Q&A with D.C. United Academy Director Nolan Sheldon
What are you goals for the D.C. United Academy?
Nolan Sheldon: We have a number of objectives that we are focused on, but our primary target is to develop players for our professional team. At the core, we want to focus our attention on developing each individual player and person to achieve his full potential and, at the end of the day, give him an opportunity to play professional soccer.
We also want to serve our soccer community – developing top players involves the entire soccer landscape we want to engage the area’s top coaches and work together to help players achieve their ultimate goal of playing professional soccer for D.C. United.
Why is DCU Youth important to the club as a whole?
NS: MLS has set the benchmark of being a top league in the world by 2022 and recognizes that in order to do this, we have to be able to develop players of the highest standard. Our goal is to elevate the players in this area to a higher level and provide them an opportunity to play for their hometown team.
What is your philosophy as a coach, and now as the Director?
NS: As a coach, I've always focused on individual development and the maturation of both the player and person. While growing their passion for the club and sport, it was always paramount to me that our players recognize the benefits of hard work, discipline and commitment. I try to instill each of those things in the teams and players I coach. At the end of the day, the player has to be the driving force behind his own development; it is the coaches’ job to accompany him, challenge him and guide him throughout the developmental process.
In any arena of education, it is important to constantly examine your philosophy and refine your training methods to be as effective as possible. We want to be at the forefront of player development. In order to do so, it is important that we use every resource and opportunity to seek new training and teaching methods. If there is a club that is having success, we want to find out the reasons behind their success and bring it to our players. We are actively planning a trip to visit Inter Milan’s academy with our staff, which will provide the first of many opportunities to visit a top European Academy and observe the reasons behind its success.
What changes will you look to make?
NS: I think it's natural and healthy whenever there is a moment of transition to take a step back and have an honest look at everything that we’re currently doing and take inventory.
The first step will be to meet with Ben Olsen and Dave Kasper to discuss the integration of the Academy with the First Team for our players and coaches. We want to call upon the knowledge and experience of our first team coaches and be sure that knowledge and experience transfer to our Academy coaches and then to our players. We will also explore all opportunities for our youth to gain experience with our professional team – exposure to the game at the highest level is critical for development, so we will actively build these opportunities into our programming.
A successful and fruitful Academy comes down to our ability to close the gap as much as possible between the level of our academy players and the level of professional soccer – we must ask ourselves daily, “What are the demands of Major League Soccer, and are we preparing our players to meet those demands?” We will work closely with Ben and his staff to identify the core proficiencies a player must possess when he graduates from the Academy in order to have a foundation in place that will allow him to continue to improve throughout his career.
If we want to be considered a destination for top players to continue in their development, we have to be laser-focused and honest with ourselves on areas of improvement. Sonny Silooy elevated the program to where we are now – it will be my job to build upon this strong foundation and continue to progress.
Looking ahead 5 years, what does DCU Youth look like?
NS: I am optimistic and encouraged by the level of our players currently in our Academy, so I can say confidently that we will see a number of them sign professional contracts within the next five years.
In five years, we will have made advances in a number of areas, including our training facilities and incorporating the use of technology to aid in player development; it is a daily goal for us to stay in touch with the trends of player development and constantly improve the level of instruction from our coaches.
At the same time, while it is healthy and important to look forward, we have to be very much in the moment and focused on our daily task of improving players – Our success, as an Academy, will be based upon the accumulative impact of our daily commitment to player development and making players better each and every day.