For James Clarkson, February 14th is a day of pride. As the man who has overseen the growth of the Dynamo Academy as Director of Youth Development since 2006, Clarkson will stand on the sideline as his U-18 squad lines up across from Owen Coyle's first team in what has become an annual preseason tradition. Of particular importance to Clarkson is that the friendly falls exactly eight years since the development program's very first training session on February 14th, 2007.
"It's a quite nice anniversary really, and I think that kind of highlights the progress of the Academy," says Clarkson. The English native has led the Academy through exponential growth over the years by winning tournaments, expanding the program's reach, and sending players like Tyler Deric and Memo Rodriguez into the first team.
The Academy's rise is a story of dedication and determination from players and coaches alike. Exploring the origins of the program and recognizing its strides since would leave anyone optimistic about where the next steps will lead. But it's also a story rooted in difficulty.
"It wasn't glamorous as it is now," remembers Paul Dalglish, the ex-Dynamo and MLS Cup winner who briefly stepped in as an Academy coach in 2008. "We had to borrow training facilities from other organizations... we trained in different places each year, the surface wasn't ideal either. What James managed to achieve with the conditions he had in the early days was incredible, really."
Throughout the Dynamo's first few months in Houston, Clarkson set about developing a relationship with the new franchise as Director of Coaching at the South Texas Youth Soccer Association. Later, MLS would hand down a midseason mandate that required every club create a youth development program. Clarkson was the easy choice and with his connections, he assembled roughly 60 of the top local talents to form the Dynamo Academy's first U-15 and U-18 squads.
The time the teams had together was sparse. Just three hours every Wednesday was all Clarkson and his staff had to allocate for field work, guest speakers, and classroom instruction. The Academy was largely an extracurricular work for the players as they would train and play with their local club the remaining days of the week. The summers were the best opportunities to work with the players as they were out of school and available to travel for tournaments. In their first ever international trip, the Academy visited Monterrey Rayados of Mexico.
"That first group of players we had were very talented," recalls Clarkson. "Alex Dixon was in it, Josue Soto, Tyler Deric. Sebastien Ibeagha was in there in the early days. There was some real good talent that we had. Then we went down to Monterrey and we got absolutely thrashed."
They played four matches and came back with four losses, collectively netting just one goal and allowing nine. These results allowed for Clarkson to make the case for an additional night of training each week. That extra night would help but players were still caught between the sometimes conflicting philosophies of the Academy and their club team coaches. Even more, the Dynamo Academy had no home.
"We had nothing. Absolutely nothing," said Clarkson. "We were like gypsies for a spell there, we were bouncing around all over the place... some nights we didn't know where we were going to train. We would be last-minute, telling people where to go. We were using any field we could find."
Despite these challenges, Clarkson assembled teams that would compete every year and, in the summer of 2009, arranged for a European trek that would pique interest in the Dynamo's program. With a team captained by Ibeagha, the Academy saw victories over the developmental programs of Real Madrid (3-2) and Glasgow Rangers (4-0). But the departures of many of those U-18 players left the Academy with a harsh reality.
"We soon realized that because of the way things were set up, we built from the top rather than from the bottom so we were constantly looking [for players]," says Clarkson. "There was always turnover of players because of graduation and things like that. Getting them at 16 and 17, their habits had already been formed and it was difficult in those first couple of years."
The completion of the Houston Amateur Sports Park in early 2011 served as an important tool for the Houston Dynamo organization. It provided a training space to get the senior team away from places like Robertson Stadium and the UH Carl Lewis Track and Field. It gave the club a sense of legitimacy and it was a boon for the Academy, as well.
The arrival of the training complex allowed for the Academy to ultimately expand to six full-time teams, practicing four nights a week. The program now features players as young as 10 up to 18. A U-23 team provides former program graduates (and current college players) a summer competition while retaining their Homegrown status with the Dynamo.
"In a really short period of time, we've gone from playing them once a week to four times a week and the difference has been incredible," marvels Clarkson. But the measure of success is what players are sent to the Dynamo first-team and for how long. "At the moment, the gap between the U-18s to the first team is ginormous. Without regular reserve team games or competitive games, it's really difficult."
The cautionary tale, for Clarkson, is Francisco Navas-Cobo. Following Tyler Deric, Cobo became the second Homegrown player to sign with the Dynamo in 2010 but fell victim to the league's scrapping of the reserve league.
"He was potentially the most exciting player in the country at his age but the year he signed... he never played competitive games and that really hindered his development," said Clarkson. The addition of USL affiliates, like Pittsburgh, Charleston, and eventually the Dynamo's own team in 2016, will provide the minutes for players to develop.
Those minutes in a USL side serves to fill an important gap between the Dynamo Academy and the first team, according to Clarkson. It's there that a player learns how to become a pro, maintains training, and plays meaninfgul minutes. After a few years of development, the Academy can eventually produce a more matured player at 21 rather than 17. This, Clarkson believes, should lead to a huge increase in Homegrown players suiting up for the Dynamo.
Memo Rodriguez is an example of this new breed of Academy player. The 19-year old midfielder broke through the Dynamo roster amid a hectic offseason that saw his position become quite crowded. The tale of Cubo haunts this kind of scenario but Clarkson remains steadfast in his belief of the player.
"He won the spot on the roster himself by his perserverance, his commitment, and his dedication... He's still only 19 so we can develop him over the next four years where at 21 or 22, he's a regular in the first team and better than what's coming out of college at that time. If we do it right and we provide him the support and the opportunities, he can definitely do that."
As USL begins to stabilize and seek a "second division" status, Clarkson believes Memo can blaze the trail for future prospects, like Christian Lucatero. With an established USL franchise, a player like Lucatero might be well positioned for the advantages of development that Clarkson hopes to provide Memo.
"I think Luca is a unique talent. He possibly is the best player that we've ever had in the Academy," says Clarkson of the 17-year old. "His vision, his technique, he's excellent. He needs that next challenge. Hopefully he gets it."
The kind of development Memo and Lucatero sees over the coming years could be even more amplified as you look down the chain of youth squads. For Clarkson, the really exciting group could be the U-12 and U-13 teams. These squads consist of players that, upon completion of the program, will have been trained under the Dynamo philosophy for a full decade. Asserts Clarkson, "If we've done our work the right way, which I believe we will, the level of performance, the level of player in the Academy will be through the roof compared to where we are today... It will be a whole other level."
While the prospects of the future excite, there is the question of the players that don't make it - those young hopefuls that don't crack the first team or even complete the program. Statistically, very few of the players in the Academy system will have the opportunity to breach the first team. Part of Clarkson's vision has been to ensure that these players are taken care of, too.
"What we have been able to do, which we're incredibly proud of, is every kid that has graduated our program has gone on to college or become a professional," says Clarkson. "The achievement of some of these kids... actually getting into college is possibly bigger than some of them signing to the first team."
To help ensure the academic success, the Dynamo Academy has created a mentorship program whereby each player is assigned to a volunteer mentor that helps track progress through all four years of high school, maintain grades, and apply for colleges. This program allows for players to continue playing soccer in college with a reputable athletic program that may provide a path to the pros or, if they so choose, pursue other academic interests.
"It's more than just looking at how many guys get into the first team," Clarkson maintains. "There's more to the program than that."
When you ask James Clarkson to talk about his vision for the program, he wastes no time in laying it out.
"The light at the end of the tunnel is still there," he laughs. "That's one of the motivations to keep going is I know where it will get to, where it will be, and how good ultimately it will become. I want us to be number one in America. I want us to be renown for our player development. I want us to be providing elite-level players not just capable of playing in the first team. I want us to see players that have come from Houston, through the Dynamo, that are participating in the Champions League, playing in World Cups, and playing at the highest level that everyone within the club and the city can be proud of the guys that were one of them."
On Saturday, that very special eighth anniversary, James Clarkson's U-18 team will take the next step into a new era of the Houston Dynamo. The Academy might still be a work-in-progress, but Clarkson's vision has been unwavering since day-one. While fans nervously wring their hands in uncertain excitement over the upcoming season, James Clarkson will remain at the helm of the Academy, focused and hopeful that one day we'll see what he's been working on.