Chris Leitch played his last game for the San Jose Earthquakes on August 27, 2011 - a 1-1 tie on a late Wondolowski equalizer against Toronto FC. When Leitch's option for the 2012 season was declined, the LA Galaxy pounced on his availability in the re-entry draft. Rejecting the move to LA (and thereby earning the everlasting respect of Earthquakes fans), he decided to retire at the end of 2011.
His decision has proved to be the San Jose Earthquakes Academy's good fortune, as in January of 2012 he accepted the position of Technical Director for the Youth Development Academy. Just over three years later, the 2015 edition of the San Jose Earthquakes Academy is coming off their best year to date. The U18s (23-7-3; coached by Marquis White) won their conference, the U16s (17-10-6; coached by Steve Wondolowski) and the U14s (23-5-2; coached by Jeff Jenkins) both qualified for the playoffs, which commence June 20 in Indianapolis.
In the three years under Chris Leitch's leadership, the academy has expanded immensely, and his job has expanded with it: "It's been a fun road, an interesting road and ever changing. Three years ago, we started with two teams, the U16 and U18 Academy teams with about 60 players. Today we have roughly 1100 players, we have boys and girls, and that includes our three academy teams: U18, U16 and U14s - the bona fide teams that play in the US Soccer's development academy platform".
He's also changed the approach to player recruitment, by focusing more on the the players themselves in addition to the skills they brings to the field "For me it first starts with the player profile that you recruit into the program - that's changed. We weren't recruiting the right type of player who understood what it meant to be part of an organization, let alone a part of a team. We would pick players that could potentially win a game on a Saturday or Sunday, but didn't necessarily understand the concept of hey, it's not just one person that's going to make this successful, it's one of a larger group".
The Academy teams play a grueling schedule: thirty-two games over eleven months of the year, with national showcases and tournaments mixed in. Underneath the academy teams, the pre-academy teams range from U7 all the way up to U18, and more recently the academy system added girls' teams. The final component was added when the Earthquakes reserve league was replaced two years ago with a Premier Development League (PDL) team, originally located in Turlock, they are now reincarnated as the Burlingame Dragons FC. Leitch now has "a lot more staff, a lot more players and a lot more teams - more to keep tabs on".
U18 midfielder Amir Bashti, the leading scorer in 2015 and academy graduate, has seen most of the system from the field: "I got here the summer of my freshman year, and there was one tournament right when I got here that was up in Seattle that I went to with the U14s, and after that I started with the U16s". Born in Cupertino and raised in the Bay Area, Bashti picked up soccer from his brother Malek, currently now playing at UCSD. Malek was five when he wanted to start playing soccer, and younger brother Amir soon joined him kicking balls around in the house.
Amir Bashti: arguably the best hair and definitely the leading scorer for the San Jose Earthquakes Academy U18 with 15 goals in 2015.
Leitch believes that the broader scope of the age range and profiles of the players admitted to the academy has improved the development of players. "I think it's extremely important that we went young. Before we got a player into our system at age 16, and it was an arduous process - it would take a year to correct the fundamentals. Now we can start working with these players at a very young age and mold them and develop them".
This approach has worked very well for Bashti, and several others who've made it into the US Soccer development programs. Participating in the Earthquakes Academy has enabled him to take part in three US Soccer U18 camps in LA, Spain and the last one in Bosnia a month ago. "I definitely felt well prepared, as what we were doing there was mostly the same. Everything's higher tempo because there are players that have already signed pro and who train professionally with their first teams every week. I was just playing how I always play my game. I feel that how I'm prepared here made me feel that I belonged there".
The Earthquakes Academy staff aren't just interested in making great professional soccer players - there's a sense of duty to prepare their teenagers for life in general. "We've done a darn good job, in my opinion, over the past two years of sending kids to colleges all across the nation" said Leitch. "The reality is if we're doing a real good job only 2% of the players will become professional soccer players, though 98% of them will go to Division I colleges". While the Academy is doing everything to make sure that their players get everything they need from a developmental perspective, they also pay strict attention to their academics. "We ask for high school transcript grades multiple times a year, and we make sure they're following their grades. If grades slip, because it is a very demanding schedule, we have no problem taking the soccer part away until the academic piece raises back up".
Other life lessons come along with the squads traveling eleven months a year all across the nation. The coaches teach accountability, responsibility, and sticking to the player and coaches code of conduct, which includes what the players wear, how they thank the bus driver and how they leave their hotel rooms. Even right up until the final game of the season that the U18s played in Avaya Stadium, Leitch is still teaching. "I just talked to them after they got on the field, going over the rules: have fun, but behave; don't get into trouble, the dos and don'ts, but after it, I just stopped for a second, and I was like "Look! This is a celebration". For some of these guys it's four years, and this is what you've worked for and you deserve to be on that field, you deserve to be top of the conference - it's your shining moment. It's pretty cool".
The 2015 San Jose Earthquakes U18 squad, introduced to the fans at Avaya Stadium.
Bashti is very appreciative that he got just as much support from his coaches when he wasn't playing: "One of the hardest things for me was when I was with the U15s in Mexico for the summer of my sophomore year and I got injured [a torn hip flexor] there, and that put me out for seven months. At that point I couldn't go to the U15 camp, which is when I dropped out of the national team. My coaches were supportive all the way through, telling me that if I keep working, it'll come and just to stay focused on improving [my fitness]. And getting back was one of my best moments".
The Burlingame Dragons FC now fills the gap between the U18 academy team and the Earthquakes first team. "The PDL team is important to have" explains Leitch. "It now gives the players we've sent off to college a place to came back to in the summertime, to continue to compete, to continue to develop and continue to work on their game - they'll be even more ready to become professional soccer players". Josh Morton, Academy alum now playing for the University of California, played in the academy for one year. As a result the Earthquakes had Morton's rights for one year, but now that he's returned from Cal to play in the PDL team for the summer and satisfies the necessary training hours, then the team gets an extra year's rights.
Once of the biggest benefits of the academy system is that all of the players are all eligible to become home grown players. Leitch describes "there are intrinsic benefits to them for three reasons: they don't count against our salary cap, don't count against roster spots, and we don't have to draft them". The homegrown player contract is an incentive from MLS to promote player development by its clubs, with designations for roster, salary and drafting.
The coaches benefit from the Academy too. "We probably learn more from them that they do from us. The first thing we learn is patience.." Leitch admitted, cracking a wide grin. "...and that's, I think, what you need if your going to be in the youth sector of the game. I don't think we're coaches as much as we are educators and teachers. And it's patience to understand - take your time with them, go slow, and if things don't go your way, as a coach, or as an educator, don't get upset or mad about that. That should actually excite you, to see we have a weakness but we can actually make this player better. Patience is good and it also keeps you a little bit young".
Amir Bashti will play his final game for the San Jose Earthquakes U18 team in Indianapolis, in the playoffs. Disappointed that he was unable to play in the final U18 game at Avaya Stadium because of an ankle injury sustained in the most recent US Soccer camp, he watched the game from the stands, and plans to be ready for the playoffs at the end of June.
After the playoffs, Bashti will depart for his short journey to Stanford University in the first week of August. Up until his long injury layoff, he hadn't really considered his future outside of soccer. "Having the injury gave me an opportunity to think about what I really want to do - I didn't think about college because up to that point I was thinking purely about being a professional player; that's all I wanted to do. But then, I realized my goals extended beyond just playing". He made lemonade from the lemon he was dealt and improved his grades, and came back with the confidence that he was able to do well in both. Now he's made the successful transformation from athlete to student athlete. "When I came back it gave me that confidence that I could do well in both".
Yet to declare his major, Bashti plans to survey the academic landscape. "What's cool about [going in undeclared] is you can take classes and find out what you are comfortable with before declaring your major. It's nice to have that freedom and not to be bound to one thing, and I committed there because it was where I wanted to go". Given the outstanding academics and top class soccer program, could there be a more more perfect situation? "Probably not" he smiled.
What will Bashti miss most about the Earthquakes Academy? "The coolest thing about our group is that all the players really complement each other, and it's definitely shown with the results we're getting now. It's cool to get to see everything come together after four years, and we're in a great spot. The coaches helped and have a lot to be thanked for that [team spirit] as well as the players. Everyone's super nice and it's a really good team chemistry, with the U16s and U18s and I guess that shows on the field how we're getting these good results. It's good to see".
Leitch agrees "It's been a fun year. We don't measure these guys necessarily on results - we're very big in individual player development. We won the conference even before we play [the final U18 game at Avaya Stadium] tonight. It's the first time in the program's history, and there's only a small number of teams out of the eighty-plus academies that are out there - we won the whole conference. That's pretty special."
Follow the San Jose Earthquakes Academy on Twitter @sjeqa, on Facebook here or on the San Jose Earthquakes web site here.
Check out the photo gallery of the final Earthquakes Academy U18 game against Juventus FC on June 7th, 2015.