Last Wednesday Columbus Crew SC announced big changes to both the staff and structure of their academy system, aiming to make it among the best in MLS, and by extension the United States. The goal is not just to find and claim the best young talent in the region, in hopes of one day making them Homegrown" players, but also to train them in the style and system they'll (hopefully) one day be a part of.
To spearhead this charge, Crew SC have brought in Michael Milazzo as Academy Director. He comes to Columbus after a stint in the same role for Richmond Strikers. He holds a USSF "A" License and is participating in their Academy Director course.
He will work along side Nico Estevez, who was hired last year as Crew SC "Director of Methodology". He also boasts an impressive CV, working for eight years with Valencia CF in Spain's La Liga, working in their Academy, Department of Methodology, coaching its reserve team, and briefly taking over as interim head coach for the senior side. He holds a UEFA Pro License, the highest license available in Europe.
Estevez isn't the only one with UEFA Pro badge, as Joaquin Gonzalez, who will join the Black & Gold as head coach of the U-15/U-16 age group as well as "Performance Coordinator", also has his Pro License. Gonzalez also spent time at Valencia, as well as at Levante UD's Academy.
With Milazzo's experience navigating the American youth soccer landscape, Estevez and Gonzalez add a more "global" perspective than the previous iteration of Crew SC's youth system. While the previous system had some obvious success stories, such as Wil Trapp or much touted youngster Ben Swanson, the new system will give young players a much clearer path to the Crew SC first team, and some of the tools needed to get there.
Through Estevez's role as Director of Methodology, this iteration of the Crew SC Academy will focus not only on the player's personal development, but also on teaching them the style and system that coach Gregg Berhalter has implemented in the first team. It will be uniform through the ranks of Crew SC Academy to the first team. This will, ideally, obviously bare fruit on the pitch in the future, but could also have another, off field, impact.
Columbus, like many other cities, has begun to embrace the "local movement" in recent years. From the success of local brands like HOMAGE to the "drink local" stand at MAPFRE Stadium, the appeal, across wide demographics, is apparent. This has infiltrated the on-field world as well, as local boys such as Trapp and Matt Lampson have both become much beloved in Columbus in a very short amount of time, due in no small part to their local ties. What does this have to do with the newly streamlined Academy?
Imagine a world where fans of Crew SC feel attached to a player not just because they're from Gahanna, but because they play "The Columbus Way." Because they play a style that is immediately identifiable as being Columbus-taught. You watch a player that came up through Barcelona's fabled youth system, La Masia, and the hallmarks of the Barca system are apparent, even if they never played a minute for the club's first team. The odds of Columbus ever having such a world renowned academy are not high, but the idea is the same, teaching a recognizable philosophy to players from the youth teams to the first team, creating a club culture that is not just behind closed doors, but on the field as well. A philosophy supporters can be proud of.
But will the more global style of academy (and composition of its staff) have a negative impact on the local development system? Not at all. Millazo was asked about "international players" coming to the Crew SC Academy, and answered that"
"Our talent identification and scouting is very broad right now. We do get a number of inquiries, domestically and internationally. At this point in time, we will fulfill and look at every opportunity, but first and foremost, we've got to take care of our backyard. Our backyard is the state of Ohio. We want to develop players from within that fit our style of play. So currently, we would look at that, however our focus will certainly lie on the domestic player, particularly from the state of Ohio."
So while the reach of the Academy may one day be global, the focus in the short-term will remain on the fertile midwest ground that has served the Black & Gold so well in recent years. One day, perhaps in the not too distant future, fans of Columbus Crew SC can cheer on a young man who was born in Rio, but "came up" in Columbus, just as home grown as a Wil Trapp. The foundations are being laid. It is to be hoped, by club and supporters alike, that these changes will push Crew SC not just to the forefront of MLS academies, but to the forefront of MLS as well.