If there is one thing that is evolving in the state of Washington, it's a clear pathway for U.S. Soccer Development Academy players from playing U-12 to professional soccer for their hometown team, the Seattle Sounders. Luckily for young aspiring players, the chance to don the green and emerald begins at the U-12, U-13 and U-14 level, through a bottom-up collaboration between local area clubs and the M.L.S. Academy.

The Sounders, without Academy teams at the U-12, U-13 and U-14 age groups, have established a unique partnership with junior Academy clubs (those with U-12 though U-14 programming) nearby, building a player pathway where the best players have the opportunity to train together twice a week, as they aspire to join the M.L.S. club once they reach the U-15 age group and above. The collaborative effort, known as the Sounders Discovery Program, has come to fruition over time as the Sounders have fostered strong relationships within their market of multiple junior Academy clubs:

  • Eastside FC
  • Pacific Northwest Soccer Club
  • Seattle United

At the U.S. Soccer Development Academy U-13 and U-14 West Regional Showcase, all three affiliate clubs made the journey south to Oceanside, Calif., one of the many soccer-rich cities within San Diego County. Not only did all three of Washington's junior Academy clubs venture to Oceanside, but two staff members from the Sounders Discovery Program, including Director Brayton Knapp, also made the trip.

"It's a good opportunity for the clubs to come down to see where their teams are, as benchmarks, and for us as well, to see the players in their own club environment," Knapp said. "I think it's valuable for the affiliate clubs as they get to see the benchmark of Southern California and some of the other very talented teams, to match up against them and just get different competition. We get to see what the level of soccer is like in Washington and hopefully this (event) raises the level, so we can continue to compete."

The structure of the Sounders Discovery Program (SDP) is centered around talent identification and player development. A pool of 21 players at each age group (U-12, U-13, U-14) are selected to participate in two training sessions per week, occurring in quarterly phases throughout the year. A selection to a SDP training phase means for that period of time, players develop twice a week with the Sounders and the other two days a week with their junior Academy club. All three SDP age groups also have the opportunity to play games wearing the Sounders crest, including the Cascadia Cup and Youdan Trophy tournament.

The Seattle market of Junior Academy clubs in the region are readily supportive of allowing players to split weekly training sessions because they have one focus - doing what is best for the development of the individual player.

"First and foremost, our relationship with the Seattle Sounders is very good," Director of Coaching and U-14 head coach Roy Lassiter said. "Their coaching staff and our coaching staff work really hand-in-hand on developing players and finding the talent that's out there… We have a great relationship. If they want our players, they go. Because we want what's best for the player. This is like school for us. If a student is excelling in a certain grade, then they need to move on… We need to pass on our best players. They move on and the next player comes on up."

The reason the partnership works so well between the Washington market clubs and the Sounders is because of what is exchanged between clubs, both in ideology and tangibles. With the trust and alliance built over the past several years, the Sounders have opened their doors, and curriculum, to the affiliate clubs. Coaches and leadership from both sides collaborate on best practices, philosophy and methodology. When Seattle puts on coaching seminars and training sessions, partner clubs get invited. The player-centric nature of all clubs in the Seattle circle of trust allows Sounders players who are injured or needing more minutes to temporarily train and play with junior market clubs to get the experience they need to get back on track. And not to mention free tickets to support the first team.

"They don't need to go down that far," Seattle United U-14 head coach Ralph Black said of Seattle not needing to carry programming below U-15. "Really, they don't need to when they've got all the (market) clubs trying to work and get players developed for the older age groups. In their relationships, they've allowed the clubs to be able to do their development still."

Black went on to speak of how, as an affiliate club, their development responsibility doesn't stop at U-14.

"Our development continues with the players who don't make it (at U-15) as well. Our second and third teams are important because we realize we are going to lose players. Now that we are trying to develop our best players to push them to the Sounders, it's our job to get the players that they don't see today better. Because we've seen that happen where they take them later, at 17 or 18."

While the idea is taking shape in other major markets across the United States, those specifically with M.L.S. clubs, it goes without saying that Seattle, the state of Washington and the Sounders are paving the way for a player-development pathway that takes a bottom-up, community-based approach.