Six players from the Crew SC Academy trained with the First Team in Chula Vista, California as part of the Club's first phase of the 2021 preseason schedule, marking the first time in over a year in which members of the Club's developmental system have been permitted to participate in First Team training.
In the wake of the Crew's MLS Cup victory back in December, when Crew SC Academy product Aidan Morris became the youngest-ever player to start in MLS Cup history, the Academy's inclusion in the First Team's preseason camp is an important inflection point for those who were invited and a reminder of the Club's ambitions as it relates to expanding the Crew's player pathway.
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When asked about bringing in Academy products for the first phase of preseason, Academy Director Kelvin Jones highlighted two aspects:
"I think it’s a progression of how things are going and how players have done," Jones said, "and I also think that it’s always been an initiative from Caleb [Porter] and the rest of the Technical Staff to have our Academy players involved in the preseason process, and that goes back to what Caleb believes in and bringing in the Academy to give the guys the experience of a preseason."
In speaking with Crew TV Analyst Jordan Angeli earlier this week, Porter provided his perspective on the Academy's presence and touched on the Club's goal of balancing development initiatives with the ability to win now.
"We believe in our youth, we believe in our Academy, we believe in our developmental pathway, and we want to have young players coming through. It’s important that we are winning now and have a team that is ready to take the field and get results now, but it’s important, also, that we have players in the pipeline that two years from now, three years from now, can step in and play the way we want to play," Porter said.
WATCH | Caleb Porter on the Club's Academy focus during preseason
Porter continued: "We believe it’s easier to prepare young players to play our system than it is to develop young players who come in from the outside to play our system. We always like this time of year to get a look at the best guys coming through, not to say that there won’t be other guys who could be in the mix – it changes every year – but it’s a bit of a measurement of who is coming through and where do they stack up with First Team players and it’s been great."
Coinciding with Porter's message, Jones emphasized that the Academy's inclusion was not a try-out for those participating, and rather an experiential opportunity that comes with a reflection period once the group returns to Columbus.
"Headed into the camp, we wanted to explain to them that their inclusion is a testament to how well they have been playing, but also that this isn’t an end-all, be-all. It’s about going into the environment, experiencing the environment and being a professional, and then learning from guys that have been in the game and taking your development seriously," Jones said. "So, part of the process is reflecting on why they were invited and reflecting on their experience, as well as how they can take what they learned through the 10 days and apply it and bring it back here to the Academy."
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One of the six Academy products who joined the First Team in California is center midfielder Elton Chifamba, who is set to play for Clemson University in the fall. As the longest-tenured of the six Academy players, having first joined the Club as a U-12 player, Chifamba explained how his time in the Academy prepared him for that experience.
"I was definitely very excited. I’ve been working hard with the Academy, day-to-day, and then being able to come to preseason camp with the First Team is an amazing feeling and I’m definitely excited to have been able to test myself at this level," Chifamba said.
Having trained with the First Team before, Chifamba said he was not entirely certain of what to expect from camp considering the roster changes, but he did highlight the role of one of the Crew's recent free agent signings.
"Kevin Molino has really been there for me ever since the start of the camp really and telling me to be myself, really believe in my ability, and he’s always looking out for me," Chifamba said.
The other five Academy players include Noah Hall, Yale University commit TJ Presthus, Ohio State University commit Anthony Samways, Indiana University commit Sam Sarver, and Levi Stephens, a 16-year-old committed to the University of Akron and the youngest of the group, who officially joined the Academy last year.
Stephens specifically mentioned fellow Academy product Aboubacar Keita as a helping hand, and explained what the Academy staff told him prior to the trip.
"[The Academy staff] said just to enjoy it, have fun, and pick the First Team players’ brains and really just watch everyone’s movement and learn as much as you can from the experience," Stephens said.
Regarding his first experience in a First Team preseason camp, Stephens said "you can think about what it’s like and then you can be there, and it’s two different things. Once you get there, you are kind of starstruck because you may be playing with your idol or something, but you’ve got to keep focused and do what you can and go out a play."
Unsurprisingly, a common theme in each players' responses was the change of pace in training, but another shared response was the level of encouragement each Academy player has received.
Sam Sarver, one of the Academy's top forwards, explained that for him, preseason was "not only a chance to get better, but also to meet all the new signings and get advice from them and see what they did to get to the spots they are in in their careers."
When asked about how the Academy prepared him for preseason, Sarver said it's about being comfortable with who he is and what got him to this point:
"They just told me to come in, be yourself and don’t alter who you are just because you are with the First Team – they called you in because they like who you are as yourself so don’t alter that and just keep playing. You are bound to make mistakes, so it’s up to you if you’re going to let those mistakes affect you or if you’re going to move on from them."
The Club officially concluded its first preseason phase over the weekend and returned to Columbus on Saturday. Now, the First Team will embark on the next phase of preseason in Orlando, Florida later this month after a brief training stint in Columbus..