The Houston Dynamo Academy was launched in early 2007 with little more than a coach and a vague hope to find and develop local players and give them a shot at professional soccer with their hometown team. How far it has come in only three years.
On Tuesday, Dynamo Director of Youth Development James Clarkson watched proudly as the Dynamo first team welcomed its second ever player - and first field player - from the Dynamo Academy, presented by Statoil, in Francisco Navas Cobo.
The significance of the occasion was not lost on Clarkson, head coach Dominic Kinnear, or Chief Operating Officer Chris Canetti.
"It's a great day for the organization to have a young man come through our academy and join the professional ranks," Canetti said. "The system has worked in this case in Francisco. We believe our Academy has given him this platform and opportunity, one that probably wouldn't have existed without the Dynamo Academy."
To be sure, Navas Cobo has only spent the last seven months as a member of the Dynamo Academy, and Canetti was quick to praise Navas Cobo's talent and work ethic. But the opportunity to be noticed by first-team coaches came only through participation in and excellence at the academy level.
He quickly became a starter for the Dynamo's competitive U-18 team, which tops the Texas Division of the USSF Development Academy league as it prepares to resume league play in April. But not everything came easily. Navas Cobo seemed a little unsure of himself through the first four games, but a goal in a comeback win against the FC Dallas Juniors on October 25 - the second in a six-game winning streak - inspired his confidence.
Playing as a wing in a hybrid 4-5-1/4-3-3 formation, Navas Cobo began to have more confidence in his one-on-one ability, his passing, and his finishing, meshing with his talented teammates to produce some wonderful soccer at the high school level. He was named national player of the week after dominating in a 4-1 win over Internationals and a 3-1 win over the Columbus Crew in November.
He also caught the eye of Kinnear, who watched his progress in the fall with interest.
"James is always very forthcoming with information about players he feels are good enough for us to invite in," Kinnear said. "We went out and saw Francisco play a couple of times and felt that it would be good for us to look at him in the preseason."
Midfielders Sebastien Ibeagha, a Division I commit, and Bryan Celis, now with the U.S. U-17 residency program, trained with the Dynamo first team last summer, but Navas Cobo stood out even from his teammates and shined against college players like North Carolina's Alex Dixon in the December Dynamo Academy Showcase.
That earned him an invite to preseason training with the big boys, and less than three months later, Navas Cobo is under contract with the first team after proving himself against players more than 15 years his elder. He joins goalkeeper Tyler Deric as Dynamo Academy products on the roster, and they're not just there to make up the numbers.
"We're not doing this to be good guys," Kinnear said. "We would never do it if we did not think it was merited. He absolutely deserves this chance to be with us, and not only that, but hopefully he continues to progress and gets on the field on a weekly basis in front of you all over at Robertson. ... Welcome, Francisco, the hard work has just begun, but we do think you have the drive and the attitude to succeed and continue to be a good player that will become a great player."
Kinnear, Clarkson, and the Dynamo Academy expect to produce many more such opportunities for Houston-area players to make their mark on the professional game. After all, it's only been three years.