very early age. Your first experience is largely playing with your dad, playing with your mates. I went to my first Wolves game when I was 6. Wolves was a very big part of the fabric of the community. My first year I was spoiled. Wolves was sixth in the league and won the League Cup. It’s only until this year that they’ve been decent since. I’ve suffered." Before arriving in Seattle in 2013, Nicholls, who immigrated to the USA 22 years ago, served as Carolina Dynamo USL PDL head coach and technical director of the NC Fusion youth soccer program, which he helped found. He also served as a Montreal Impact scout.
SA: How much improvement have you seen in U.S. youth soccer over the years?
NICHOLLS: When you take time to look back, you realize how rapid the progress has been. When you’re involved in the day-to-day like I am, you’re always pushing. It's almost like being an activist for this youth movement. It’s only when you take a moment to think back 20 years ago, what it was like, you realize the growth has been phenomenal.
The players are far more technical, more intelligent. More exposed to the game, not only the world game on TV or from their video games. The majority of the kids in our club -- the parents played. That's a significant mental aspect, because if mom and dad played, they understand what it’s like to play, and that can only help to accelerate the potential of the player. That's a key contributor.
SA: Obviously, the number of good players produced in the USA has increased dramatically. But we're still waiting to see world-class American players. Can you imagine that in five years there will be Americans among the list of players considered to be the best in the world?
NICHOLLS: Yeah, I have no problem saying we're seeing the tip of iceberg, with Christian Pulsic and some others, and what's happening with the 16-, 17-year-old crop of players we have.
We’ve traveled around the world and played all sorts of teams. We come back, and as a staff we realize we’re as good as them. Our players are as good. And it’s very important this doesn’t come across as arrogant, but at times we’re better. We come back and very confident about our road ahead.
Now what’s important about that, obviously, is at those ages there's still an awful lot to be done. That's why player pathway and opportunities for young players to play in significant matches and getting significant minutes is the key.