Otto Greule Jr
Halfway through its first year of existence the Portland Timbers youth academy is just starting to establish itself on the national stage.
Under the guidance of Mike and Adam Smith ("No relation," they quip) the Timbers are trying to build a program that will provide exceptional talent to the first team. Mike Smith, the head of the academy and head coach of the Timbers U-16's, ran the Oregon Olympic Development Program (ODP) prior to joining the Timbers organization during the formation of the academy program. Adam Smith, the Timbers U-18's head coach, was with the Timbers' first team as the team's goalkeeper coach before joining the academy at the end of 2012. Together the two men are responsible for the building blocks that will provide the Timbers talent for years to come.
Observing an academy practice it is obvious that this is not a usual high school or club team; the coaches and players are not messing around and go about their business just like the Timbers' U-23's or first team. Some of the players on the field with the academy have already seen some time with the first team, either in practice or reserve games. It is this vertical integration that the Timbers hope will both attract young talent and prepare them to take the next step into the collegiate or pro ranks. According to Adam Smith, talking about the Timbers organization's support for the academy program, "They value the youth. They can see that it is the future."
One prospect on the U-18's who has already seen some time with the first team is forward Christian Desir. Desir will be familiar to Timbers fans thanks to his brief appearance as a substitute at the end of the Timbers' final reserve game of the 2012 season against the Seattle Sounders reserves, the same game that saw Jose Adolfo Valencia get his first run out on the pitch at Jeld-Wen Field. Currently Desir leads the U-18's, who are currently 5th in the nine team Northwestern division of US Soccer, with five of the team's thirteen goals. A speedy forward with a high work rate, Desir is a definite prospect for a homegrown player contract and never looked out of place when training or playing with the big boys.
Talking to Mike Smith about the positives of the academy system, he emphasizes the access that academy players have to resources that they might not see otherwise until in college or later: nutritionists, team physiotherapists, and access to professional facilities all help to keep the players developing and concentrating on increasing their skills. The academy players will even be given weight training programs and stay in contact with their coaches over their upcoming two week winter break.
It is not only development on the pitch that the Timbers are striving for; Adam Smith is quick to point out the lessons learned in training with the academy will be with these young players for the rest of their lives. Not every player will have the skill to take the next step in their soccer careers, but the Smiths are making sure that they will all leave the academy with the discipline and hard work to give them the best chance of doing so.
Each player makes the drive to the Timbers' Beaverton training facility at least three times a week for practice. Some players have relocated to be closer to the team and are living with teammates or relatives during the academy's nine month schedule. The dedication shown by the players, and their families, is impressive. These are young men who have decided that they want to be professional soccer players, Timbers players.