Over the last few years, Major League Soccer teams have truly started to embrace the youth movement and started to develop their own players.
The expansion Portland Timbers are no exception, recently announcing their own plans to set up a youth development program in Oregon before even kicking a ball in MLS.
The foundation will be laid this year, as the club works closely with Oregon Youth Soccer Association (OYSA) to help the state’s Olympic Development Program and, eventually, the Portland Timbers Academy.
“This year is an instrumental year for us,” Timbers technical director Gavin Wilkinson told MLSsoccer.com. “It’s a matter of scouting, getting the best talent, getting the best talent wearing Timbers jerseys, then adding to it. Once we start off, and the process is started, it’s then a matter of improving it.”
The Timbers will help OYSA run and manage six regional training centers in Beaverton, Bend, Eugene/Salem, Gresham, Medford and nearby Vancouver, Wash.
OYSA technical director Mike Smith, who will also double as the Timbers’ youth academy director, will oversee those camps. The talent identified will help locate talented players who could one day be part of a Timbers Academy setup.
By 2012, the club aims to have two teams compete in the US Soccer Development Academy league at both the U-16 and U-18 levels, with a tremendous amount of work being put in this year with that target in mind.
Wilkinson, a native of New Zealand who has lived in the US for 10 years, already has a proven track record of starting a youth program. He helped start EastSide United FC, a top youth club in Oregon where he still serves as technical director, and drew on that experience while planning the program.
He knew that creating a strong youth program would be a big part of what the Timbers needed to do.
“I was taking my own experiences and those that I’ve seen that have been successful at other MLS clubs and overseas,” Wilkinson said. “And one of the things we’re adamant on is having a complete program that develops the elite youth soccer players.”
Along with his own experience, Wilkinson spent time studying what has worked and what hasn’t worked at different MLS clubs around the league, including Seattle and Columbus. He had talks with US soccer officials in hopes to create something that got off to a strong start.
Because Portland are also hoping to expand their brand in the local area at the first-team level, handling the creation of a youth system had to be done with caution. In other MLS markets, building academies is sometimes viewed as a threat from established programs that fear their best players will flock to the new professional setup.
And while the Timbers had an advantage being an already established USL brand, that factored into the decision to join forces with OYSA to help the transition.
“We looked at the process of starting our own youth model and it’s a fine balance, being that you’re trying to gather support for the organization and the first team, yet still do what you set out to do by developing players in the game,” he said.
While it’s very early in the process, Wilkinson has big plans – including possible youth partnerships with overseas clubs to send top youth players and utilizing Portland’s PDL team that will continue to operate.
A Home Grown signing in Portland is a ways away, but as the team begins its MLS journey, it will simultaneously aim to start something special at the youth level.