Ahead of the FC Cincinnati Academy’s first practice sessions later this month, we sat down with Larry Sunderland, the club’s director of player development, to discuss the Academy, its objectives and developing players to excel in MLS.
Sunderland joined the club in May and will oversee the first two academy teams: the FCC Under-15 and Under 16/17 teams, as well as the development of future sides and help plan development opportunities for first-team players.
Before joining Cincinnati, he worked at the Portland Timbers from 2015 until earlier this year, and also was the head coach of the U.S. Under-16 Boys Youth National Team that won the 2019 UEFA Development Tournament in the Czech Republic in May.
Pre-Portland, Sunderland was also the director of player development for the Chicago Fire Academy and he eventually became the academy’s director. While he was there, he oversaw the development of the nation’s first fully integrated professional soccer development model, which started with youth soccer and worked toward the first team.
Thus, he has a proven background of success and finding talent. The question now is if he can help polish it in Cincinnati, and he said the area is ripe with potential.
Charlie Hatch: What is the FC Cincinnati Academy’s philosophy?
Larry Sunderland: The overarching philosophy of the academy is an objective, in the perfect world, to move every player from the academy through to the first team. We all know that’s not the case and you move a small percentage through, but the philosophy of the academy is to help every player fully develop their soccer potential. For some, that fully developed potential may mean a really good college career. For others, and hopefully as many as we can, that might mean a professional career for them.
CH: What will be the academy’s playing style?
LS: Our playing style will be aligned to the philosophy of the organization and institution. You’re going to see our playing style is going to be possession dominant. You’ll see us play an intelligent and attractive brand of soccer, playing through the thirds to create as many scoring opportunities as we can.
The American fans - and fans in Cincinnati - are becoming much more educated about the game and they want to see a really good product on the field, and they want to see excitement. That excitement can come from technical abilities, from intellectual abilities, athletic abilities.
I think you’ll see all those things wrapped up in one package from the academy all the way through to the first team.
CH: What does this Academy mean for FC Cincinnati? What should people expect moving forward?
LS: Academies around the world are the foundation of the institution. It’s a long-term process, but given time, part of the institution is built within the Academy. It becomes a pathway and a connecting point to the community. I think it’s a tremendous connecting point to the community, and especially in a community like Cincinnati, which is so active and engaged in FCC.
When that first player gets through the academy and gets onto the first team, it’s going to be a brilliant moment. There are a lot of connecting points within the Academy and the community and the entire philosophy and culture of the organization.
CH: How should fans view the structure of the Academy from a tryout to the first-team debut?
LS: For a fan, it’s an opportunity to see the potential future stars of FC Cincinnati. That engagement with the Academy is really important. Fans can have their favorite players and can see the growth of that player. Right now, Frankie Amaya is really popular with the fans because fans like young people because they can see Frankie develop from the beginning of the season to now. That’s really engaging.
A big word around soccer is organic and that’s an organic thing. Think about years down the line when our fans can come out to the training ground and can see a 14-year-old kid playing and thinking, “Oh, I think I can see something in that player.” And it’s not us telling them there’s something to see in that player, it’s them looking at the player and identifying something special.
If that player ends up in West End Stadium, there’s a connection there that’s really unique in the way that’s formed. That’s a connection from a fan to the team and it’s really unique.
CH: What would that mean for you to see an Academy-to-MLS pipeline here because you essentially started the FC Cincinnati Academy from scratch?
LS: As you see everything develop, you just get hungrier and hungrier. Every time you get a taste, you just want more.
When we move our first player through, we’re just going to want more because I think it’s going to be something special. And there are so many reasons for that, from connection to fan engagement to putting a good player on the first team. There’s even the potential from that player moving on from our team to play in Europe or South America. Imagine one of our players at 14 has a tremendous career at FCC and then moves on to play in Champions League? Think about our fans and the pride that will come from that. Those are the really unique things and connecting points that you get when you talk about player development. It’s a long-term thing, and I think over time you can really form those bonds.