The signing of 17-year-old Crew Academy midfielder Ben Swanson to a Homegrown Player contact sent me scurrying to the archives for a different kind of Sirk’s Notebook. This one is going to be written 30 months after the fact. I work slow…but this is really slow, even for me.
In the spring of 2012, I started spending a lot of time with the Crew Academy’s U-16 and U-18 teams, with the goal of writing up a series of features for TheCrew.com. I conducted hours of interviews, attended a training session, spent many weekend mornings at games, and even went on a road trip to Chicago. I amassed loads of transcripts, one or two finished article drafts, and had other snippets lying around, waiting to be assembled. None of it ever saw the light of day. In August of that summer, Kirk Urso passed away and what little time I had for extra writing immediately shifted toward collecting stories for Kirk’s teammates. (The end result is the book “Kirk Urso: Forever Massive”, which can be ordered HERE for the exclusive benefit of the Kirk Urso Memorial Fund.)
But back in the spring of 2012, one of the players I heard a lot about and talked with on a few occasions was a diminutive 14-year-old midfielder from Grove City. He was talented enough to play with kids who were two, sometimes even four years older than he was, and he started traveling the world as a starter at the youth national team level. That kid was Ben Swanson.
The occasion of Swanson’s signing with the Crew this week seemed like a great time to dig back into the archives from the spring and summer of 2012 to produce a retro-Notebook of stories and quotes about a 14-year-old Ben Swanson, still two and a half years away from becoming a professional.
TO BE CLEAR: This Notebook is a time capsule. All quotes and events are from the spring and summer of 2012. For up-to-date comments and assessments, I’m sure Sporting Director and Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, Swanson himself, and even some Crew teammates will have plenty to say to the media this week about the current state of Swanson’s development, the momentous occasion of his professional signing, and what the future may hold for him and the Crew. The stories you are about to read are never-published archival material that may be of interest in light of Swanson’s first professional contract. As we all look toward Swanson’s future, I thought these vignettes might be informative glimpses into his recent past, offering some sense of who he is and why he has been so highly-rated within the organization and elsewhere.
So let’s crack open the time capsule, shall we?
THE FIRST MEETING
On April 15, 2012, I attended the Crew Academy’s games against the CSA Wolves, their Michigan-based affiliate. My main goal for the morning was to interview Director of Soccer Business Development Jeremy Parkins and to have U-16 coach Billy Thompson introduce me to the other coaches. I had no plans of doing any player interviews that day. This was all about me dipping my toes into the water and getting acclimated. Plus I wanted to watch Swanson, who was already getting Wil Trapp-level acclaim at just 14 years of age.
The U-16s lost a tough game to the Wolves. They trailed 2-0 and fought back to level the score in the second half. About five minutes after tying the game, they conceded a late goal and dropped a 3-2 decision. After the match, I told Thompson and Andrew Arthurs, that I planned to talk to Swanson the next weekend. They had other ideas.
“Go interview him right now,” Arthurs suggested. “It’ll be good for him.”
Well, er, um, I hadn’t even thought of any interview questions since I was planning to talk to him next week.
“Ask him anything,” Thompson said. “It doesn’t matter.”
Thompson went on to explain that the team just lost a heartbreaker and that Swanson is a competitor who was surely upset about it, so it would be good for me to go ask him questions. Any questions. Just go talk him. Arthurs and Thompson noted that as he progressed as a player, Swanson was going to be expected to talk to reporters after tough games, so they wanted to try it out right then and there to see what happened.
“Just go talk to him and see how he does,” Arthurs said.
How did he do? This tweet says it all…
Just introduced Ben Swanson of Crew U16 Academy to the concept of the annoying, unfocused, meandering interview. He handled it like a pro.— Steve Sirk (@stevesirk) April 15, 2012
WHAT THEY SAW
To the untrained eye, 14-year-old Ben Swanson looked like a runt playing against those older kids who had considerable size and strength advantages. For example, here’s a picture of Swanson lining up in a defensive wall in April of 2012…
To the more discerning eye, size didn’t matter. Swanson had the tools to be a special player. Playing him against older competition was a way to harness and grow that talent. So even at the age of 14, what did the Crew Soccer Academy see in Swanson that led them to believe he had a bright future in this game? Here’s what they told me back in April of 2012…
“Benny obviously has his physical limitations right now, but he sees the game so well,” Parkins said. “He sees the game like a player who’s 18. His vision and his ability to read situations is so good for his age. He’s very quick and he has a good engine. That’s one of the things that makes him unique. He just doesn’t quit. Offensively or defensively, he’s always thinking about how he can be involved and what can he do to help the team. Most players don’t have that constant focus, even at the professional level. There’s a drifting that takes place with almost any player, but Benny is always engaged.”
“He’s one of our most dynamic players,” Thompson said. “His vision is incredible. He sees everything. He knows how to connect passes and be dangerous because he has a real sense of what needs to happen. Technically, he can execute just about anything he wants, but his vision is what sets him apart. People talk about his engine and his technical ability, but if you don’t know what you’re doing with that, there’s a lot of good and talented players out there, but knowing what to do with that in a game situation is what separates players.”
Thompson shrugged off the size disadvantage that Swanson faced at such a young age. The former Crew midfielder, who also had three U.S. Men’s National Team caps to his name, knows a thing or two about playing a little man’s game. Thompson played at 5’6”, 140 pounds, meaning that when he played professionally, he had only two inches and 15 pounds on the 14-year-old Swanson.
“I have a lot of advice for him,” Thompson said back then. “I say, ‘Trust me on this one, because being the smallest out of 22 players in just about every game I ever played in, it worked.’ It’s being smart. Nobody knows how big you are or small you are if you are playing to your strengths. If you’re recognizing what the game needs at that time, you don’t need anything else. You need to find what the game needs, and that’s what he does.”
Swanson himself savored the challenge of playing against older players.
“It’s about speed of play,” he said during that impromptu postgame interview. “Playing your own age, you can do whatever you want and get away with it, but playing up (in age) with the Academy, it’s all about thinking. It’s all that next level stuff. It’s a challenge, but it prepares you. By playing up against older kids that are bigger and faster, it helps you when you do get called into national team camps because you are used to the speed and ability of everyone.”
Talking to many of the Academy players that summer, I was so impressed by their dedication. Their commitment to the Academy chewed up six days a week between practices at Obetz and then games on Saturday and Sunday. Half of those games required road trips as short as Cleveland and as long as Minnesota and Texas.
While an 8th grader at Jackson Middle School in Grove City, Swanson would start school at 9:30, leave school early—they put his study hall at the end of the day—so he could be at U-16 practice at 4:00. Then he would jump into the U-18 practice until they wrapped up around 6:00. Then he would go home, eat dinner, do his homework, and go to bed, ready to start the routine all over again.
“It’s basically your life as a kid,” he said. “You have to sacrifice a lot, but it’s worth it.”
Even though he traveled frequently with the Academy and got to go on international trips to Holland and Mexico with the U-15 National Team, Swanson kept a level head in rare moments away from the game.
“I don’t really talk about it much,” he said. “I don’t want my friends to think of me like that. I just want to be modest about it and enjoy my youth, you know? We just hang out and do 8th grade stuff. Just goof off, really.”
Like all of the players I talked to, Swanson willingly accepted the sacrifices that came with dedicating himself to the game through the Crew’s Academy. The required passion isn’t something that can be faked at that level. The demands on a player’s body, mind, and time will weed out the half-hearted.
Swanson dismissed any hypothetical concerns that it was too much commitment for a kid his age.
“If you have the talent and you love it, why not be the best that you can? Why not have goals? Why not pursue them to the best of your ability? If you don’t love it, and you’re just doing it to do it, then that’s something different.”
One thing I quickly came to realize was how alert and present Swanson was at all times. Every training drill had his full attention. He asked questions. He helped teammates. When U-16 practice ended, he would jump over to U-18 practice. Every weekend, he would arrive at the game field two hours early for U-18 warmups and then watch and discuss the U-18 game from the bench before getting ready for his own U-16 game afterward.
“I would say a lot of our guys are engaged, but Benny is on a different level,” Arthurs said. “To be a kid playing at that level and to be on the national team, that’s typically what you find. It’s a different personality with a Chad Barson or a Wil Trapp, but all those guys are soccer junkies. They can’t get enough of it. Part of the reason they are so successful is that they soak it all in.”
And now all three of those guys mentioned in Arthurs’ quote are currently on the Crew.
A SCENE FROM U-16 TRAINING
Here is a passage from my unfinished draft about the U-16 training session I attended.
Throughout the training session, Swanson’s head is on a constant swivel. The moment his drill participation ends, his head swings around to find the ball and to observe the next group of players. He will bend, lurch, and lean to get a good view through his taller teammates. His brain voraciously seeks observational input to analyze.
After the U-16 training session ends that evening, Thompson forbids his players from joining in with the U-18 practice scrimmage, wanting the kids to save their legs for the weekend’s matches. Swanson is on the far end of the field, knocking the ball around with a few teammates, when Thompson issues his edict. “Make sure you tell Benny,” Thompson says before leaving. When Swanson eventually wanders over to the bench area, his teammates relay the no-scrimmage order as instructed. Benny often joins U-18 practice after his own, and being unable to participate in the scrimmage makes him antsy. He briefly laments the coach’s order, noting “it would just be 15 minutes”, but his disappointment never threatens to overrule compliance. He knows his coach has his reasons and that they are surely valid.
But there are people playing soccer. Right there. And he’s not allowed.
As he converses with his teammates, his eyes rarely leave the action on the field. He is the cat on the window sill, watching a busy bird feeder, tantalized by instinctive impulses that can’t be acted upon.
“THE BENNY SWANSON CLAUSE”
How much of a competitor is Swanson? Ian Gordona, who was then Assistant Coach with both the U-16 and U-18 Academy teams that summer, had told me that he was forced to institute a special rule at practice.
“Whenever we do a drill, I always have to insert the Benny Swanson clause,” Gordona said. “No matter what drill you do, he will always figure out a way to beat the drill. Like, if there’s a drill where teams are shooting from opposite sides of the goal, he will get his team to start just a split second early so the goalkeeper doesn’t quite have enough time to get over to the other post. I’ll tell him, ‘I see what you’re doing Swanny,’ and he’ll say, ‘Yeah, I’m winning.’ I love that about him. But then I have to insert the Benny Swanson clause to make his team wait another second before they take their turn.”
SWANNY AND THE CHISE
In the spring of 2012, Swanson was considered the most tantalizing Crew Academy prospect since Wil Trapp. At the time, Trapp was a mainstay with youth national teams and had just completed a successful freshman season at NCAA powerhouse Akron. Hearing 14-year-old Swanson being compared to Trapp really meant something.
“I’ve seen Wil since he was 13, and Wil and Benny were the same size at that age, and they are very similar players,” Parkins told me at the time. “Benny’s a little quicker than Wil was then, but the way they see the game and their workrate are similar. If Wil is any indication of the type of player Benny could be, then that’s really good, especially since Wil is just a freshman in college.”
At that stage in his development, Swanson tried to learn all he could from Trapp.
“He’s kind of my role model,” Swanson said of the Gahanna native. “He’s played for the national team, he’s a center mid, and he’s a good kid. I like to play like him. I don’t talk with him often, but he’s come to a few of our practices. It’s awesome to see a guy who has come through our club go away to college and be successful and to be with the national team. It allows you to see that it’s possible to come up through this club and be a pro. Last year, I watched him a lot and tried to get all the pointers I could from him.”
Swanson will have unlimited access to those pointers now that he and Trapp are teammates on the Crew.
THE RESERVE GAME
What follows is the Ben Swanson section of a long draft I had written about Crew Academy kids getting time with the Crew in the old MLS Reserve League. This is the story of 14-year-old Swanson making a Reserve League appearance against the New York Red Bulls on April 7, 2012.
Crew Assistant Coach Ricardo Iribarren saw something in Benny Swanson. That hardly makes him unique. Many people have seen that special something in Swanson; the Grove City native is the Academy’s most heralded player since Wil Trapp. Swanson was just a pint-sized eighth grader, but Iribarren saw a player mature beyond his years.
“I watched him play against Toronto in the U-16s, and that game was really physical,” Iribarren recalled. “He was pretty smart in not getting involved with the contact because he’s 14 and he’s small. That day I realized that he can play because he is really smart. That’s something that’s hard to teach.”
Unlike many people who have been impressed by Swanson, Iribarren was in the position to act on his impressions thanks to the Crew’s Academy setup. In the first week of April 2012, Benny engaged in a surprising conversation with Iribarren, who also coaches the Crew’s reserve team.
“Coach Ricky came out and asked if I had anything going on that weekend, and I said no,” Swanson recalled. “He said one of the players was hurt and he’d need to check with the trainer first, but to be ready.”
That Wednesday, Swanson’s dad received a call from Billy Thompson. The Crew wanted Benny to dress for the reserve game that Saturday against the New York Red Bulls.
“They said they weren’t looking for me to play, but that this was more of an opportunity for me,” Swanson said. “I was nervous, but I didn’t think I was going to get playing time. I knew it was for the atmosphere and everything.”
That Saturday, April 7, Swanson ended up with more than he bargained for. First, there was a disbelieving encounter with Crew equipment manager Rusty Wummel. Since the reserve game immediately followed the first team match, Wummel’s workload meant that he didn’t have time for practical jokes involving a baby-faced adolescent.
“It’s a double day and we’re busy,” Wummel explained. “I’m trying to get ready for halftime for the first team, and this kid comes up and says, ‘I’m here for the reserve team game.’ I laughed. I said, ‘Sure you are, and so am I.’ He says, ‘No, no, no. Really! I am!’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no. Really. I am too.’ But then I told him to just wait. Things weren’t going well for us in the first team game. It was New York and we were (crapping) the bed, so I told him to wait in the hall and don’t come in. Oddly enough, by the time the other Academy kids got there, they were standing in order of height, from shortest to tallest. The wee man was standing in front, and then it just went up from there. Ansel Adams couldn’t have done any better for a perspective shot.”
With more pressing matters on his mind, including, apparently, fine art, Wummel didn’t put much thought into outfitting the Academy players. The result was nothing short of hilarious, as the 5’4”, 125-pound Swanson received XL gear.
“It looked like a nightgown on him,” recalled Tucker Walther, the Crew’s Director of Team Operations. “It was huge.”
“If there was a big gust of wind, he would have taken flight,” Wummel chuckled. “It was not one of my finer moments. How was I supposed to know they were going to send us a little kid like the wee man? I noticed that Tucker helped him change into something smaller. When I saw the wee man later, I told him, ‘Sorry about that. I just wanted to give you something to grow into.’ He’s a good kid. Hopefully we see him again.”
Decked out in a still-too-big-but-not-as-comically-so size large uniform, Swanson participated in warm-ups and watched the game from the bench. That experience would have been cool enough for any middle school player, but when Crew forward Justin Meram picked up an injury late in the match, Iribarren decided to give Swanson an even bigger thrill. In the 89th minute, 14-year-old Ben Swanson took the field at Crew Stadium, playing alongside the members of his local professional team.
“I got the ball off the kick off,” Swanson said of his memorable minute. “New York scored, I went in, and then I got the ball off the kick off. I touched the ball.”
But for Swanson, the minute of playing time was a bonus. Simply being there was a chance to soak up the professional experience.
“It was great to see all of the pros on the Crew and to see what it really means to play for the Crew,” he said. “The locker room, the stadium, and all of it. It was nice. Ethan Finlay was nice to me. All the guys were. They weren’t like, ‘Look at this scrub over here.’ They were all very supportive.
“I’m blessed to have this opportunity. I don’t think they planned to really play me, but it was just to get me acclimated to everything. Hopefully one day I’ll be there.”
Thirty months later, Ben Swanson is here. On one hand, his signing is a moment to celebrate. It’s the culmination of Swanson’s hard work and level-headed dedication, plus eight years of development in the Crew’s system. (“It’s information you can trust,” he told me in 2012, regarding the instruction he was receiving from Thompson and the Crew’s Academy. “When you believe in the system and the people, you trust that what they tell you will pay off. And it has.”) The signing of his professional contract is a dream come true for Swanson and another feather in the cap for the Crew Soccer Academy.
On the other hand, this is just the beginning. At 17 years old, Swanson is now embarking on a professional career. Who knows what the future may hold? Berhalter made the decision to sign Swanson after getting an up close and personal look over many training sessions this year. He saw enough of Swanson’s skill, personality, and soccer IQ to know that he wanted the midfielder on board immediately. If Swanson can contribute right away, age will not be a limiting factor. If further development is necessary, both the Swansons and the Crew felt that it would be best if that development were entrusted to the capabilities of Berhalter and his staff.
For both parties, the past was prologue. It once again came down to a reciprocal belief in the system and the people.
Questions? Comments? Know of anything cool that will happen 30 months into the future that I should work on now and never finish in the meantime? Feel free to write at email@example.com or via Twitter @stevesirk
Steve Sirk’s new book, “Kirk Urso: Forever Massive”, is available at the Crew Gear store or by ordering online HERE. All proceeds go to the Kirk Urso Memorial Fund for congenital heart defect research.