When he was eight years old, Declan Jogi knew he wanted to be a professional soccer player. His native land had just declared its independence from the United Kingdom and became Zimbabwe, and, in a sense, so had Jogi. Fast forward to Jogi in the midst of fulfilling that dream: his thoughts are in the present but planning for another dream.
“I always had a passion for coaching, for teaching,” Jogi said during our Zoom interview the Tuesday evening before last. Indeed, he began earning his coaching badges during his playing career that saw him play in Zimbabwe and the United States. “I enjoy studying the game, and I enjoy interacting with young players and teaching and seeing the process. I enjoy the process, the process of development.”
Jogi first coached in Tennessee, then arrived in Kansas City to coach the Sporting Kansas City Academy U-13s in 2015 after he left the field as a professional athlete. Then, having coached the U-14s from 2018-2022, Jogi became Sporting’s Academy director in August of 2022 after a lengthy search to find former director Jon Parry’s successor.
“You hear the old saying, ‘Find what you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.’ I feel that way when it comes to the game of football,” he declared. “I don’t feel I’ve worked a day in my life, to be honest.”
But to hear the passion in Jogi’s voice and hear the rundown of Jogi’s daily life is to know he is driven and he puts in the “work”.
See more from Jogi and hear from Director of Community Impact Chioma Atanmo
Jogi’s day begins early with wading through “[the] different departments that function in and around the academy that all need attention: facilities, player care, the coaches, the players themselves, recruiting” then immersing himself in SKC II (the 2nd team) training at 2:30 and the Academy sessions that begin an hour later, before wrapping up sometime after nightfall. Along the way, there are discussions upon discussions with all points of contact between the Academy teams and the 2nd team.
“A couple days of the week,” Jogi added, “we are at the 1st team facility [Compass Minerals National Performance Center] observing and participating in training and interacting with the 1st team staff over there.”
The goal, repeated several times by Jogi during our discussion, is clear: “to produce players to the 1st team.”
Sporting signed six players to the 1st team in 2021 who were “homegrown” in its academy: Grayson Barber, Ozzie Cisneros, Jake Davis, Kayden Pierre, Kaveh Rad, and Brooks Thompson. Only half of those – Cisneros, Davis, and Pierre – are still with the organization.
Overriding questions about Sporting’s Academy, then, include:
- How do Jogi and the Academy go about evaluating and developing players?
- What do Jogi and Academy staff look for when recruiting players?
- Is Sporting recognizing all the talent in its own backyard?
Talkin’ ‘bout an Evolution: How do Jogi and the Academy go about evaluating & developing players?
Jogi has been Academy Director at Sporting Kansas City for less than a year. Thus, no changes have been made as Jogi believes a solid foundation exists. A “big piece” is the “very stable” club culture based on the core values of team first, high work ethic, intelligence, and a daily pursuit of excellence.
“At this point, it is really about evolution. What is the next evolution to advance us an Academy, as a staff – coaching, players, programming, support – all of these things?”
To best see how to evolve, Jogi and his staff have been reflecting on:
- How to best support the pathway (academy, college, etc) for every player.
- What Jogi has done in the past.
- What Jogi is currently doing.
- What the Academy has done in the past, what it is doing the present, and where it is.
- Where they want the Academy to be, where they want to go next, and how they want to get there.
The one constant for any academy is evaluating players. “The fundamentals required to be an MLS player” is one of the two baselines that Jogi and his staff consider. The other is Sporting’s player profile – the skillsets needed to play in the system (A 4-3-3 formation with a moderately high press, featuring ball possession and wide overloads to defend and create chances, generally speaking) that Sporting wants to play.
“So, we are constantly reflecting and evaluating where our players are with regards to those profiles, and even in the players that are not here, the recruiting piece of it. Recruiting to match our profile,” said Jogi. “But then for those here on the ground, how are we developing towards those skillsets?”
Talking with Declan was an enjoyable experience, and the impression one leaves with is that Sporting’s Academy is in the right hands. To allow Jogi’s unique perspectives to come through, particulars from the interview are provided via a Q and A format.
Question from KCSoccerJournal: What are the foundational abilities looked for in a player… ‘The player has to have these things…?’
Answer from Declan Jogi, Sporting KC Academy Director: The game is a simple game, right. Most people talk about four components:
Technically, a player needs to be able to dribble, pass, shoot, receive a ball, head a ball, and tackle at a level that he is able to compete with athletes who play the game at a high speed, to be able to do those at speed in a game that moves very quickly. There is a different speed between levels of play. Some of that is tied to technical and tactical ability, but it is also tied to physical capacity of the athletes on the field.
- Decision making within a tactical setting
So, you look at the ability to make decisions: How are they reading the game? Are they reactionary versus anticipatory? Are they able to work with one, two, three, four players? Are they able to work with players on their line? How do they work together? Soccer is a collective game. How are their decisions affected by their capacity to work with other players?
Then, you look at the physical capacity. Soccer is an athletic sport. To play at the youth level, there has to be a level of athleticism. The youth space is a little tricky because the physical component evolves a lot between the ages of 12 and 18… 19, even after that. So, that is a little more complicated piece, but you still need to project and gauge, to a degree, what a player’s athletic capacity is and could be in the future. It is not an exact science, so you look at all these pieces.
We were just discussing a player that came to tryouts at U-12 and U-13 and never made it. Then at U-14, we discovered him. But he had come, and we never noticed him. Then, at U-14, there is something different. So, there he is; he’s in the Academy.
- Mental state/capacity
Then, the biggest part is also the hardest part to judge when recruiting. But it is one we in the Academy, especially more recently, [have emphasized]. We hired a mental performance coach. They are helping us develop curriculum to enhance our players’ mental capacity [and] their character development, which is a very important part of our core values. We try to tie those two things together to support players to be in a position to have the best chance to be successful.
A player can have the other three qualities, but lack the right mental capacity and space to be able to deal with the ups-and-downs of competitive and youth level football. A talented player could not make it because of those spaces, and a less-talented player could make it because of that space, because they have that capacity. It always has been [an important part of the game], but for us in our academy, it is a piece we already have, as a club, made some changes and strides towards supporting athletes in that space.
Sporting Kansas City Academy Prominent Extremes and In-betweens:
- The original academy star, Erik-Palmer Brown, left Sporting on a free transfer for EPL club Manchester City after the 2017 season.
- More recently, Academy rising star Jaylin Lindsey was traded to Charlotte FC in December of 2021 for up to $350,000 and a sell-on percentage.
- Tantalizing prospect Mateo Bunbury and Sporting parted ways last July.
- Gianluca Busio was sold to then Serie A club Venezia for $6.5 million initially, plus a sell-on percentage in August of 2021
KCSoccerJournal: What are the foundational skills you are looking for? Is dual-footedness or how they open their body, the shape of their body when they receive the ball some of the things you are looking at when evaluating talent?
Jogi: Yes, you look at those things, but then, if you think about players, I am going to generalize, so bear with me. Give me some grace here. I am from Africa, and I’ll speak to that. A player from Africa is not always going to open his body; he is not always going to shape himself. But it doesn’t mean he hasn’t seen what is going on the opposite side of the field or behind him. He might use the protect foot to execute a turn or a pass that you don’t see coming.
Yes, you are looking at some of the basic fundamentals of the simplicity of the game: opening your body so you can see the game, playing to the lead foot; those are all very important aspects when looking at a player. But you can also teach that.
What is more difficult to teach is a player that sees a pass and is able to do something different that nobody else saw coming. And he might not be opening his body, but he has done something that nobody thought he could do because he didn’t open his body, or nobody thought he saw because he didn’t open his body. So, you have to be careful when using certain fundamentals as a measuring stick for talent.
KC Soccer Journal: When you see a player, perhaps a U-14, and think, ‘Wow, this player has some stuff our other players don’t.’ How do you elaborate on that talent? He’s special. You don’t want to mold him so much that he loses that. How does that work?
Jogi: It is a push-pull. Is it always only one way to get him to understand something or are there multiple ways to get him to understand something? Players receive information in different ways, so it is important to learn how they receive and process information. But also, to understand that they are going to develop in their own way. So, you have to have a standard; you have to have a system in place. We have a model of play, a style of play.
But within that model of play it is important to allow young players to understand the A that leads to B that leads to C. But what you don’t want to take away is the in-between the A and B. “Special” is a relative term. If a player can do from A to B to C, the logic of the game, they read the game, anticipate, they position themselves, they execute very simply. This is the logic of the game. This player is special.
But then there is the player that from A to B he can actually jump in the middle of A, turn to B, and get the ball to D. He skipped C. This is also special. Which one is special? For me, they are both special because in football all of the above are necessary to be successful.
It’s a collective game. Everybody cannot be Messi on the field. You don’t have a team that can win a game if everybody is Messi. What is special? Is special Messi or the other ten players that supported Messi and won the World Cup? To me, they are all special.
Coming Soon… Part II of It’s not “the next Busio”: Sporting Kansas City Academy Director Declan Jogi talks in-depth on talent recognition and development. Jogi discusses Technical Director and VP of Player Personnel Brian Bliss and Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes; recruitment; territory, including the impact of St. Louis CITY; diversity; and timing.