Courtesy Nigel Brooks

Youth is served with thriving Academy

Something is definitely cooking in Houston.

The Houston Dynamo Academy program has produced four players for the first team since its inception, tied for the second-most among MLS clubs. And the success of players like Tyler Deric, Francisco Navas Cobo, Alex Dixon, and Josue Soto raises hopes that the Academy can continue to establish itself from the ground up and stock the first team with solid professionals.

“We’re trying to create a good, solid learning environment that’s competitive by nature,” said James Clarkson, Houston's Director of Youth Development.

Clarkson, a Brit and former professional in New Zealand who has led the program from the beginning, was emphatic how important the first signing (Deric) was when the club made the move in Feb. 2009. Deric, from Klein High School in the Houston area, made his debut last October with back-to-back wins, including a shutout, and is currently slated as the team’s second-string goalkeeper heading into the 2011 season.

“It was important to get that first player signed,” Clarkson said. “It proved to people there is a clear path to the pros, and if you want to play in the MLS and you’re from Houston, the only place to really do it is through the Dynamo.”

He also paid credit to head coach Dominic Kinnear for the program’s support.

[inline_node:328632]“We are fortunate we have a head coach who believes in what we’re doing, we have a really good relationship with him, and he wants to give these kids an opportunity,” Clarkson said. “From day one, he said if they’re good enough, he’ll sign them. It’s down to us to make sure they are good enough, and we continue to push them through.”

Deric’s signing was only a sign of things to come for the Academy, which includes competitive U-16 and U-18 teams based in Houston. At younger levels, there are now five programs, named Centers of Excellence, throughout the city. Those are year-long programs, and any top players identified can then join the Junior Academy, generally ages 8-12, who train once per week.

There’s also a U-15 pre-Academy side that continues to work closely with Academy staff practicing twice a week, ideally then leading to the Development Academy level. Recently, Houston has also started the Dynamo Juniors program, expanding its reach throughout the region, potentially developing players as far away as Mobile, Ala., Gulfport, Miss, and Cocula, Mexico, and as close as Texas cities McAllen, El Paso, and - most recently - Austin.

MORE: Dynamo Juniors extend to Austin

The long-term goal is to bring in players from a young age, working to acclimate them to the club culture, instead of trying to recruit and rely on bringing in players at an older age.

“We hope the guys are coming through the program from an early age and are learning the Dynamo way, and it’s ingrained in them what this is really about,” Clarkson said.

For Clarkson, the approach to reach players at a young age is not just about securing the area’s most talented players. From the beginning, it has always been about connecting with the community at all levels and leaving their mark.

“From day one, we’ve made a commitment, as the professional team in this city, that we’ve got to have a commitment to grassroots soccer and try to have an impact at all levels,” he said. “It’s not just about the elite player.”

But the elite player also gets a good, long look from the first team by the time they hit the right age. When former Academy players playing in college return home in December, they play against the current U-18 team. Kinnear coached the returning college players in December, and that helped lead to the eventual signing of Dixon and Soto in January.

MORE: Dynamo Home-Grown Players

The next home-grown signing could be right around the corner. Houston has sent off players to some of the nation’s best programs, including talented U.S. U-20 defender Sebastian Ibeagha, who also plays at Duke.