Ben Huynh, a senior at Cascade High School, dribbles with the ball as a member of the Seattle Sounders Academy at Starfire Sports in Tukwila. (Sounders Academy photo).

Ben Huynh, a senior at Cascade High School, dribbles with the ball as a member of the Seattle Sounders Academy at Starfire Sports in Tukwila. (Sounders Academy photo).

Local soccer players sacrifice to play with Sounders Academy

The talented youngsters say playing with the Academy has made them better people as well as players.

Every Monday through Thursday Cameron Martin, Ben Huynh and Connor Drought gather after school at the Starbucks on 164th Street in north Lynnwood. Martin, a senior at Jackson High School, Huynh, a senior at Cascade, and Drought, a junior at Kamiak, meet up with Augustus Diehl, who arrives from Bellingham, and together the four of them carpool through rush-hour traffic all the way south to Tukwila, where they take part in a two-hour soccer practice before making the long drive back home again.

It makes for a grueling daily schedule, but it’s a hardship they’re more than happy to endure to be involved in the best youth soccer available in the region.

Martin, Huynh and Drought are among the Snohomish County residents who are members of the Seattle Sounders FC Academy, which caters to the best boys soccer players from the Puget Sound Region and beyond. Being a part of the Sounders Academy has not only elevated their abilities as players, it’s also opened up their opportunities beyond youth soccer.

“It’s been fantastic,” Huynh said about being a part of the Sounders Academy. “Over the course of the years I’ve developed as a player and a person tremendously. With all these great coaches and great players around me who want to be at the top level, it’s helped me progress as a player tremendously.”

Martin, a central midfielder, and Huynh, a right back, are members of the Sounders Academy’s under-19 teams, while Drought, a left back, is part of the under-17 team.

Other Snohomish County residents who are involved in the program include Edmonds-Woodway freshman Sota Kitahara, a central midfielder and Angel Martinez, a central defender and a seventh-grader at the Mukilteo School District’s Explorer Middle School, who are members of the under-15 team.

The Sounders Academy has been run by the Seattle Sounders MLS team since 2010, fielding its U-19, U-17 and U-15 teams in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy League, where they face top competition from throughout the country.

“The mission is clear from a playing perspective, and that’s to get players to our first team,” Sounders Academy technical director Marc Nicholls said. “There’s also a major sense of responsibility to the community to develop the whole player, not just as a player but as a person.”

Conner Drought, a junior at Kamiak High School, sets to take a free kick during a match with the Seattle Sounders Academy at Starfire Sports in Tukwila. (Sounders Academy photo)

Conner Drought, a junior at Kamiak High School, sets to take a free kick during a match with the Seattle Sounders Academy at Starfire Sports in Tukwila. (Sounders Academy photo)

Players who come through the Sounders Academy are classified as homegrown players for the MLS Sounders, meaning the MLS club has the first right to sign those players. So far there have been eight Sounders Academy graduates who have gone on to play for the MLS Sounders: DeAndre Yedlin, Darwin Jones, Sean Okoli, Aaron Kovar, Jordan Morris, Henry Wingo, Seyi Adekoya and Victor Mansaray, with Handwalla Bwana set to make it nine after being signed this offseason.

Joining that list is the goal of every member of the Sounders Academy.

“It’s everyone’s goal to get a first-team contract,” Kitahara said. “It’s great because you’re going through a program that leads to the first team. It’s not easy, but it’s a good way to go into the first team and a great way to get the coaches to see you play.”

Getting into the program isn’t easy. Players don’t try out for the Sounders Academy in the traditional sense. The Sounders have scouts who monitor teams not only in the region, but throughout Washington State and across the country — Nicholls estimated that 80 percent of the players in the Sounders Academy are from the Puget Sound region. When the scouts identify players, often around the age of 12, they are invited to the Sounders Academy’s twice-a-week program. From there players are evaluated to determine whether they are accepted into the program full-time. There are no fees for the families of full-time players.

Sota Kitahara, a freshman at Edmonds-Woodway High School, dribbles with the ball during a match with the Seattle Sounders Academy at Starfire Sports in Tukwila. (Sounders Academy photo)

Sota Kitahara, a freshman at Edmonds-Woodway High School, dribbles with the ball during a match with the Seattle Sounders Academy at Starfire Sports in Tukwila. (Sounders Academy photo)

Being a member of the Sounders Academy is an intense experience. Not only do the teams practice four days a week year-round, they have games most weekends, which can involve plane travel. That means there’s no time for playing for high school teams. It’s also a highly-competitive environment in which a player has to perform and continue progressing or risk being cut.

“Every day is another day of hard work, you can’t take a practice off,” Drought said. “Everything’s really competitive. Also, it’s a lot of time. It takes away from your social life and schoolwork to be a part of the Academy, and driving all that way takes a lot of time every day. But I’ve gotten used to it, it’s really not that bad.”

And the payoff can be extraordinary. Being a part of the Sounders Academy provides greater exposure to college coaches, with Martin having signed to play for the University of San Francisco next season and Huynh committed to play for the United States Naval Academy. Huynh spent six months of this sophomore year in Florida training with the U.S. Soccer Under-17 Residency Program. Martin, Drought and Martinez have all traveled abroad with the Sounders Academy, playing in international tournaments in Europe. And Martin was given the opportunity to train regularly with the MLS Sounders last summer.

“It’s awesome,” Martin said about training with the MLS players. “I’ve gotten a lot of opportunities here that I wouldn’t have gotten elsewhere, like training with the first team. Being exposed to that type of stuff is really good for me as a player. And in those situations it’s humbling to see that I’m not at that level — but I can get there.”

And getting to that level is what being a member of the Sounders Academy is all about.

If you have an idea for a community sports story, e-mail Nick Patterson at npatterson@heraldnet.com.

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