It’s the return of Flyover Footy post-COVID, and we are honored to kick it off with St. Louis City SC’s sporting director, Lutz Pfannenstiel (full interview above).
The day kicked off on the sporting fields of Cardinal Glennon College Prep in Midtown, an area that is often devoid of activity on a Saturday morning. That sunny and breezing morning featured a full parking lot and fields full of kids warming up and sectioning off into groups–the activity’s aim is to become the first academy players for the first MLS team in St. Louis. Technical staff loitered around the edge of the playing fields watching and conversing. Lutz shifted between watching the kids and giving interviews.
Toward the end of the open tryout, it became my turn to chat with the Sporting Director. Lutz hopes to nail down the Academy squads by end of July in order to start training in August or September, all to compete in the MLS Next competition in October of this year. Says Lutz, “To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect from the [open] trials. It’s not something that is very usual for the European market.” One might expect several of the best players St. Louis has to offer to come out and be flashy, or try to impress in individual ways, but the tryout was mostly filled with players cooperating and communicating. They seemed to be feeling each other out and often putting in maximum effort in order to make an impression.
Pfannenstiel has laid out his plan for the Academy recently. It will mimic successful models he has implemented at massive clubs in Germany. U14 through u17 will feature in-house clubs, but the younger age groups will be “satellite locations”, where Lutz hopes to hone the soccer basics by improving and educating the coaches, keep tabs on rising stars, and add challenges to those who can handle it. “We don’t want to […] over-professionalize it…I am a strong believer in let them play with their friends. Let them stay with their families. Let them play for their hometown clubs.”
One interesting wrinkle in the transfer of this satellite model from Europe, is that the United States hasn’t adopted a formal tradition of solidarity payments. This is the exchange of money when one academy brings on a player from another and eventually sells the player on for a profit. The solidarity payment would send a percentage of that profit down to the original club, which in this example would be the satellite club. “That’s something that US Soccer is working on right now to come into the same kind of way that other countries are doing it, but there’s still a little bit of work [to be done] on that, so it’s not crossing our minds at the moment”, said Pfannenstiel.
Another benefit of having several satellite locations is the potential for added diversity. Lutz sees this as a “wonderful challenge”, but a challenge indeed it is. “It is not something we can change overnight, six months, or a year.” “We want to change the face of soccer in St. Louis and this is a long term process.” Part of this endeavor will be to offer academy programs for free. The pay to play model will not be a part of this club’s identity or makeup. “This will open up accessibility for everybody”, Lutz says. The club is intentionally seeking out the north city neighborhoods where soccer isn’t prevalent as well as the Bosnian communities where there could be untapped talent, or perhaps they stop playing once the opportunity becomes more difficult or expensive.
The challenges are many, but it seems Lutz and the staff of St. Louis City SC are dedicated to create change, and they aren’t shying away from drawing their line in the sand on things like equality and inclusivity. -PG
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