Jonathan Kaplan / HoustonDynamo.com

Academy players train with first team

As the spring semester comes to a close and most kids head to the beach to work on their tans, two Houston Dynamo Academy products will spend the summer training with the Dynamo first team as they look to improve their game heading into their senior seasons in college soccer.

Pana Vasquez spent 10 years with local club Houstonians and joined the Dynamo Academy in 2007. Josue Soto plied his trade with the Olympic Developmental Program of the South Texas Youth Soccer Association before joining the Academy, also in 2007. For the past year, the two shared the field together at Southern Methodist University, and they will continue to do so this summer, as they train with the Dynamo first team and hope to catch the eye of first team head coach Dominic Kinnear.

“It’s a good atmosphere,” Vasquez said of training with the first team. “The game is much faster than in college, and the intensity is higher.”

Soto, who previously trained with the first team in 2008, said he had a better idea of what to expect from the coaches and the players this time around.

“I know how much running I am going to do and that I am going to have to carry the balls and the goals,” he said. “It is always a challenge coming from college, but it is great playing against players better than I am. It pushes me to become a better player.”

Soto began his college career with two years at Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C., then transferred to SMU prior to last season. Now 21, Soto had an outstanding two years at Campbell; he was named a freshman all-American in 2007 and ranked fourth in the country in assists per game as a sophomore in 2008. At SMU last year, Soto started slowly while returning from his shin injury but was a starter by the end of the year and finished with two goals and three assists for the Mustangs.

Vasquez started 14 games for the Mustangs last season, tallying one goal and one assist, after redshirting his sophomore season. He credits the Dynamo Academy for making him a better player on the field and a better person off it.

“Training with the Dynamo Academy and James [Clarkson, Director of Youth Development] was great,” he said. “They taught me about professionalism, and the training was much more structured and serious, much like the training for the Dynamo first team.”

Soto said that playing on the same field with Tyler Deric and Francisco Navas Cobo, two first-team players who were signed from the Dynamo Academy, makes his dream of playing professional soccer seem closer to a reality.

“It’s nice to know that the Academy is not just there,” he said. “The coaches are actually looking at the players and giving them the opportunity to earn spots on the first team.”

While some players could resent college players joining training sessions, Dynamo assistant coach Wade Barrett said the Dynamo see it as a pleasure to have the young guys train with the first team, as long as they can keep up.

I think it’s good for them to see what it’s like to train with a professional team,” he said. “When those guys come in, have a positive attitude, and work hard, it’s easy for those guys in the locker room to accept them and welcome them, and I think they have done that so far.”

Veteran Dynamo defender Craig Waibel echoed Barrett’s sentiments and, as usual, has not been shy about dispensing advice.

“Josue has improved a lot since the last time he trained with us,” Waibel said. “His game is faster, simpler, and he has terrific vision for his age. ... I was joking with Pana in the locker room about how even though the game is faster here, you need to play more simple. He is a good player, but I told him he needs to work on his first touch because, up here, a good first touch is essential.”

Waibel believes that it will be a few years before Academy kids can come in and make a contribution right away, but with the recent ascension of Bill Hamid and Andy Najar to D.C. United’s lineup without even any college experience, that day might be not be far off.

“I always dreamed about playing professionally, but I never really envisioned it happening,” Soto said. “I was never 100 percent sure I could make it, but now that I am training with the first team, the dream is definitely more of a reality.”