Context. Context is important, especially when it comes to the ever-expanding world of MLS and its academies and MLS’s growing place in the world soccer transfer market. In 2018, the Sporting Kansas City Academy was named the MLS Academy of the Year “for its exemplary player development.”
The goal of Sporting’s academy, as stated by current Academy Director Declan Jogi in a Zoom interview with kcsoccerjournal.com Tuesday evening before last, is “to produce players to the 1st team.” Since 2010, Kansas City’s academy has sent 19 “homegrown” players to the 1st team, highlighted by current winger Daniel Salloi and the two most internationally successful players in center back Erik Palmer-Brown and midfielder Gianluca Busio.
Nearly as important – arguably just as important – as providing players for the first team, the Academy plays a large part in a player who may eventually be sold inside MLS or internationally for a substantial transfer fee. The selling club gains 100% of the transfer fee for a “homegrown” and those funds are revenue for the club that can be used however the club sees fit.
Sporting’s biggest transfer of a homegrown player is Busio, who was sold to then Serie A club Venezia in August of 2021 for $6.5 million initially, plus a sell-on percentage. The only other one was defender Jaylin Lindsey, traded to Charlotte FC in December of 2021 for up to $350,000 and a sell-on percentage.
Looking across MLS at some recent transfers reveals the uptick in sales of homegrown players across the league:
Insane month for MLS exports:
-Pepi to Augsburg ($20m)
-Dike to West Brom ($8.5M)
-Paredes to Wolfsburg ($7m~ pending medical)
-Buchanan to Brugge ($7m)
-Atuesta to Palmeiras ($4m + $3.5m add-ons)
-Sands to Rangers (loan + purchase)
-Bassett to Feyenoord (loan + purchase)
— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) January 25, 2022
Kevin Paredes (DC United), Ricardo Pepi (FC Dallas), James Sands (New York City FC) and Cole Bassett (Colorado Rapids) were all MLS academy products, and that activity was just in January of 2022. More recently, among others, have been Philadelphia Union selling Paxten Aaronson to Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt for a $4 million base fee, plus sell-on percentage and Chicago Fire selling goalkeeper Gaga Slonina to EPL club Chelsea for a $10 million base fee.
In an even broader picture, MLS and its academies are critical to a strong United States Men’s National team.
To bring the focus back home, the other primary purpose of the Sporting Kansas City’s Academy, as stated by Jogi, “is to make sure that players, no matter their background or ethnicity, have opportunity.”
It has been five years since the Sporting Kansas City Academy was named the top academy in MLS. What is its state today and where is it going?
“At this point, it is really about evolution,” said Jogi. “What is the next evolution to advance us an Academy, as a staff – coaching, players, programming, support – all of these things?”
Welcome to Part II of “It’s not ‘the next Busio’: Sporting Kansas City Academy Director Declan Jogi talks in-depth on talent recognition and development.”
The guiding questions about Sporting’s Academy established in Part I were:
- 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?
In summary, Jogi broke down player evaluation into four foundational components:
- Decision making within a tactical setting
- Mental state/capacity
For a detailed explanation and much more, please see Part I.
(Author’s note: 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, in some instances, via a Q and A format.)
Committed to the Player Pathway
Although Jogi is the academy director for all teams U-12 through U-19s (which he also coaches), he works with and reports to Technical Director and VP of Player Personnel Brian Bliss and Manager and Sporting Director Peter Vermes. The interaction between the three is heavy.
“Brian Bliss is very aware of the players we have in the Academy. He is coming and watching games and talking to the coaches and talking about players. He is very engaged between the Academy and the 2nd team. And through that, Peter is then aware.
“I meet with Peter regularly, weekly. We are in conversation about many things, not just players. There are so many things to talk about; we are interacting, engaging, discussing all elements of the Academy. So they are very engaged with our player pathway, whether it’s the U-15s or the 2nd team.”
Jogi considers the U-15 level to be the “pre-professional” phase. Busio and forward Tyler Freeman were signed to 1st team contracts as 15-year-olds.
“That is the age that the reality of a potential signing is real; you are right there, and it could happen. So that is why I use [the U-15s] as a reference point,” Jogi stated. “[In addition], Peter, every week, knows what is going on with the 12s, the 13s, the14s. [Bliss and Vermes] are very engaged; they are committed to our [player] pathway [from academy or college to the 1st team]. As a club [from ownership down], we are committed to the pathway.”
Flying beyond the rainbow: The reach of Sporting’s academy recruiting
Although current first-teamer Cam Duke is from Overland Park, Kansas, most recent Sporting Kansas City Academy products have come from outside of the Kansas City Metro Area: Busio and Lindsey were both from North Carolina. First-teamer Felipe Hernandez is from Nashville, Tennessee, while fellow first-teamers Kayden Pierre and Jake Davis are from Michigan and Ozzie Cisneros is from Omaha, Nebraska.
Sporting holds open tryouts for the U-12 through U-14 levels every year because players “in those spaces change quickly.” Past those ages, a tryout is by invitation or recommendation.
“We have a very expansive scouting network; we have a full-time director of Academy scouting and recruitment. He has a network of regional tipsters all over the country that are always scouting and then connecting to us,” Jogi revealed. “It is a combination of all the above in terms of identifying and then bringing players in.”
Alternatively, the Academy has a process by which players can reach out and send video.
Of all those options, the scouting network has clearly been the most fruitful thus far. For Kansas City is not a location that comes to mind when one brainstorms top areas from which to pull elite soccer- playing athletes. Think East Coast (thus Philadelpia Union’s success). Think West Coast. Think even areas like Dallas.
For years, an MLS club was limited to a particular geographic area for scouting and recruiting. But in 2023 that is no longer completely the case. Jogi summarized the situation:
- Any club can go and find a player in another MLS teams’ territory, as long as that player is not within that club’s academy system.
- However, if the clubs had an agreement, a club could get a player from the other’s academy, “just like the first teams do business.”
“It’s pretty much opened up, the scouting territories, where you can go and scout,” he continued. “I haven’t gotten in too much detail, but basically that is what is happening.”
Yet, a simple mathematic problem endures time infinite. Kansas City’s position in the Midwest is simply not a densely populated area.
“If you have a region of 100 square miles, and you have a population of 50,000, and then down the road the next area of 100 square miles has a 100,000 population, you tell me, statistically what that is going to look like in terms of competition, in terms of quality in any avenue, it’s just simple mathematics,” Jogi explained.
In example, Sporting has had kids at the U-12 level travel three hours to come and train.
“When we have tryouts, maybe we get 70-100 kids for our U-12 or U-13 tryouts. Do you think Miami has 100 players show up for U-12 tryouts? They probably can’t do a tryout because they have too many kids show up. This is the reality of our region. It is not like there aren’t talented players here; it’s a numbers game. It’s like sales – you knock on 100 doors to make one sale. You need a hundred players to get one pro.”
Jogi’s illustrations bring home realities. However, as younger players are immersed in Sporting’s Academy methodology and are challenged by the best players in their age group, the more success stories will arise.
SKC II is Sporting’s 2nd team. Players can be signed to MLS Next Pro contracts or sign as amateurs to play for the 2nd team. Currently on full MLS Next Pro contracts are six former Academy players: Coby Jones, Jahon Rad, Mikey Lenis, Sebastian Cruz, Enzo Mauriz, and Mo Ablunadi. Of those, Jones, Rad, and Lenis came straight from the Academy, while Cruz, Mauriz, and Ablunadi went to college after the Academy and came back. The pathway can work for all players.
A Beast of Challenge. A Beast of Burden… or Collaborators off and Antagonists on
In the related article “Sporting Kansas City’s Soccer for All Kids and Academy providing life pathways”, Jogi speaks of the challenge of diversity within the Academy and how inroads are being made to provide opportunities – a clear pathway – for all kids.
“We are a lot further along than where we’ve been in terms of the diversity in our [academy] system,” said Jogi.
Jogi has personally fostered relationships with leaders of organizations within the urban areas of Kansas City and those supporting less-fortunate families, and he and the Academy are in full support of them. And success is happening as a player discovered via Global FC has joined the U-17 Academy team and “is making his way.”
But to the question of if Sporting Kansas City’s Academy does or would eventually replicate the ethnic diversity present in Kansas City and the surrounding areas, Jogi gave food for thought:
“Are you looking for the Academy to reflect that we have 20% of a certain ethnic group in the city and therefore, on average, 20% of our roster should look like that? I don’t think football works like that. Our goal is not to have ethnic diversity; our goal is to find the best players.
“But what I also believe is that the structure in an academy is very rigid. Does every ethnic group function in a rigid environment? It’s a question. I am not 100% convinced that every ethnic group should be in an academy, whether it’s Sporting or any other academy based on their culture and how they develop personally and in their game. Timing is important of when a player gets involved in a club environment and ethnicity and cultural background have a role to play in that… Our job is to find the best players and provide them opportunity to develop and give them a pathway. At the end of the day, that is what it is about.”
Academy cost: Sporting Kansas City Academy teams U-14 and up they are “fully funded”. Costs associated with training, travel, uniforms, facilities and any fee associated with competing are covered. There is no fees to the families for anything. Each Academy player also receives a season ticket to watch all the home games, “which is part of development, watching and learning from the first team”. The U-12 and U-13s teams “partially funded” in that when they travel – which isn’t often – the families are responsible for the transportation and lodging.
Finding all to the talent in and around the KC Metro Area and within its diverse groups of citizens and beyond is a challenge. One would think that having to compete with 2023 MLS expansion club St. Louis CITY would add a challenge to finding those professional talents.
KCSoccerJournal: How has St. Louis CITY coming online impacted Academy recruiting?
Jogi: “We now share a territory to a certain degree with St. Louis. But with the way the rules have been adapted and amended, we can go anywhere. We can go to St. Louis and recruit a player. St. Louis can come here and recruit a player.
“The rivalry is healthy. We’ve played them in league games several times. We’ve arranged preseason games with them because they are down the road. It is developing a healthy rivalry, which I think is great for the game. It’s great for the city, for both cities. I work closely with Dale Schilly, who is the academy director there. We get on well and work together: collaborators off the field and antagonists and enemies on the field. That’s the league MO.”
Currently, Sporting Kansas City’s 1st team roster is dotted with players who came through Sporting’s Academy: Cam Duke, Kayden Pierre, Jake Davis, Felipe Hernandez, and Ozzie Cisneros. Thus far, only midfielders Duke (2226 minutes across 4+ seasons) and Hernandez (3307 across 4+) have seen significant time.
It’s not “the next Busio”
KCsoccerjournal.com: Is there anything the Academy needs to do better to send more players to the 1st team to get significant minutes?
Jogi: “There is a constant evaluation at the academy level, 2nd team, and the 1st team in our scouting and in our development of the players to continue to produce better and better players.
“Cam Duke, Felipe are good players. Can the next crop be better? That’s always the goal. You don’t want to produce another Cam Duke. You don’t even want to produce the next Busio; you want the next iteration, the evolution of the next Busio, who should be a step further than a Busio. That’s always the goal because the game advances. If we look at a Cam Duke or a Busio and say, “Let’s do what exactly what we did with Busio.” Well, you are going to be behind. You always have to look ahead. That is a constant process.”
As MLS grows as a selling league and by extension a vital production element for US National Team players, competition within the league grows sturdier. Competition for players. Competition for funds to fuel programs. Competition for wins. There are challenges, and hundreds of doors to knock on. With Jogi’s love, with Jogi’s passion, knowledge, and finely tuned, discerning perspective driving a constant evolution in Sporting Kansas City’s Academy, the future appears bright, whether the path is linear or A to B to D.