On a white board in Sporting Kansas City's head coach's office lies roughly 80 magnets with a name on them. Each magnet is estimated to be worth as little as $5,000 or as much as $10,000. Some days the head honcho in charge (aka Peter Vermes) will move a magnet the left, or one to the right, he'll move one up, or he'll move one down, it all depends on his opinion. But no matter where he moves them, it should be known that he has eyes on these little pieces of plastic like a hawk.
These magnets represent 81 Sporting KC juniors currently registered with the club's academy. Each day Peter will adjust the player's ranking depending on how he feels they have performed. Together they cost Sporting KC roughly $640,000 for just a single year of soccer. Meaning since the academy's inception in 2007 Sporting KC have spent around $3,840,000(Very rough estimate) in an attempt to churn out the best youth players the greater Kansas City region and beyond have to offer.
But just how successful has this huge investment been?
By and large, the 2009 season is generally considered the best season for the Sporting KC Juniors. That year, all four teams won their respective Kansas State Cup Championships, essentially a quintuple of trophies for a organization desperately in need of some hope.
The success seen in 2009 could have possibly come down to two Sporting KC juniors now turned pro in Kevin Ellis and Jon Kempin, who each represented the Juniors for 2 years. Kevin from 2007-2009, and Jon from 2008-2010.
Both players are called "homegrown players" and as you can probably guess, have been raised in the Junior's program, providing a direct route to the senior squad. Kyle Miller is the other junior on Sporting's roster but spent very little time with the academy so his success today is not entirely due to the members of the junior's coaching staff.
What I want to see as a fan, and I'm sure others do as well, is a player who has come in at a relatively young age and played his club ball just for Sporting KC. The first round of these types of players have just graduated from the program, players like Nate Opperman, Derek Schrick, and Eric DeJulio, who are easily three of the most promising players the club has, are among them.
As the first ever U15 charter team graduates and goes their separate ways to various colleges throughout the US, this will be the end of the road for a lot of them in terms of playing for Sporting KC. These players were brought up in a system where they train just a stone's throw away from the first team and yet know that their future with the club is uncertain.
After four years of service, they are essentially taken away from the club for another four years while they play college soccer and trained by non-Sporting KC coaches. The blame for that fact should not be dumped on the academy directors of course, it's out of their control. And asking the team to invest around $45,000 into an 18 year old that would likely fail miserably(especially in the early years) than succeed at the top level is asking a lot.
In Jon Kempin's case, the Overland Park, KS native was signed on to Sporting KC's squad as a 17 year old in 2010, making him not only the first ever homegrown player, but also the youngest ever signing for KC. Kempin has done very well with his time at Sporting KC, being invited to train with various national youth team's and traveling with Sporting KC on away trips earlier on in the season as the second string goalkeeper are just two of the things he can put down on his impressive resume.
Though for Jon and a lot of other MLS youth players they will have to ride their time on the bench as older and more experienced players continue to make the league one of the fastest growing and most exciting leagues in the world.
In a country of instant gratification, the US will have to look to Europe for signs of success at the youth level, which is inevitably there. Some youth academies have existed for nearly 110 years in Europe and continue to make the continent the greatest producer of young footballing talent(although in recent times an interest in youth players from South America and Asia have increased drastically).
So comparing Sporting KC's "juniors", who's first cycle of players have just graduated from the short 4 year program, to a club like Real Madrid where they have the ability and funds to sign 7 year olds to the academy is a bit silly.
With the money invested into the system, owners and technical staff alike will hope one day they can spot who will be a good player at the next level and who will not. If not, the huge sums of money will have been used in vain.
How would you rate Sporting KC's youth system up to this point? - leave a comment below