BEAVERTON, Ore. -- It’s the same buildup you’d see for most professional sports seasons: a month’s worth of training; a few exhibition matches; then games, with coaches still feeling out a roster while players feel out their coaches. The only difference over the last month at the Timbers’ Training Center in Beaverton, Oregon, is the level of the players involved. Instead of professional athletes preparing as part of their job, the high-school-aged boys who make up the top three levels of the Portland Timbers’ Academy have spent each night building toward the coming season.
That season is part of U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy (DA), within which the Timbers will field three teams: one in the U-18/U-19 league; another U-16/U-17 squad; and also a group at the U-15 level. In the near term, the nightly practices are about a season that begins on September 8, when the teams visit Real Salt Lake’s academy in Utah. In the long term, though, these sessions are about a broader process, one which tries to expose, develop, and shepherd players into a potential life in soccer.
What that process means for a 14-year-old just entering high school is drastically different than someone at the end of that journey, who’s playing a final season with the academy before deciding their future in the sport. Level by level, here is a look at the three 2019 DA teams being put forth by Portland’s new academy director, Ryan Miller, along with season outlook from each level’s head coach.
Last season: 3-13-3; 8th place (out of 10) in the West Conference’s Northwest Division
2019 Head Coach: Fernando Pessoa
If there is one theme that defines Pessoa’s outlook for 2019’s U-15 team, it’s preparedness.
Though the U-15s are the lowest league of the DA system, it sits at a middle point of the Timbers’ Academy structure, making the players who comprise Pessoa’s team both projects and examples. They need to be prepared for the jump to the U-17 team – possibly the most intense leap a player will have during their academy journey (more on that, below) – but they also need to be prepared to help guide the newest academy members through their first seasons.
“It’s difficult to identify one thing that is most important, because there are different dimensions (the U-15 players) have to develop, in terms of the soccer piece,” Pessoa starts to explain, when asked about his season’s goals. “But also, there's an education piece, at home and at school. There’s also educating them on the different levels in the group. They have to respect the groups below them, the U-14s and the U-13s. The human being, in general, is important.
“In terms of the game,” he continues, “it’s preparing them to achieve and accomplish more of the club’s objectives at the next level, not finding the professional player at the end of the season.”
At the U-15 level, the professional evaluation is still too far away. Instead, Pessoa has to ask himself what players need to add to their games to compete at the next step. And at that next step, for the first time during the academy process, players will have to compete with players above their age. Instead of the academy and DA having a U-16 team, the U-16s play and train at the U-17 level.
“We’re not very focused on, ‘okay, I’m going to finish this season and have three players sign pro contracts,’” Pessoa says, explaining why the U-15’s emphasis on preparedness. “No. It’s not that. It’s preparing them in a way that they can make the jump to a higher level of competition and be prepared to meet a whole new set of challenges; to prepare them for the next step in all aspects and not try to be too specific.
“We want to get them to the U-17s with the style and the principles that started with the U-13s and into the U-15s. We want to keep that progression.”
At Pessoa’s level, though, you can only talk so much about progression on the field. Soon, talk turns to the more important perspective – life, in general – and how time in the academy informs broader growth.
“In the U-15s, I’m not focused on just the results. Yes, the results are important in anything, and we want to win at everything we do in life. But in the end, they’re human beings before anything else. We want to make them more prepared for what’s next.”
Last season: 9-11-3; 6th place (out of 10) in the West Conference’s Northwest Division
2019 Head Coach: Darren Back
Back is one of the newest additions to the Timbers Academy, having moved to Portland from the Philadelphia Union Academy earlier this summer. There, Back contributed to a system that’s become one of the more productive in Major League Soccer. He’ll be a crucial part of guiding Timbers academy players into their first experience at a dual age level.
“The 17s is an interesting age because it’s a big jump from the 15s to the 17s, for a number of reasons,” Back explains. “Number one, the boys are maturing very quickly. That brings in itself some challenges, both for the players as individuals and me, as a coach. Secondly, in terms of the soccer, it becomes more of a competitive environment. They’re one step closer to the first team.
“What we try to do is try to treat them as such, try to create that competitive environment, and help them understand what is required to then make the next step into the 19s, and then ultimately the USL and the first team.”
Pessoa couldn’t think in terms of the end game – the professional goal. Back has to meet it head on. Come the U-19s, successful players are going to be faced with choices regarding colleges and professional contracts, if all works out. Does their path keep them in Portland, or send them away from home? Is the professional life even one they want to pursue? Those questions don’t have to be answered at the U-17 level, but they’re on the horizon. They become the context for a player’s continued place in the academy system.
All the while, the U-17 team competes against other boys going through the same process, giving academy products a more detailed glimpse of their competition.
“For some players, they take it in stride,” Back says. “For others, it takes a little bit longer because they’re still going through a bit of a growth spurt.
“It’s trying to manage not only that, but the level of competition is extremely high. Some of the events are fantastic. The (Generation adidas) Cup is the highlight of the year where you get to test yourself against some of the best clubs not just in America but the world. It’s a real exciting year for the boys.”
Last season: 6-14-2; 7th place (out of nine) in West Conference’s Northwest Division
2019 Head Coach: Serge Dinkota
Dinkota is another relatively recent arrival to Portland, joining the Timbers from the Montréal Impact last year. Though he has recently been helping with T2 and aiding their integration of a number of new academy talents, the arrival of the DA season has seen Dinkota’s time return to his main charge: helping players through the final steps of their Academy process.
“With the 19s, we get closer to the end of the competitive spectrum,” Dintoka explains. “And obviously, we get closer to the professional world. We get closer to T2, to the first team. We also get closer to college.
“It is important for us to make sure that we enable the player to take the next step and be successful in it, whether it’s college, T2, or the first team. And, as always, we want to win, and winning as a byproduct of our style and our philosophy of play.”
At the final step, the results become more important. Players need to show they can impact winning. But the development of other objectives – objectives that may not lead directly to Major League Soccer or the United Soccer League – is still in view, especially in a culture that places a high value on athletics as a route to a college education.
“Coming from Canada, the college option isn’t as big, because the guys we had in the professional academy want to become professionals,” Dinkota says. “It’s a big challenge (in Portland), and I’m learning everyday to make sure each individual gets the help he needs to meet his own objectives.”
More often than not, that help starts with taking an active interest – not pretending the players’ goals beyond that academy aren’t a primary motivator within the system.
“And it’s very important that the player feels the coach cares about those objectives,” Dinkota emphasizes. “I’m not going to give more attention to somebody that wants to play in T2 than somebody who wants to go to college, because I need to make sure that each individual is successful.”
There is a reality, though: that in terms of the academy process, the U-19 level is the last stop, albeit one that with a number of potential outcomes. In the best-case scenario, you have an MLS-ready player, but that’s also the rarest of outcomes. More often, you’ll have players being seen through the lenses of T2 or college soccer. Or something else.
“As you get to these crossroads, everyone has different objectives, but also different opinions,” Dintoka says. “So what we do, we start the year with doing individual meetings, because if I’m going to be successful as a coach or as an educator, it’s important that I know what each player wants to achieve. Then, I can help, in cooperation with the player, set standards and set objectives for him to reach.”
There’s always going to be the desire to judge the U-19s in terms of wins and losses. And those results are important. They’re one of the standards. But the ability to achieve that standard is part of other, more nuanced objectives, where each of those objective reflects a single person’s life goals.
As much as the Timbers’ Development Academy season will be about goals on the field, the more important benchmarks will be about the players’ futures, and how their journeys evolve. It will be about how an evolving academy can improve on those benchmarks.