The Louisville City Youth Movement
There are several factors contributing to Louisville City FC’s success year over year. A committed ownership group, a strong coaching staff, and roster consistency. In a league known for frequent one-year contracts and regular turnover of players, LouCity has been a leading squad in establishing a continuity of players. This on-the-pitch consistency has been key to the club's six straight Eastern Conference Finals appearances and two championships. Now in year seven, many of Louisville's familiar faces are on the wrong side of thirty posing the question “What will the future look like?”
Louisville City has the second oldest roster in the USL at 28.6 years old and 11 of 24 rostered players will be 30+ by the end of the year. Turning 30 is by no means a death sentence. Nobody is expecting the likes of Niall McCabe or Paolo DelPiccolo to hang up their boots at the end of this season. But it is a milestone signaling that father time will catch up to our beloved stars of today sooner than later. Those in a position of power with the club are certainly looking towards the future. In years past, the solution was retention. Going forward, a succession plan will need to be in place. Fortunately for the LouCity faithful, action has already been taken on that front as the team has been steadily ramping up their reliance on the academy program.
On 05/16/2019, 16-year-old Elijah Wynder became the first academy player to make an appearance for Louisville City. In the lead up to this 2021 season, Wynder put pen to paper and signed his first professional contract, forgoing college eligibility to play for his hometown club. Only a few months later, seven academy players would be offered two-way contracts that would allow them to maintain their college eligibility and still represent LouCity on the pitch. Of those, Joshua Wynder has already signed a pro deal (who is showing promise on a national level as well) while Carlos Moguel and Sebastian Sanchez have made one or more appearances in the eighteen. The speed at which the academy has already grown and its output has made it clear that it's likely many starting roles will be occupied by academy products.
The level of investment from the ownership group to establish an academy and develop a robust training facility signals that youth has become the focus for the future. LouCity has fielded a team of U-19 players in the inaugural USL Academy League. “Our mission as a club is to provide our players a pathway to professional soccer,” said Mario Sanchez, technical director of the LouCity Academy. “The USL Academy League will give us another platform to test our players in a highly professional environment.” Academy director Simon Bird stated “We want to continue to give opportunities for our players to play in top-level competition, and the USL is providing a wonderful platform to do that. Our focus is on maximizing the potential of our players while providing a clear pathway to professional and collegiate soccer. This league will allow us to play against other like-minded professional youth academies.”
With a national ranking in the top 20, expect the Louisville City Academy to become one of the primary channels of player acquisition. The academy website states they will “provide players from within the region a positive player-centered learning environment, giving each player the opportunity to develop his/her full potential and maximize his/her ability all with the exposure to a clear pathway to professional or collegiate soccer.” According to Sanchez, the vision for the academy is to provide an alignment of philosophy between the academy and the first team that will allow for a more seamless transition for those prepared to make the leap to playing as a professional. “We want people to see the academy’s style of play as a mini version of the first team.” Each day, several prospects have the opportunity to train with the pros. While there are certainly physical differences between a developing youngster and a seasoned veteran, it’s the mental side the poses the biggest challenge. Patience will be required as they learn and grow.
The opportunity to train with the professional players and become more acclimated to the mentality and speed of play is how the academy differs itself from other avenues for young players. While there are obviously many participants from Louisville, the club has expanded their reach as far as Lexington, Bowling Green, and Evansville. “We’ve had outreach from youth players in Texas, California, and New York.” A true testament to the quality of program that is being developed right here in the Bluegrass. In the notoriously costly “pay-to-play” American system, Louisville City has made strides to combat the disparity by offering financial assistance to players in need to bring in players from all walks of life and different communities. Per the academy website, “we do not want to see finances ever get in the way of a player having an opportunity to play at the highest level.”
The previously mentioned USL Academy League also offers developing players an opportunity to take their game to the next level. Composed of U15 through U19 kids, up to five senior team players can take part, helping to elevate the level of competition. Sanchez shared that while the league only has 10 games on the books for this season, the USL’s plans for next season are to expand that to a full 30 game schedule. Things are already looking bright for the purple youngsters.
So, what is next for the academy now that they have a pipeline of players, grounds to play on, and a league to participate in? Over the past year, several USL clubs have formalized partnerships with foreign teams (such as Hartford Athletics connection to English-side Leyton Orient). According to Sanchez, Louisville City is looking to announce such a partnership by the years' end! Sanchez expressed that there is much value in making these connections. From coaching education, training opportunities, and yes even formalized player exchanges in the form of full-on transfers and even loans. A few years back, who would have thought there would be a direct connection from Louisville to overseas clubs!?
Those familiar with international soccer are likely aware of the Dutch side, Ajax. While the Amsterdam-based club may not be in the biggest league (Eredivisie), they have been a consistent producer of some of the top talents in the world. Matthijs de Ligt (now with Juventus), Frenkie de Jong (Barcelona), and Donny van de Beek (Manchester United) are all exports from the notorious Ajax academy system. It’s not an impossible thought that LouCity could one day be the U.S.’s equivalent. A pipeline of outstanding players continually elevating their game to the highest levels.
Even outside the LouCity academy, there have been several signing with the future in mind; 18-year-old Jay Tee Kamara, 24-year-old Parker Siegfried, and Simon Lefebvre. Let’s not also forget Akil Watts and Jonathan Gomez (who is almost certainly off to Europe after this season). Within the next few years, your favorites from the Slugger Stadium days will be backfilled by young talents like these and the youth movement will be in full swing.
Fans of Louisville City are blessed. The club has been successful since day one and continues to be a consistent dominating force in the league. Recruitment and retention have been outstanding and now the organization is taking steps to expand the possibilities for the first team. The potential long-term impact the academy can have cannot be overstated. Young players in the area will receive some of the best training that has ever been made available in the area and will have a path to professional play. Those who want it have a more clear and direct avenue to achieving their goals than ever before. In only a few years, the starting eleven for the first team will likely include individuals like the Wynder brother representing their hometown. What a time to be a fan of soccer in the 502!