Amid the linoleum-lined bowels of creaky RFK Stadium, beyond the D.C. United locker room and a few paces past the laundry facility, stands the office of an AFC Ajax hero.
Sonny Silooy played in more than 250 matches as a defender for the Dutch powerhouse. Logged 25 appearances for the Netherlands national team. Went the full 120 minutes in the 1996 UEFA Champions League final.
But what the 49-year-old can’t wait to discuss is a post-playing days photograph, attached to a whiteboard in the corner of his office.
Shot a decade ago, the photo shows Silooy with the under-10 Ajax squad he helped coach. Among the little guys? Stefano Denswil, Ruben Ligeon, Joeri de Kamps and Joel Veltman — all of whom have since signed professional contracts with the club.
“Four players from one age in the first team?” Silooy mused. “That’s pretty big.”
The Ajax organization is celebrated for its guidance of young talent, from the likes of soccer icon Johan Cruyff to contemporary Dutch star Wesley Sneijder. That’s why Silooy, who came through the system himself and later served as an Ajax youth coach from 2003 to 2008, was brought to the nation’s capital two years ago.
While United’s academy by that point had already produced a pair of rising stars in Andy Najar — now with Belgian powerhouse RSC Anderlecht — and Bill Hamid, the notion of untapped potential lingered.
“They brought Sonny in because even though there was success with those two players, it wasn’t good enough,” head of youth scouting Tom Torres said. “The players weren’t technically sound, and they weren’t following any sort of curriculum.”
After first experiencing RFK Stadium in May 1990 while playing for Ajax in an exhibition against the U.S. national team, Silooy returned when he was hired by United as an assistant coach with a focus on video analysis, scouting and the academy.
That role eventually evolved, though, into him being named director of youth development in October. Now, Silooy oversees an academy that features some 150 players ranging in age from their preteens to early 20s.
“I like to work with kids,” Silooy said. “For me, if it’s kids like U-12 or 35 years old, they’re still a kid. I know that when I was a player, when I was 35 years old, I was still a kid.”
It doesn’t take much interaction with Silooy to comprehend that childlike zeal for the game. He’s a bit of a goofball, really, with boundless energy and a contagious sense of humor. To the academy coaches who dedicate long hours to the cause, that’s a welcome approach.
In youth development manager Steve Olivarez’s words, “He’s a fun, easygoing guy. As a boss, you always appreciate that.”
Although coach Ben Olsen uses a 4-4-2 formation with the United first team, Silooy has found youth players are drawn to the Dutch 4-3-3 approach that allows for more attacking creativity and interchange of positions while emphasizing wide play and off-the-ball movement.
“Everyone knows Ajax,” said United forward Michael Seaton, a 17-year-old who jumped from the academy to the first team in January. “Just off that, I’ve learned a lot from him. He kept telling me to hold my head up, be composed, stuff like that, and to learn, take criticism.”
Added midfielder Collin Martin, an 18-year-old academy product signed this week: “From early on, he’s been guiding me, helping me understand my talents, my weaknesses, helping me grow.”
To Silooy, the goal ultimately is to produce players, such as Seaton and Martin, who can ink “homegrown” contracts allowing them to forego the draft process and immediately join Olsen’s squad.
When deemed a candidate for a professional deal, a player is typically auditioned in first-team training. There are constant conversations between Silooy and the front office, meanwhile, regarding not only the evaluation of academy players but also the skill sets ingrained in them.
“We talk with Sonny a lot about things we see that are missing with the American player,” said United general manager Dave Kasper, noting youth development in the U.S. begins much later than it does in Europe and South America. “It’s about philosophy, keeping the ball on the ground, developing players who have good technique, so that when they get to the next level, they’re comfortable on the ball.”
In addition to the success stories of Hamid and Najar, United have seen academy products Ethan White and Conor Shanosky grow into increased roles this season. Seaton and Martin could be the next to contribute.
While Silooy has the ambition to be a head coach one day, he knows his current post isn’t about wins and losses — it’s about prepping his players for what he hopes will be long, fruitful careers.
That’s the Ajax way, after all, and he knows that as well as anyone.
“When you play very well, you dominate the game, and you lose the game unlucky, it’s OK. We continue our process, we continue our program,” Silooy said. “We’re working not for two or three years. We are working for 20 years, so that the players have 20 years of tools to be a professional soccer player.”