Sunderland’s first year at FCC: Growth and progress

Larry Sunderland was hired a year ago as the FC Cincinnati’s director of player development. Among his duties, he was coming to be the academy director for an academy that didn’t have any coaches or players yet – just and acknowledgement that an Under-15 and Under-17 team were coming soon.

Now, Sunderland’s leading FC Cincinnati Academy operations for five youth teams – including three additional teams announced last week – and is developing a curriculum and pathway for local youth players to eventually become MLS Homegrown signings.

At a club that continues its aggressive growth, the team’s investment in youth development can’t be overlooked. With the launch of the Pre-Academy, FCC will have a U-13 and a U-14 team, in addition to the three Academy teams: U-15, U-17 and U-19.

After beginning competitive play in the U.S. Development Academy last Fall, that league dissolved and now Cincinnati will play in MLS’ new elite player development league.

Sunderland and the coaching staff used to wonder what an Academy game at the Mercy Health Training Center might resemble. Now, they’re planning on taking youth teams across the ocean to compete internationally.

“It’s been crazy,” Sunderland said of his first year in Cincinnati. “It’s been so exciting for me and the Academy staff and everyone in the club to see this grow at such a rapid pace. As much as we’ve seen the growth, we look forward to the future so much.”

And while they may not seem connected, don’t underestimate how Jaap Stam’s appointment as the first team head coach can help the Academy grow.

Stam used to coach Jong Ajax – Ajax’s U-23 team – in the Dutch second division. It was his job to help identify players from one of the world’s most renown academies and give them enough experience to make first-team debuts.

Stam’s playing style very much fits the vision general manager Gerard Nijkamp wants to see across the club, from youth teams to the senior players. 

Similar to Stam’s background coaching younger players, Nijkamp was once the PEC Zwolle academy director and coached Dutch youth national teams.

While there’s a focus on the short-term and the Orange and Blue earning results in MLS every weekend, Stam, Nijkamp and Sunderland all see the bigger picture: building FC Cincinnati up for the long term.

Sunderland came to Cincinnati a year ago hoping to establish a foundation for the club to build upon. That’s starting to happen.

While everyone eagerly awaits the club signing its first Homegrown player, the impact of the last year’s Academy growth goes far beyond the eventual first graduates playing at West End Stadium. This is about building a pathway that leads to a steady stream of local talent signing professional contracts.

Last December, we highlighted the FCC Academy’s long-term goals and ambitions and compared them to some of the top MLS academies across the country.

The ambitions are the same – but the process at each place is different. 

It’s not unrealistic to say there’s a good chance other clubs follow FC Cincinnati’s lead in the future. And if so, a lot of that will be a result from this past year under Sunderland’s leadership. 

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