San Jose Earthquakes team president Dave Kaval spent time with us reflecting on the club in a wide-ranging conversation. In part one, he detailed the team's performance in 2015 and looked ahead to the roster moves planned ahead of the 2016 MLS season. In today's segment, Kaval continued with a detailed look into the development of the Earthquakes Academy.
Center Line Soccer: It's not often that fans get a look behind the scenes and are able to understand how investments are made to build the club, so I appreciate the update on the scouting program that you have grown in the last year. On the topic of investment, the Earthquakes Academy and having Chris Leitch heading that over the last couple of years before being elevated to technical director this past summer, how much might that help in facilitating the movement of players into the first team, and what are some of the details you can share about the investment that has gone into the Academy? What are some of the plans for the system over the short-term and ultimately two, three, five years out?
Dave Kaval: "It's a nearly million dollar investment on a yearly basis in terms of providing scholarships to players at all these levels, investing in travel, providing training for all the staffing, bringing in guys like Paul Holocher, who has a great track record of bringing up young players, to coach the U-18s and Andre Luiz to coach the U-14 level. We are greatly expanding that part of our business, and it's critical, not only because it's a great thing for our community and its huge pool of talented youth players, but these are players that we hope can one day play for the Earthquakes.
"In the past, we never really had that, and now we have guys like Amir Bashti, who is currently a freshman at Stanford (recent winners of the 2015 NCAA Championship), and other players across the country in college programs that can potentially move up into our first team, like Tommy Thompson from Indiana a couple years ago. Also, we look at our PDL team in Burlingame as a step before the first team. You create that pyramid in the program in a way that will be effective long-term.
"There are great soccer players in the Bay Area, and we want to make sure they are playing for the Earthquakes." -- Dave Kaval
"Having Chris [Leitch] spend almost two years establishing the Earthquakes Academy program and making sure it is running well and has a staff that can help him, now he can spend time determining what players might eventually plug into the first team. It's a fantastic addition to have those resources too, as well as that strong leadership to attack these problems.
"So we are going to continue to invest in that area and we feel it is critically important to the club and making sure long-term we are getting at least two or three of our first team players from our Academy. Especially because we are in the Bay Area, which boasts so much young talent, that is one of the keys. There are great soccer players in the Bay Area, and we want to make sure they are playing for the Earthquakes, and the Academy is the best way to do that.
CLS: To that endeavor, part of the challenge is identifying those great local players, whether already established with a club team or younger and unaffiliated. I know the club has made some strategic alliances with youth soccer teams in the Bay Area this past year. Is that part of the strategy and philosophy moving forward?
DK: "Absolutely. To evaluate players at a very young age, it is about having a big enough funnel to catch possible talents. There are so many players at that age, but they have a ways to develop. Making sure we have connections to as many youth clubs as possible, such as a our partnerships with San Jose FC and others, will allow us to do that. We are going to continue that, and we are going to ensure that we are getting the best young and talented players into our Academy program.
"Additionally, we will continue our efforts to standardize the training and the educational curriculum for that young age where the focus on skill development, and not just winning games, is critical. I think that is one of the reasons that American players have not thrived on the international stage, because at that critical point of development, they are too worried about winning 7-0 in, say, some tournament in Ripon, with the eleven best players available, instead of learning how to effectively cross the ball or make the right trap or understand what it takes to be autonomous out there on the pitch and not require constant coaching.
"There are things that are developed well in the current system, and we are hoping with our Academy, with the learning we have had, like training with the French Federation, that we can create a new paradigm."
CLS: Within that paradigm, you will still be competing with the pay-to-play clubs that have a long history in the Bay Area. Do you find it a big advantage to be able to offer the scholarships you do to bring in players without the associated fees in the existing private club system?
DK: "Our biggest challenge with that is the stigma that we are less winning-oriented. We do want to win, of course, to showcase that we have the best team. But our goal is not just winning; it has to be development focused too. I don't necessarily care if the U-14s win every game -- I want those players developing the talent and skills so that when they move up to the U-18s and potentially one day the first team, they know how to behave and perform in what will be a more difficult environment, to have those core skills that have been built up over many, many years.
"So the hard thing with competing with the pay-to-play clubs is that they are very winning-oriented -- that has been a key part of their business plan to stay sustainable because families want to have their kids playing for the winning team. We are trying to think bigger than that. It's not just about winning -- it's about the right culture, it's about learning the sport, it's about being true to sportsmanship.
"That's why we've partnered with the Positive Coaching Alliance. Those are all values that we are going to bring to the table. And like I said with the new paradigm, that's a big shift in mentality in youth soccer, and while we are doing all we can to forward that agenda, the transition can sometimes be challenging."
CLS: On that, I know there are many kids that are in the Juventus program, the De Anza Force program, clubs like that, who are looking at the opportunity, perhaps more so the parents, for the college opportunities and scholarships that come as a reward for their investment. I know you guys have done a great job of bringing Kevin Grimes at Cal and Jeremy Gunn at Stanford, as well as other local college coaches, into the fold. I know I've seen them around the training field. Obviously, that has to be part of the strategy as well, to show that the Earthquakes Academy can also be a path to a college scholarship if that is something a youth player and his family are looking for.
DK: "That is very, very important because the reality is that not every kid that works with us as a 14-year-old is going to play for the Earthquakes. We need to have different successful outcomes for all of them. Some of those could include going to college and getting a great education, most likely on scholarship, which is a great thing for them. It could actually be not going to college at all and moving straight to our PDL team or a USL club before signing with us as a homegrown player.
"There is a wide variety of ways that these outcomes actually manifest themselves. We just want to make sure we can offer all of those opportunities to kids in a real way, and our Academy is a place that opens doors and doesn't close them."
CLS: I know in talking to Chris Leitch that he is very excited about the future you guys have in place, and the be honest with you, I'm looking forward to when the Quakes are in the same conversation with FC Dallas and LA Galaxy, clubs that get a lot of attention for the number of homegrown players that have signed and that gone on to make an impact.
DK: "There's no reason we can't be in that conversation. We started our Academy later than those clubs, and only recently have we been investing considerably in it in the proper way. But we are doing that now, and there will be a lot of positive developments that come out of that."
In part three of our conversation with Kaval, we look at the inaugural year of Avaya Stadium, as well as the top to-do item on the business side -- securing a jersey sponsor.