Louisville City FC's Joshua Wynder is the first USL Academy graduate to be called up to the senior United States Men's National Team, a moment that 'changes the game' according to ESPN's Herculez Gomez. | Photo courtesy Monterey Bay F.C.
When the USL Championship began its progressive expansion into new cities across the United States midway through the past decade, there were clear ideas as to what these clubs would become.
At the forefront, they would be an avatar for a city, and a point of pride for its community. They would offer a rising level of opportunity for coaches, players, and staff, and become a rallying point on a Saturday night under the lights.
At the same time, for all the young players who were trying to find their pathway in the game – whether to college or beyond – there would be something bigger to aspire to; the potential to represent their hometown on a professional stage.
In 2013, the USL became the first league in North America to create a way for young players to retain college eligibility while competing for a professional club's first team in the form of USL Academy signings.
A decade later, that model is being adopted elsewhere while the well-established pathway in USL Championship and USL League One consistently bears fruit.
And now in Louisville City FC’s Joshua Wynder the USL Academy model has its biggest success story to date.
Less than a year after the prodigious 17-year-old talent first suited up at any level for his country, Wynder is now in camp with the United States Men’s National Team for its clash with Mexico in the Allstate Continental Clasico on Wednesday night.
Wynder’s call-up is proof positive that the pathway system is working exactly the way USL President Jake Edwards and the rest of the league’s leadership past and present envisioned it could.
“For players that perhaps wouldn’t ordinarily have had that opportunity within their own hometown, they can now see a pathway through into the USL and beyond, especially into Europe,” Edwards told USSoccerPlayers.com’s Charles Boehm last March. “It is having an impact at the highest levels and our owners are now seeing that they can trade with clubs around the world and that there is a marketplace for that.”
Wynder’s story is a remarkable one. From going to LouCity’s first game as a nine-year-old kid, to joining elder brother Elijah in turning professional with the club six years later, and then earning nomination for U.S. Soccer’s Young Male Player of the Year and the USL Championship’s Young Player of the Year in back-to-back months, you could hardly script the story better.
It’s also shown exactly how a player and a professional club both benefit from investment into a strong Academy program.
“When I came here to start the academy, the No. 1 goal was to give kids like Josh the opportunity to one day play for a full national team,” said LouCity Academy Director Mario Sanchez. “Do we all think it would happen this fast? No. But again, it’s a testament to what the club has done, all the way back to [former LouCity Head Coach] John Hackworth, and then [current LouCity Head Coach] Danny [Cruz], and then the owners, because you need good facilities, you need infrastructure, and the owners have definitely stepped up.
“Now we're seeing the benefit of it all with a local kid who’s literally going to play for a full national team. So yeah, I’m extremely proud, but more I’ve been really proud of the community for everyone coming together and allowing these opportunities to happen.”
At the same time, Wynder isn’t an exception.
San Diego Loyal SC goalkeeper Duran Ferree turned pro with his hometown club last year and in March competed for the United States at the Concacaf U-17 Men's Championship. | Photo courtesy San Diego Loyal SC
Across the USL Championship and increasingly in USL League One there are similar stories waiting to be told. Players like San Diego Loyal SC goalkeeper Duran Ferree (United States U-17s), San Antonio FC’s Dalziel Ozuna (United States U-15s) and North Carolina FC’s Nick Holliday (United States U-17s) are part of the next potential wave of talent representing their hometown clubs.
That doesn’t even include the young players who see the USL Championship as the pathway of choice for their burgeoning careers. Just look at the Charleston Battery’s Fidel Barajas, a Concacaf champion with Mexico in March at the Men’s U-17 Championship, or Orange County SC’s Korede Osundina (United States U-20s) and Bryce Jamison (United States U-17s) and the other current youth internationals turning professional in the Championship.
“I’m excited to have the chance to continue playing in the USL Championship and play meaningful games with a team that wants to compete for the playoffs and the USL title,” said United States U-16 international Nathan Worth when he signed professionally with FC Tulsa in March from the New York Red Bulls Academy. “Playing in front of passionate fan bases across the league elevates the intensity to another level and I’m ready to work hard every day to earn a place in the squad.”
Wynder’s call-up to the senior United States Men’s National Team is a message to all of them – the door is opening wider if your tenacity and talent can take you there.
The Charleston Battery's Fidel Barajas has been one of the bright young players to turn pro in the USL Championship in the past 12 months, and is playing a key role in the club's current success. | Photo courtesy Charleston Battery
It’s a message those in higher circles are noticing.
“What I get out of this, if I can get anything out of this, is a guy like Joshua Wynder,” said former United States international and current ESPN host Herculez Gomez last week on Futbol Americas. “That to me is a gamechanger. That changes the game. … If you sign as an Academy player or MLS player, first of all, you’re not guaranteed to get that time. I think here whether or not it was guaranteed, it was more probable and in doing so, he caught the eye of a team like Benfica.
“So, before he even played top-flight football, he’s on a European radar, and before he plays for a European team, he’s got a U.S. Men’s National Team call-up. So, this changes the game for any young player looking for a pathway not only to Europe, but to the U.S. Men's National Team.”
The USL Academy platform will continue to expand in the coming years, including the arrival of the Girls Academy League this year. With it will come more opportunities for players to forge their paths, like NC Courage Academy’s Lauryn Thompson, a recent USL Academy Cup standout and now England U-16s call-up.
Joshua Wynder might be the first USL Academy graduate to receive a call-up from the United States, but he’s not going to be the last.
“I would really believe that everyone supports Josh, gets behind him and wishes him nothing but success moving forward,” said Sanchez. “And then, you know, we got to find the next one. We can’t just stop here. Our objective is to find the next one and this should be another moment for the soccer community here that everyone, young kids and parents, can enjoy, if Josh can do it, why not that next person. That’s one thing we’ve got to continue to do.”
That’s going to be a gamechanger for every club across the USL.