D.C. United’s youth academy produced its sixth homegrown player this week, with Collin Martin following in the footsteps of Andy Najar, Bill Hamid, Conor Shanosky, Ethan White and Michael Seaton. In a happy coincidence, I happened to have a story scheduled for Thursday profiling the man in charge of United’s youth development, ex-Ajax star and Dutch international Sonny Silooy.
The feature, which is the centerpiece of the sports section in Thursday’s print edition, could only include so much. Here are some additional quotes from my mid-June interviews with Silooy, general manager Dave Kasper, head of youth scouting Tom Torres, youth development manager Steve Olivarez and forward Michael Seaton.
On emphasizing development over results:
It’s not about results; we want to make the players better. The result is important, but in the second place. Also, in the game, there’s a chance to win a game but in a noble way with the technical tools that we give and provide the kids during the week.
On communication with the first-team staff:
It’s enough. We make the players ready for that level, but they need to take care of the kid when he is there. We give them the right tools to be a professional soccer player. You know, it’s not my decision — it’s a decision from all of the coaches. For example, Seaton, it’s from all of the coaches: ‘It he ready to be brought up to the first team?’ Then we’re going to talk with Dave Kasper, then we’re going to talk with [coach] Ben Olsen, with [assistant coach Chad Ashton] and the whole coaching staff.
On the importance of players entering the academy at a young age:
At the moment, we can a bring kid in from 16 years, but the next season or the season after, it will be impossible. I see it already.
On the formation used in the academy:
Our philosophy is the 4-3-3 or the 4-2-3-1, which sometimes the first team is playing. Our 18s are also playing 4-4-2. But I can see now when they’re playing the 4-4-2, they like more the 4-3-3. There’s more possibilities, I think it’s more fun to watch the game, and we now have at the moment quality players on the wings. A couple of years ago, there were no wingers. Now we’ve created wingers. We’re also playing players on the side that can give the ball in front of the goal. There’s a lot of action now in front.
On the role of college soccer in players’ development:
Between 18 and 22, they need the right direction. We give them the right direction until 18 years, and then it’s up to them to choose the college, a good college for academics and also soccer. We cannot say, ‘You need to go to that college.’ It’s his choice. And hopefully when he is so good, maybe the manager and the first team coach want to sign him like Seaton. That’s our hope for the players. Saying that, it’s not good or bad. It’s the culture for the country, and culture for the country is very important.
On the Ajax system:
It’s the philosophy, it’s the playing style, it’s the exercise. It’s why they bring me in because I know a lot of exercise and I can explain to the coaches what to do. It’s not only Ajax; it’s starting with the Dutch system.
On why he came to MLS:
I had always an ambition to be working at an MLS team, whether it is like this as a director and hopefully in the future, many years later, I’ll hopefully be a head coach.
On why he left the Netherlands:
I cannot stay in the Netherlands to be a coach because there is one club I will work with: Ajax Amsterdam. I have too much background to stay there and train with another club. With a background like Ajax, everyone is thinking, ‘Oh, this Soony Silooy, he’s working with Ajax, we don’t need him, we don’t want him here.’ I got the opportunity to work here, and why not? I worked in France, I worked in Germany — why not in the United States?
On his enjoyment of a coaching career:
That’s what I tell the coaches: Soccer is the best job in the world. Professional soccer player. And the second best job is the coach or a director.
On why the team initially targeted Silooy:
When you walk through the training facility at Ajax, each star has his own room. So you have the Cruyff room, the de Boer room and the Silooy room. So we said, ‘Look, this guy’s got his own room!’ [Laughs]
On what the club felt Silooy could bring to the table:
He obviously was an everyday player at Ajax, represented Holland, was a coach at various levels for Ajax, so we felt he checked all of the boxes to lead us. Ajax is a club known for developing players — top players, top international players. It was early days for us in our academy — still is — and we thought that with his accomplishments as a player, as a coach, with his personality, with the way that we works with people, with kids, that he was the perfect fit.
On how Silooy’s role changed from first-team assistant coach to director of youth development:
He was doing a lot of background work, doing a lot of research as to how we can improve things with the first team, with the reserve team, with the academy, sort of comparing it to the Ajax system. The more time we spent with him, especially on the youth side, we felt he would be a great guy to lead the charge.
On the importance of development over results:
Play soccer, first and foremost. It’s not about results at the youth level, it’s about developing players to their fullest potential.
On the communication with Silooy regarding player development:
We get the American player a little bit later than they typically do in Europe or South America, so the players are missing some important things. We talked with Sonny about the things, that when we get the player with the first team that he has those tools. We talk a lot about the style of play. Although there’s different systems — Sonny plays more of a 4-3-3 and the first team plays more of a modified 4-4-2, if you will — sometimes it’s a 4-2-3-1 — it’s not really about systems.
On the growth of White and Shanosky:
Ethan White is the next one emerging. He’s playing very well right now, playing with a lot of confidence. It’s taken him a little longer to break in, but with center backs it takes a little bit longer. He’s the next real talent emerging from our academy system and we’re pretty excited about that. And Conor is doing well too. He’s really this year grown. Richmond is very, very happy with him, we’re happy with his progress, and he’s going to get there as well.
On what Silooy brings to the academy:
The idea is to bring Sonny in from Ajax and bring that here, which he’s done, and I think everybody agrees that the players are definitely responding to that. Passing and receiving, it may seem mundane, but it’s very important to the game. That’s something [former club president Kevin Payne] always said was, ‘Our kids can’t pass the ball to each other.’ And that’s why they brought them in.
On the importance of players joining the academy at a young age:
If they don’t come in early enough, the players pass them by. The players that are here, doing the four days a week and playing and training at a very high level, they are here [raises arm], and then the players that decided to stick around with their club team — which is their decision — they come in later on and then you can see the difference in the players.
On how Silooy changed the academy setup:
There was never any real organization within the academy. There was certainly a director at the time, and then a few years without a director, and when he first came in, it was going to be very new for all of us and it was going to take a little adjusting to. To his credit, he came in and he said, ‘Hey, I know you guys have a way of doing things. This is the way we’re going to be doing things in the future.’ He didn’t say it in a tyrannical way like, ‘I’m the boss.’ He just said, ‘Look, this is the way it is. This is the best way to do things.’ And I think the coaches that are here bought into that and have really taken a liking to obviously him — what’s not to like? — but also just the philosophy and the thought process and learning more about the Ajax system, the Dutch system. The biggest thing we always take is the imprint that Johann Cruyff, his former coach and former teammate, has in a lot of different academies, whether it’s Dutch academies or Barcelona or Spanish academies or the German academies. The influence is there, and we’re learning all of those things. And he picks up the tab for lunch once in a while, which also helps.
On the satisfaction of seeing academy products develop:
The thought process even watching Andy play for Honduras is it’s like he’s wearing a D.C. United jersey. You’re just proud of those kids. Nobody really tells that story, but Andy was the kid that even when everybody was talking about how good he was, he’d always be the first one to pick up a bag of balls or something off the bus or the medical kit — he was always that kid. It makes everybody proud.
On the process of considering academy players for homegrown contracts:
That’s something that’s been constantly evaluated. There’s not a set target date for each player, like, ‘We need to know by this date.’ It obviously has a lot to do with their development, their progression throughout the season from maybe when we had them from U-12. Hopefully we get them in younger and we are able to groom them to the U-18s and eventually make that jump to the first team. Obviously, that’s a case-by-basis. So there’s no really set timeline on how that works. It’s possible through our scouting system that we bring in a player at the U-16, U-17 age and we’ve only really had a season to work him and he’s got the tools and he’s ready, so in that scenario, that conversation with that player only being there for a year, it’s kind of short. But for somebody that we recognize or identify at a younger age, somebody that we track closely, there’s constant conversations with Sonny and the first-team staff and Dave and Benny. They get updates on those guys. When we can, when it’s deemed appropriate by them, maybe we get them into a first-team training and get them a taste of it.
On Silooy’s understanding approach to leading the academy:
A small example of him recognizing that is typically Wednesday for us is a day off, knowing that we’re on the grind Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and we’re working on the weekends typically. Him being able to recognize that and not want to burn us out — he could easily say, ‘We’re working six, seven days a week.’ And we’d all gladly do it. But everybody needs that little down time as well, and we appreciate that.
On what he’s learned from Silooy:
Just movements off the ball and the ability to learn from others. He’s a technical guy. He brings Ajax formations and incorporates them into the academy. You learn from him a lot.
On how Silooy prepared him for the first team:
I wasn’t fully prepared, but to this day he still coaches me. If he sees you make a mistake — for instance, a shooting drill, he would tell me to lock my ankle and do the stuff I taught you in the academy. And I bring that here. When he tells me stuff like that, I see the difference.