Q&A pt. 2: D.C. United’s Nolan Sheldon talks fees, DA, more
WASHINGTON — Our recent conversation with D.C. United academy director Nolan Sheldon contained too much information for one piece, so we’ve broken it into two posts.
In the second part of our Q&A, we discuss a range of topics, including the United academy residential program at the Calverton School in Huntingtown, Maryland, the growing divide between MLS and non-MLS clubs in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and the sore subject of the annual fees that D.C. still charge many of their DA players.
SoccerWire.com sincerely thanks Nolan for the time and detail he shared with us, and our readers.
SW: Chris Durkin is United’s most recent Homegrown player signing, but many are also closely following striker Eryk Williamson [now a rising sophomore striker at Maryland]. Do you think he’ll take that path soon?
NS: Yeah, he’s done really well. We’re really proud of Eryk. He came from our partner club Arlington [Soccer Association] and of course is at University of Maryland, he’s captain of his national-team age group. He’s done really, really well. We would love to see him take that step. Again, it’s an individual development plan for each of these boys, so when the time is right, the time will be right. I’m optimistic that he’ll be really, really successful.
SW: To the best of my understanding, D.C. are the only club in MLS that charges Development Academy players annual dues [Under-14s pay $2,500 per season and the U-16 and U-18s pay $1,500; more details here]. There are many facets to this matter, but this has drawn some criticism and in general makes United stick out in a negative way.
NS: I think my response would be, there isn’t a barrier to entry to play in this academy. That would be the simplest response. I would follow up to say that there’s a real big investment in every player in this academy as well – upwards of $5,000, $6,000, $7,000, $8,000 [per season] depending on which age group they play in. So it’s substantial. We want to try to do a lot for our players and we’re proud of the fact that we can offer financial aid to players, and there are players that come from very modest means and they excel in our academy.
If you’re a top player, if you’re a good kid, if you want to be here, we’re going to make sure that we create that opportunity for you. I think the future of MLS, the future of elite development in this country is, you want to make that process as easy as possible. So yeah, of course we want to do that for players. But again, we feel really good about what we’re offering the player and the value that comes from participating in the program.
SW: If it were up to you, would that fee go away?
NS: No. I think it’s healthy for these young players to invest in their club. And I can’t speak for all the other MLS academy directors but I think a lot of them would agree with me. It’s just a question of what that number is. I think it’s healthy for these kids to look at this and say, ‘this is my club and I want to be a part of this club.’ And I think there’s some of that in there. Again, that’s me, Nolan Sheldon speaking, it’s not me speaking on behalf of the club.
I think there’s something healthy in terms of players investing in the club that they support and want to see be successful, and be a part of it in that way as fans, too. And again, it doesn’t change the level of investment that’s coming from our ownership and the club to put these kids in a really good opportunity to develop. There are a ton of doors opened through this club by that investment. So I think it’s important for us not to lose sight of that.
SW: Can you give an update on your residential program out in Maryland? I know that’s a huge undertaking to get off the ground.
NS: Yeah, it’s a big project. It’s a good relationship with the Calverton School. We had 11, 12 players enrolled last year and we’ll have right around the same number this year. The way that we’ve always approached that program is, it gives the players another opportunity for development but [also] access to a top academic school. It was never intended to be maybe what the Real Salt Lake model was, to house every player. It was supposed to say, ‘hey, here’s one avenue, here’s one opportunity for players.’ we feel good about where it is.
The players have enjoyed the experience. They’ve been able to maximize their time on the field with the flexible academic schedule that we have there. They’re training in the morning three times a week, coming to RFK three, four times a week. So we’ve really been able to increase the contact hours in terms of development. In addition to that, it’s a really good school, so they’ve been challenged academically. The players that have bene in the program have really grown up and matured, and I think it’s in large part due to the environment they’re in on a daily basis…
Listen, soccer is a big part of their life, but it’s not the only part of their life. There are some boys that didn’t have great experiences at their local public school and they wanted to try to get into a [better] environment. We looked at it as, ‘hey, maybe we can open the door for some of these kids.’ So it’s been a success story in that way. It’s never been set out to say we want all of our players enrolled in this school. We just don’t think it’s important, because of how many opportunities there are academically, and how many different types of academic opportunities exist here. It has to fit your lifestyle and what your family’s needs are.
SW: D.C. United’s new stadium is obviously the top priority for the club right now. But a training facility – which would be your academy’s home base – is on the priority list as well, right? What would that mean for your program and how much is that on your mind?
NS: Not a lot, from the academy perspective. There’s two perspectives on it: You can say ‘here’s what we have but we wish we had more,’ or you can say, ‘here’s what we have, now let’s get after it.’ That’s just our perspective. We know that a permanent or new training facility is coming, but we have a lot of hard work to do between now and then.
So we’re focused on the [approximately] 120 players that we have in the academy and creating a program that’s really, really good for their development. And we feel good about where we are, but we also know that good things at the club are coming. And that’s exciting, and all the coaches and players want to be a part of that.
SW: Part of why I ask is, we live in a large, dense metropolis where some of your kids are traveling long distances to train and play.
NS: It’s a challenge. We did a little chart of our current U-14 team and tracked where all the players were and mapped it, and it tells a story about these kids and what they want to get out of this program and what they’re willing to sacrifice to be here. We want to try to do more for the players in that way. We want to make sure that we have a contact point with every corner of our [75-mile radius] Homegrown territory, it’s what ownership and Dave [Kasper] and Ben [Olsen] have tasked us with, it’s what the league has tasked us with.
So we want to be active participants in the top players’ development in this area. And that’s sometimes working in partnership with a club to say, ‘that boy lives two hours from our training facility, it’s not realistic, it’s not healthy for him to make that trip. How can we work together to invest in and be a part of his development?’ So there’s cool, unique ways for us to do it. And I think the key is, eventually you want to get that player in the environment, and the school and some of the home-stay environments we’ve created with some of our academy families helps us do that.
SW: Could you talk more about those homestays?
NS: Yeah, we have some families that are supportive of hosting some of the boys for three, four days a week. So it works out pretty well. Again, it’s an individual plan for that kid. So we have some families that are able to host boys, improve their commute, allow them a little bit more time during the day to be a kid or to study or to train. In those cases with boys that are living really, really far, it makes a lot of sense.
Chris Durkin was driving two hours [from the Richmond area]. We have other boys that are probably very close to that. At the younger age groups, we’ve tried to restrict it, we’ve tried to make sure they’re not making that big commitment when they’re really young. We just don’t think it’s productive to development, nor is it productive to the lifestyle of the family. So I would say the maximum is an hour and a half, maybe an hour and 45 minutes. But those are very rare; most of those are within an hour.
SW: We’ve seen that other MLS academies have been given priority access and carve-outs in certain geographical areas outside their 75-mile-radius territory. Have there been any such updates in United’s case?
NS: Outside of our Homegrown territory? No. We have a few good relationships with clubs outside our Homegrown territory, and if they have a really good player we’ll engage and have that conversation. But our focus is primarily within our Homegrown territory. You know better than anybody the level of talent that’s in this area. We feel comfortable that if we can do a really good job within that area, there’s going to be a lot of really good pros coming out of here.
SW: We’re seeing growing nationwide competition among pro academies for talented youth players, with some families even moving to entirely new regions to pursue opportunities. It seems at times to be something of an arms race. What’s your perspective as you witness all that?
NS: I think it’s healthy. It’s healthy for players to say, ‘what program do I feel is going to be best for my development?’ It’s our job at D.C. United – my job and the coaches’ job – to create a really good environment here for players to develop, one that their families feel comfortable with and the kid really feels as though he’s going to benefit from. Similar to the FC Dallas model – any time you have somebody that sets the bar a little bit higher, it has those motivating factors. But I’ve always looked at it as healthy.
SW: Another thing we hear often in Development Academy circles is this idea of a split taking place slowly but surely between MLS and non-MLS DA programs. Is that a positive or negative evolution?
NS: I think development comes down to only a few categories: It’s who are you playing with, who are you playing against and the instruction [you’re getting]. U.S. Soccer, MLS, D.C. United, the DA clubs, we have to work collectively to try to improve the player pool, the level of competition and the level of instruction. So we have really competitive games with non-MLS DA clubs, we have really competitive games with MLS clubs.
For us, any time we can get a competitive game, it’s good, it’s healthy and we’ll invite it. And as you know, we have a very competitive DA club in Bethesda-Olney 15 miles north of us. We always have really good games with them, so it’s healthy and we look forward to each of those matches every year, and I know the Colton brothers [coaches/directors at BOSA] do the same.
SW: We occasionally hear MLS youth coaches lament that when they play a non-MLS or non-pro club, it becomes about something else. Maybe that other club want to win because they can get a recruiting advantage or keep from losing players to that pro academy, so they dump and chase, they play direct. Have you had those frustrations?
NS: No, we don’t have those frustrations. Because it’s a game, and tactics are a big part of this game, and understanding how, to use your example, to break down a team that has a low block and is trying to play on the counter – there’s development there. We enjoy those games just as much as we enjoy the games where the other team really comes after us and maybe puts us on our heels and forces us to drop our line a little bit, and deal with the tactics of that game. So as long as there’s a committed way of playing and you’re trying to be competitive in that game, every team should try to win games – especially at the older age groups. I think it’s healthy.
SW: One last thing. What should we have asked you? Is there other knowledge that you want to spread about your academy or your kids, or anything else?
NS: What we’re really, really proud of – and I think you would find this with the other MLS clubs and the DA clubs in and outside our area – is the real, genuine story of these kids. It’s pretty unique. You get kids from all different backgrounds, all different ethnicities, all different financial backgrounds, and they have a unique bond, these kids. It’s just the development of the culture of soccer in this country – you can feel it in these kids. There’s a legitimate one. We’ve had the opportunity to send players to [affiliate club] Inter Milan, we’ve had the opportunity for Inter Milan coaches to come here and work with our players, and the message is consistently the same: You have really talented kids that are passionate about this game.
The story about what these kids sacrifice, how much energy and effort and passion they put into their development is a cool one. And I think the more we can highlight that story, the better it is for U.S. youth soccer, the better it is for MLS and the Development Academy, and the better it is for these kids. Because they see these stories and they say, ‘man, I’m living that, and it’s worth it, and I see the benefits.’ Going back to Chris Durkin, he’s a cool story because he and his family made that sacrifice, and he’s starting to see the benefits of that hard work. And that’s a motivating factor for our 10-year-olds, our 11-year-olds, our 12-year-olds, our 13-year-olds. They see that. They identify with that story.