USL Orange County SC’s Head Coach, General Manager and Owner on Bringing Up 15-year-old goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes
Youth Soccer News: It is not every day that a teenager is signed with a USL team. Soccer coaches often talk about the desire to develop homegrown talent but few ever accomplish it nor are many youth soccer players talented enough to deserve a professional contract but 15-year-old goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes is an exceptional player.
It takes more than talent to earn an opportunity to become a professional soccer player before one can legally drive. It takes maturity and the willingness to absolutely dedicate oneself to perfecting one’s craft — and coaches who really believe in you and want to give young players a chance.
USL’s Orange County Soccer Club‘s head coach Braeden Cloutier is that special kind of coach who tracks players he believes in and gives them a chance when they deserve it.
The people behind homegrown player development at OCSC besides Cloutier are the club’s leaders.
Team owner and Chief Investment Officer of LARO Properties, James Keston, purchased and rebranded the team from Orange County Blues in 2017. The club’s General Manager is Oliver Wyss, the Swiss-American soccer coach with an impressive pedigree, playing as a youth on the Swiss Youth National Team. Wyss holds a USSF National A license and is also the Director of Boys at the Orange County Surf SC.
Orange County SC (OCSC) is the only professional soccer team in Orange County — nestled in Southern California’s hotbed of youth soccer talent, the club is an official affiliate partner of MLS’ Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) and focuses on player development and winning. One of the twelve founding members of the USL, joining in its inaugural 2011 season, OCSC has established a track record of success, including winning the 2015 USL Western Conference regular-season championship with Wyss as Head Coach.
Diane Scavuzzo interviewed all three, Cloutier, Keston and Wyss, to get a better understanding of OCSC’s philosophy on developing homegrown players.
Diane Scavuzzo: Player development are the buzzwords in soccer today, but few clubs actually provide real opportunities for young players. OCSC recently signed Aaron Cervantes. What inspired you to sign a 15-year-old?
Oliver Wyss: Orange County Soccer Club is serious about player development and we have an initiative. Our head coach, Braeden Cloutier, had the chance to coach Aaron when he was 12-year-old at the LA Galaxy Development Academy. And, from the first day that Braeden became the head coach at Orange County, he said that Aaron was one of the best young players he had worked with, not only from a talent perspective but also mentality.
Our SVP, Player Recruitment and Soccer Operations, Peter Nugent, watched Aaron multiple times and through our good relationships with the Pateadores SC and their Academy Director Teddy Chronopoulos, everyone came to the same conclusion that Aaron was ready for the next step — to be in a professional environment that would allow him to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional player.
First and foremost, regardless of the age of a player, a professional player needs to be a professional on and off the field.
Being a professional player, it’s a lifestyle.
Diane Scavuzzo: What are the qualities that made Aaron stand out as a youth soccer player
Braeden Cloutier: The qualities I recognized in Aaron, even from a very young age were his attention to detail, his willingness to work hard and his attitude was always fantastic. Aaron has a tremendous work ethic and drive.
First and foremost what we keep talking about around here is the lifestyle. The way guys live their lives and how they take care of themselves off of the field as well as how they train and ultimately their work ethic.
It’s not for everyone, as you know.
I’ve seen a lot of extremely talented kids in Southern California fall by the wayside …
Basically because of their work ethic and their attitude, and ultimately how they live their lives.
I have kept my eye on Aaron in the last couple of years and he’s progressed tremendously as a player, but even more so as a person. He’s grown into a fantastic, young professional. I brought him in for preseason and I didn’t know what to expect from day one, but right away, he was barking at the senior leadership and centerbacks and ordering people around. Right away, I could tell he had no problem handling himself around pros.
Oliver Wyss: The ultimate goal is to obviously get Aaron to the highest level possible. At Orange County SC, we’re fully focused on the player’s development on the younger level, and we have actually created an environment that we feel is as good as many clubs in Europe, including the European National teams.
Diane Scavuzzo: You’ve created a mini European environment providing the same type of player development standards as you would find abroad?
Oliver Wyss: Our technical director is Frans Hoek, and he personally, along with our technical staff, have created a full development plan for Aaron. Hoek was a goalkeeper for FC Volendam before going into coaching under Johan Cruyff and then as an assistant to Louis van Gaal. Hoek has coached at AFC Ajax, FC Barcelona, FC Bayern Munich and Manchester United.
Diane Scavuzzo: What kind of game time do you anticipate Aaron will be able to see?
Oliver Wyss: We will not sign any player that we do not believe can play, at any time, for our first team. But I think the most important thing is for a young player, that you actually give him the time and you put him in situations where he can succeed.
Diane Scavuzzo: Do you expect Aaron to play for the first team in the upcoming season?
Oliver Wyss: Absolutely. I’m convinced that will happen because he’s that talented. But it’s also very important that even though he has a professional contract, he can still play on his Development Academy team when he doesn’t make our team roster. So, he trains every single day, if he’s a contingent, he’ll be suiting up for us. If not, he will play with his academy team.
Diane Scavuzzo: What is the impact of signing a professional contract with college?
James Keston: We’re very clear on our part with all of our young talented players and Aaron will be the first of many that we expect to be signing.
By signing a professional contract, a young player is not just giving up playing college soccer but more importantly, his eligibility to go as a scholarship athlete.
OCSC has created an education fund. When our young players turn 18 or 19 -years-old, they will have the opportunity, between their salaries and their educational funds, to have $100,000 or more saved up. They can pay for college as a regular student or they can start a business.
Players are deciding to try to pursue being a professional soccer player, ideally for the next 15 years. If you do and you’re successful, the returns are spectacular. It’s a great life, but if at the end of two or three years, you haven’t done that, you have enough funds to attend college. You’re not walking away empty handed.
Diane Scavuzzo: So, if a player like Aaron gets injured in the next 12 months, what happens to that scholarship fund?
Oliver Wyss: His contract and educational fund are guaranteed. So even if Aaron is injured, that’s a risk we take on. We are not in the business of signing players and then if something happens, which is part of life and part of being a professional player, just dropping him.
When we’re committing ourselves to the player, we’re there for him 100%.
Our first and foremost goal is to make him the absolute best professional player, but always understanding that our responsibility is also developing a young man. And, we want to make sure that we give him the tools to be successful on and off the field.
Diane Scavuzzo: When you first met Aaron, what did you think of him as a player
Braeden Cloutier: It’s actually funny, as a player, Aaron was a little scrawny kid. Even at the LA Galaxy when he was younger, he was definitely smaller because he hadn’t grown, but his feet were really good. Aaron has always been a good shot stopper, but for me, it is his work ethic and technical ability which are a big plus.
At Orange County SC, we want goalkeepers to be able to play with their feet. Aaron’s always had a very very good touch and technical ability to play out of the back. Now, he will get the training to take his game to the next level.
Frans Hoek has created an individualized development plan for Aaron and he’s worked with some of the best goalkeepers in the world, including Van Der Sar.
Diane Scavuzzo: What do you think the future can hold for a player like Aaron?
James Keston: From the time I took over the OCSC team 18 months ago, being a professionally run club and putting a winning team on the field was our main goal, but literally at the same time, so is developing homegrown talent.
We’ve set out a five-year plan to sign a number of players each year and put them through this exact same system.
Oliver and I agreed that ideally — within three years but absolutely within five years — half to two-thirds of our team would be local kids who were signed by us that came through our system and are were starting for our first team.
Obviously, we don’t expect — especially for the most talented ones — for the USL to be the endpoint.
We expect them to get to the highest league possible, that their talent allows them to play in. Whether that be in MLS or in Europe or anywhere.
This is one of the two defining goals of our organization. One is to win USL championships and the second one is to develop players that can play at the highest level anywhere in the world.
Next week – Interview with Cloutier, Keston and Wyss Part II on What’s Important When Developing Soccer Players