ST. LOUIS - On the night of February 16, 2016, the staff, coaches and players of Saint Louis FC gathered for the first time of the new season. Among this group of professionals were four St. Louis Scott Gallagher Academy players. Aaron Arreola, Wan Kuzain, Clayton Pearson, and Aedan Stanley were given the opportunity to train with the first team and joined the squad in Charleston, South Carolina for its preseason trip. This wasn't a winter vacation though and the Academy players joined the rest of the team in competing against College of Charleston, Coastal Carolina and USL Eastern Conference opponent Charleston Battery.
"They experienced some growing pains in terms of speed and physicality in the first couple of days." said Saint Louis FC Assistant Coach and SLSG Missouri Boys National Premier Leagues Director Tim Leonard. "But they're all good players and as the week went on they got more comfortable." Leonard stressed the importance of getting Academy players involved early and how it would benefit them throughout the season. "Having the Academy guys around our training environment puts us in a position to have quality depth and will only benefit the first team and Academy program going forward."
Leonard went on to describe what he thought made the biggest impact on the young guys after spending a week on the road with professional soccer players. "Getting a feel for what the environment is like and what those guys live like day to day. How they take care of themselves, their diet, what they do in between games in terms of recovery, seeing them do pool workouts on their own. I think just getting to experience the professionalism day to day was a huge thing for those guys."
The Charleston trip has ended and the team is winding down the preseason schedule but the Academy players have continued to train with the first team. We sat down with Aaron, Kuzain, Clayton and Aedan and asked them to discuss their time training with the first team, the trip to Charleston and how the St. Louis Scott Gallagher Academy program has helped them prepare for this opportunity.
STLFC: Start by telling us how your experience training with the first team has been.
AA: It's fun training with the older guys. It is a lot faster than the Academy.
WK: It's good. The Charleston trip was definitely different than Academy trips. The guys are pros so they get more freedom.
CP: I think being able to come out here every day and train with them has been good. It was nerve racking at first but they've all been pretty nice to me, helped with a few screw ups and they haven't gotten on me too much, except for now they're starting to but it's to be expected.
AS: Very life changing. It was interesting to see how a player actually handles himself compared to an Academy player. It's very eye opening to see how much your characteristics have to change to get to the next level.
STLFC: How is the jump in skill level?
AA: It's been a lot tougher. They're athletic and the pace of the game is a lot faster.
WK: The training is different. Everyone is ready to train, it's a pro environment and guys want to get better and overall it's more fun to be there when everyone wants to get better.
CP: It's pretty evident right away as you get out there. The voices, the ball speed, they get after you, they tackle, they went hard and whenever I go back to the Academy it's a lot slower.
AS: The skill level was very different, so much higher than a regular Academy practice. I hesitate to say better, but they were better. It was so much more competitive and fun. Every single practice everyone was going at it, everything was to win and the competitiveness really came out.
STLFC: How do you adjust for that jump in skill level?
AA: Try to get my fitness level up. Train every day to be as good as them or try to be as good.
WK: Keep things simple, once you get the routine of it then you can show what you've got.
CP: I think now it's more of a mental game. I'm pretty physical and athletic but mentally I need to get sharper and know where I need to go three steps ahead rather than the next step ahead. Constantly check your shoulder, know where to play next and know where your guys are.
AS: A big thing I did was, even though I was younger, that was an excuse. I couldn't keep saying that 'I'm younger, that's why I'm not playing as good as them.' or something. Work hard and hold yourself to the same high standard as them.
STLFC: What have you learned about yourself from your time training with the first team?
AA: My fitness level is not where I want it to be. Overall, it's not much different than the Academy but the guys are more athletic. I feel like I can fit in because I win tackles, I'm a hard tackler and that's what I need for the center back position which is where I'm at.
WK: I'm ready to compete at the next level. I think I can compete with some pros and hopefully that will take me further than Academy.
CP: I think there is a whole new level out of me and I think playing with them, I realize I'm able to play with the pros.
AS: The biggest thing I've learned about myself is that I can be a pro and I've learned that I have good characteristics that I will keep leaning on. I also learned that a lot of mistakes I make – I need to just forget about it I don't need to hold on to everything I do wrong, just forget about it and move on.
STLFC: How has playing in the SLSG Academy helped prepare you for the transition to first team?
AA: Every day in the Academy I tried my hardest; I guess they recognized me as someone who could practice with the older guys.
WK: Academy tries to mirror a pro environment and helps you for the next level and all the little things I've learned in Academy are helping me here with Saint Louis FC.
CP: Training is pretty similar I've done a lot of these drills already with Academy. It's just that the level changes.
AS: Level of Academy is also very high. I knew it was going to be harder but Academy has really set me up to play to the best of my ability and how to train at the highest level and hold myself to a professional standard.
STLFC: What is something you've noticed the guys do outside the lines that you'd like to incorporate yourself as you progress?
AA: They have different routines. Barklage was in MLS and he has a different routine of stretching, eating the right food, water, the healthy things.
WK: A lot of guys have routines they go through. Every day you see Ambo and Barklage and they're always stretching before and after to make sure their body is always right and ready to compete the next day. I think that's the biggest thing you see outside the field – how guys treat themselves, they treat themselves like professionals.
CP: A lot of the guys get here early, they have their stretches they do, they have their workouts they do, a lot of the guys around have diets that they're on so taking care of your body like they do as they're getting older, I think that's a big change and something I'll try to incorporate. I've been trying to eat right and stretch after training, stretch before training and just take care of my body like they do.
AS: It's all about the recovery after training. They'll get in the pool even when it's super cold out or if the coaches don't say you have to. They'll still go to the pool, stretch out, eat correct – everything is for the next session.
The Academy players will continue training with the first team throughout the season. Head Coach Dale Schilly and the staff continue to look at additional players in the Academy program with more expected to get an opportunity as the season progresses.
"Inviting Academy players into regular training with the first team is a natural progression for the organization." explained Schilly. "St. Louis Scott Gallagher has always created opportunities for its players. Aligning our Academy and pros is a natural, logical move. It is another way that we can enhance the quality of player that the community is producing."