There are many ways to become skilled at soccer. While for some, practice may include casually kicking a ball around with friends, for others, practice is a strict routine, followed to a tee. Some people have even enrolled themselves in soccer academies, schools designed to instruct students on everything from the fundamentals to the intricacies of the game.
For decades, these schools have been churning out premier players. Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo trained at Sporting Club de Portugal’s Academia Sporting and Los Angeles Galaxy’s Landon Donovan attended the IMG Soccer Academy.
Though academies have been traditionally prominent overseas, there has been a recent boom in the U.S. More and more Americans are becoming interested in soccer at a younger age, and an academy can be an optimal place to develop. Junior Matt Hoffman and freshman Ethan Lochner, both members of the Schoolers, Stuyvesant’s boys’ varsity soccer team, train at academies.
Hoffman plays for FC Westchester Academy. He became exposed to this particular team after watching them play indoor soccer and seeing “how much better than me the [kids who played] were,” Hoffman said. The players’ high caliber performance did not come without work. According to Hoffman, the level of commitment for the academy team is much greater than that for the travel team he used to be on, the Manhattan Ajax. Practice is generally held every day, and on the days when there is no practice, the players are expected to work out on their own.
FC Westchester plays in two soccer seasons per year, spanning from August to December and from February to July. “During the season, I have four to five practices a week for two hours at a complex an hour away from my house. Practice usually starts at 7:30 [p.m.] and ends at 9:30,” Hoffman said.
In addition to having practices nearly every day, Hoffman has at least one game per weekend, and often two. These games can be located anywhere from New York City to Florida, as the league he plays in spans across the country, and he will often have to miss days of school to attend games. “Playing academy soccer is difficult because the pressure is on you to always perform,” said Hoffman. “If you mess up, there is always someone else to take your spot. It also leaves much less time for other things, such as schoolwork, friends, family, and sleep.”
Lochner, a starter for the Schooler who scored 7 goals in 9 games last fall, plays for the New York Red Bulls Youth Academy (RBYA) team. Like Hoffman, Lochner became acquainted with his team after playing against strong players from the RBYA. Lochner has played for the Red Bulls for one year; before joining the team, he played striker for Manhattan Paris Saint-Germain FC.
While playing for the Red Bulls, Lochner has learned to be quicker and also “to keep possession, but when the opportunity presents itself, to attack,” Lochner said. “They have also strengthened my technical and physical abilities.”
Despite having to spend four to five days a week at training sessions that last up to two hours or at games, Lochner said, “The only way it truly affects me is that it makes me happy.” He still has time to spend with friends, and “only once in a while” does he have to stay up later than usual to do homework, he said.
Because the RBYA is a development academy for a professional team—the New York Red Bulls—the overall skill level of the players is higher than most teams in the city. Some players from Lochner’s team have even been scouted by top professional clubs such as Manchester City and FC Barcelona. “Many have been called up to the national team for my age group,” Lochner said.
Regarding his plans for the future, Lochner expects to play soccer in college, and if the opportunity presents itself, on a professional level as well. “My academy has a great track record for sending kids to Division 1 colleges,” Lochner said. “Many top college soccer programs focus on choosing from my club and other MLS development academies because they can only do so much scouting and they know these academies produce quality players.”
These academies only accept a certain type of player—not only one who has great skill, but also one who can commit to the amount of time playing for an academy takes up and one who strives to better themselves as players. Lochner and Hoffman’s respective commitments indicate that they are both players of this caliber.