The Crew Academy has a track record of developing high quality soccer players who find success on the collegiate, national and professional levels.
This year's teams are hoping to follow that pattern.
There are 33 players on the rosters of the two Academy teams -- ages 17-18 (U18) and ages 15-16 (U16). Both teams compete in the 13-team Mid-America Division of the 26-team Central Conference, which is part of an 80-team field that also includes an East Conference and West Conference. Of the 80 developmental teams, 16 are funded by Major League Soccer teams.
"While the developmental academies are trying to improve the talent pool in our sport, the approaches we have vary somewhat," said Billy Thompson, the head coach of both Crew squads. "We aren't quite as concerned with winning as some others are, because our goal is to develop players at every age level to maintain balance and success and keep the organization steady throughout. For instance, some teams stack their sides with all 18s in an effort to produce more wins. They'll suffer the following season, so their organization won't be consistently strong."
That consistency has made the Crew Academy viable to college scouts and coaches.
"We have three former players who have signed with our professional team -- Aaron Horton (Olentangy Orange), Matt Lampson (St. Charles) and Ben Speas (Cuyahoga Valley Christian Academy)," said Andrew Arthurs, a former coach at Westerville North High School who serves as vice president of soccer business development at the Crew Academy. "We have five players starting at Akron and a handful of others at big-time college programs, including the captains at UCLA, Wake Forest, Boston College and Harvard.
"All the boys who come here have those high hopes and we want to help them achieve those aspirations. They're excited to train and improve and to compete with and against other kids of exceptional skill level."
The U18 team has 13 players on its roster who attend central Ohio high schools, including Daniel Allen, Tyler Kidwell and Andrew McKelvey of Dublin Jerome. Allen is a center midfielder, McKelvey is a forward and Kidwell is a defender.
Worthington Kilbourne has a pair of defenders on the team in Carter Grimm and Charlie Reymann.
"The strength of our team is defense," said Thompson, whose squad lost its first three matches. "We lost a lot of attacking-minded players and we're asking some of our defenders to look at new positions, which is a good experience for them. However, we've had trouble on offense and we've been seeking a solution, a way to get players forward. But the solution has been disrupting our defense and has resulted in some soft goals against us. So we're going back to a more defensive approach right now."
Other area players include defenders Aidan Bean (Olentangy Liberty), Alex Bumpus (Hilliard Davidson) and Alex Crognale (Gahanna), midfielders Brady Blackwell (Dublin Scioto), John Schuman (Upper Arlington) and Thomas Wiseman (St. Charles), forward Tommy Harr (Pickerington North) and goalkeeper Matthew Erath (New Albany).
"We only have four of us back from the team last year," Bumpus said. "The rest are coming from the 16s, which means it could take us a little bit to mesh. But we'll be fine once we get rolling here."
"I think Blackwell holds our midfield together and organizes things well," Thompson said. "McKelvey is a central forward who has played well, even though the nice job hasn't translated into many goals. I also have been very encouraged by Rylee Woods, who moved to the midfield from the back."
Woods attends Jamestown Greeneview.
Under the umbrella of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, which moved to a 10-month season this year, the Crew Academy teams will play 24 games between Sept. 15 and June 1 in the regular season. The teams train on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, with some Friday training if it is not a travel day.
Because of the new 10-month season, players no longer can play for their high schools and the Academy.
"I definitely miss playing with the friends I've played with since I was 12 or 13," said Crognale, a Gahanna senior who was a freshman on the team when the Lions won the Division I state championship in 2009. "But you have to keep that in perspective because the big factor for me is to improve to where I want to be, and that's playing at the collegiate level and maybe beyond that if I'm fortunate."
Crognale is a team captain along with Reymann, who was second-team all-state in Division I last season.
The U16 team, which opened 1-1-1, has 20 players from central Ohio, including two apiece from Davidson, Groveport, Olentangy Orange and St. Charles.
Nathan Kohl (Davidson) and William Bayemi (Groveport) are forwards who have played up with the U18 team, trying to give it some punch.
"Those two, with their development, are better suited to move up and be challenged by bigger and older players," said Thompson, who is assisted by Jeremy Parkins, with Connie Walsh serving as the manager. "When we do move them up, it hurts the U16 team. But our priority is to develop these players and put them in a competitive environment to help them reach their potential."
*OF NOTE -- The U18 team defeated the U17 national team 2-1 in an exhibition game Sept. 10 at Ohio State's Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium. A Davidson connection gave the Crew a 2-0 lead in the 61st minute, as Bumpus headed in a cross from Noah Hutchins.
Bumpus was second-team all-state in Division I last season. Hutchins is a member of the U16 Crew Academy team.
Woods gave the Crew Academy the lead in the 18th minute.
Grove City's Ben Swanson, who was first selected to the Crew's U16 team, played for the U17 national team, which is housed in Bradenton, Fla. He nearly scored in the 11th minute.
"Watching Ben play 90 minutes against us and wearing the red, white and blue was very cool," Arthurs said. "Doing that and being one of the youngest players on the field, if not the youngest, is pretty remarkable."