When the San Jose Earthquakes made history in the offseason by signing Jacob Akanyirige and Gilbert Fuentes to Homegrown player contracts, they welcomed the two youngest ever players to their first team. The midfielders were both standouts in the Quakes Academy, and the move to add them to the senior squad was seen as a signal that San Jose’s youth development pipeline was ready to flow.
But the pair of signings also marked a bold move by general manager Jesse Fioranelli, who, since joining the team in January 2017, has not been afraid to shake things up. He has cleared out a lot of the previous technical staff over the last year, adding in coaches and directors that bring more global experience to the Earthquakes operations. The GM sees each one of his hires as another piece in the puzzle of transforming San Jose into an MLS leader.
Fioranelli hired Alex Covelo as director of methodology to create a new vision for the club’s future youth development and Bruno Costa as head of scouting to identify talent overseas. This offseason, he named Sweden’s Mikael Stahre as the team’s head coach, marking a departure away from the coaching tree that took root back in 2000 when Frank Yallop took the job. The personnel upgrades have even garnered the attention of Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, who was in the Bay Area this week as a keynote speaker at the Stanford Graduate School of Business Sports Innovation Conference.
“At the Earthquakes Academy, they’ve got a great new general manager that’s thinking about technology and just signed two young Homegrown players,” Garber said. “One of which, by the way, they were competing with Dortmund, with Christian [Pulisic] as the key salesperson in trying to get him over there.”
Garber was, of course, referring to midfielder Gilbert Fuentes, who joined the Earthquakes in January and is the youngest player on the first team at just 16 years of age. The Academy product is also a regular with the U.S. men’s national team youth sides, and this week just returned from a two-week stint with the U-17 team as it prepares for next year’s youth World Cup cycle. He shares an agent with Pulisic — South African born and English based Rob Moore — who has steered his other young American clients to Europe. To hear from Garber that the Quakes outmaneuvered Borussia Dortmund for Fuentes’ signature signals quite the coop for San Jose.
“We’ve got to have the right environments and invest deeply in trying to plant those seeds to create the right training environments, the right environments in our stadiums so they inspire them to want to be MLS players,” Garber added. “We have to pay them competitively. We have to be a league of choice, so our ambition is to be a league of choice for the top players, for the top broadcasters, for the top administrators, for the top coaches.”
Fuentes and Akanyirige are still very young, but it is with first-team training that they will be able to advance their development, something that Pulisic has stated was a big reason for his decision to sign a professional contract in Germany rather than in MLS. So far in their short time as Earthquakes, the pair of teenagers have impressed Stahre and his coaching staff.
“Of course, yeah, but they are not ready to play 90 minutes every week,” Stahre said at Earthquakes training this week. “They have been in the first team now for just over a month, so we must give them more time, for sure. But I think they are adapting really well. We are working with them individually and have individual plans for them. They have had extra trainings with us and working with Alex Covelo as a link between the first team and the academy.”
The Quakes Academy, like most around MLS, is definitely a work in progress. The first two Homegrown player signings by San Jose -- midfielder Tommy Thompson and defender Nick Lima -- barely spent the minimum amount of time in the system to qualify for Homegrown player contracts. The infrastructure is thin, but improving, and the overall set-up has plenty of upside, something that Garber says the league has plans to commit to improving.
“We are investing over a $100 million a year on our academy programs,” said Garber. “We have not yet produced a world-class player. In the recent ratings of players around the world, Christian [Pulisic] is number five, and he’s probably a $50 million transfer fee for Dortmund. We’ve been spending $100 million a year, and we haven’t yet done that, so thinking about planning over time and investing in R&D, it’s a ten-year deliverable.”
Pulisic was named the U.S. Soccer male athlete of the year in 2017, and he shined during the national team’s failed qualifying campaign for this summer’s World Cup. If he is ever sold by Dortmund, the Bundesliga side is likely to collect a mighty transfer fee. For MLS to embark on an ambitious $1 billion spending plan on its academies, the league is going to need to produce a lot of players of Pulisic’s quality to get a return on its investment. As a comparison, the German Football Association (DFB), which has partnered with the Earthquakes to together develop technological advancements in player development, has spent $2 billion according to DFB president Oliver Bierhoff to advance German youth programs.
Oliver Bierhoff has talked about how they had challenges in Euro 2000 and they won the World Cup in 2014,” Garber said regarding the large investment by German soccer. “That’s a billion dollars for us, a very small league, with not the revenue that other leagues have. We’re trying to figure it all out, but, frankly, we don’t have the answers yet.”
The promised ten-year, billion dollar investment by MLS in its youth development programs is going to have to bear fruit at multiple levels to make it worth it. In San Jose making its commitment to signing Fuentes and Akanyirige as teenagers right out of the academy, the next step is to make sure that the first-team coaching staff follows through and give the players every opportunity to improve. Stahre, who has a track record of developing young players throughout his coaching career, he takes the responsibility seriously.
“We are believing in them a lot,” Stahre said, “but the most important thing is to make sure they adapt to the first team and practice every day with us. That’s a huge step. And then, they are ready to take the next steps. That’s on me, as the head coach, I must give the players the trust, and I must believe in them, but still I must also have a plan. If I put them in and they are not prepared, it’s not good for them. I must find the right time and place for everything.”
Identifying, nurturing, and developing youth soccer players who will become world-class is one of the biggest challenges in American soccer today. From big monetary investments at the MLS level, to the growth of the reach of academies in every community, steps are being taken that may yet yield those special players. For San Jose, it is the commitment to finding more Tommy Thompsons, Nick Limas, and JT Marcinkowskis playing at local clubs and bringing them aboard. It is growing the games of the next Fuentes and Akanyirige in the youngest levels of play. It won’t be easy, but the Quakes, for now, seem to be moving in the right direction to push it forward.