Columbus Crew SC made several moves to augment the academy on Friday. Since 2015, Gregg Berhalter and the technical staff has been focused on reviving an Academy that has fallen behind several other MLS youth systems in producing top pro talent.
Dennis Sanchez is the new General Manager. Sanchez replaces Michael Milazzo who left over the summer. Sanchez was an academy coach for Everton, an assistant coach for San Diego State, an operations assistant with focus on the Seattle Sounders academy methodology before taking the job with Crew SC.
Sergio Lozano may be the most interesting addition to the staff. Lozano comes from Spanish side Valencia CF and he will be focused on individual training programs for high potential players. He will also serve as the U-13 head coach. The focus on individual programs for upper tier pro prospects is something that hadn't been broken out and identified.
Two other coaches were hired to manage academy teams. Ben Cross and Rory Charcholla comes from the highly regarded Empire United Development Academy. Cross has been managing the U-18's since April and Charcholla took over the U-12's over the summer. Ethan Dewhurst arrives from Denison University to take over as the goalkeeping coach of the Academy.
Crew SC initially had developed a solid string of homegrowns. The team has signed 10 players from the academy 2011, starting with Aaron Horton. Matt Lampson and Ben Speas were signed for the 2012 season. Wil Trapp, Chad Barson, and Kyle Hyland were members of the 2013 class. Ross Friedman and Matt Walker joined in 2014. Ben Swanson was the last player added for the 2015 season.
The results have been mixed. Trapp has been an success story as he's developed the talent that has been clear from a young age. He's progressed through the ranks of the National Team cohorts as he's risen through the academy. He's been an automatic first team starter since the middle of 2013.
Going beyond Trapp, the Crew SC academy has turned out several solid pros in Ben Speas, Matt Lampson, and Chad Barson. They haven't turned into starters, but have added reliable depth to the squad. There is certainly value to the first team in having players who can step in and play when needed.
Recently, the pipeline has slowed. Hyland, Friedman, and Walker never played a minute for the first team during their brief stay on the roster. Swanson joined the team as a 17 year old for the 2015 season. He played in some friendlies and had a few minutes with the Austin Aztex on loan. He did make a single appearance for the injury ravaged Crew SC in June and had five appearances in Pittsburgh before injuries derailed his season. He doesn't appear close to breaking through in Columbus and has fallen off the radar of the youth national teams.
Columbus can look to possibly bringing in defender Alex Crognale who has excelled at the University of Maryland, using his college experience as a finishing school of sorts. He would be hard pressed to displace Gaston Sauro or Nicolai Naess in the lineup, but may be another squad player that builds depth. Beyond Crognale, there isn't another clear cut pro prospect ready to make an impact in the near term.
That marks the importance of the continued evolution of the academy program. Crew SC hasn't had the pipeline that teams like FC Dallas, LA Galaxy, or New York Red Bulls have had. Each of those teams have been able to rely on a steady stream of pro prospects to fill into the lineup. Others around MLS have seen investments in the academy pay off too.
The changes enacted in 2015 will take years to really pay off, but it's clear that Gregg Berhalter is prioritizing the academy and that ownership is willing to invest. Hiring qualified academy staff isn't cheap, especially since the results will take years to realize. More investments will be needed in the future such as expanded practice facilities as Obetz struggles with the volume and a USL team for these players to continue to grow.
The result of this investment may not be a string of superstar players, but Columbus should be able to turn out a reliable crop of MLS ready players to put in the lineup. These are players that would know exactly how to play the Crew SC and be ready to step in without too much adjustment. Columbus is making up for lost time, but the organization is making in clear they understand the value of development.