New York City Football Club prides itself on its commitment to developing and providing opportunities for players from the Academy.
One of the men tasked with maximizing the potential of those players is Academy Director, Morten Grahn. A native of Denmark, Grahn joined NYCFC in 2021, after spending over a decade working with FC Copenhagen.
We caught up with Morten to reflect on 2022 and also discuss the possibilities for 2023.
Hi Morten, thank you for speaking with us, firstly how would you evaluate 2022 from the Academy’s perspective?
It was a season with a lot of new things. We had the first season of our second team (NYCFC II), which had a positive impact on our young players and their pathway - securing the opportunity for our players to go through our system and bridge the gap between the Academy and the First Team.
The second thing is we introduced a lot of new staff members over the year. We are an Academy that always looks to improve and develop. With the new structure, new staff and workflow, we have built a good foundation for our future growth.
There were also some milestones like Klevis Haxhari signing a second team contract, Maximo Carrizo signing a First Team contract. This is obviously very important for us to secure our top talents and prospects for the future. We had 11 Academy players playing with NYCFC II during the season and former Academy player Samuel Owusu debuted in September for our First Team.
We also had several players selected for their Youth National Teams that gained valuable experience as well.
From a team performance side, I would say that we did well, we managed to secure playoffs for our older teams – the U15 and U17s. Winning is a bi-product of the consistent work we do, and we are a club that wants to win – but we want to win our way, by playing our style and by being true to our beliefs.
Both teams went to the round of 16. We were one of eight MLS Academies across the board that managed to have their U15s and U17s go that far so it was a good achievement. We obviously always want more, and we would have liked to go further, but I think that from a performance side we did okay.
With our younger age-groups we want as many high-level games as possible. We try to challenge our players as much as possible. The main thing is consistency in our method and teaching our players our philosophy and style. Exposing our players to international trips and playing against the top Academies in Europe, America and other parts of the world is crucial.
I think one of the key components is that we have a positive talent view, which means that we try to retain as many players as possible because we know that it's a long-term development and youth development has its ups and downs. On another note, we have a well-run scouting department that identifies the top players in New York. Finding the balance of retaining players, but also identifying and recruiting the top talent
What motivated you personally to go into youth coaching?
I played the game myself; I started when I was four or five years old. When I had to make that final transition into the professional game, I was not good enough, I was not able to make that jump.
When I was 18, I started coaching, and following my father, who was a coach, and being involved with that was natural for me.
It's funny because I never had a structured five-year plan. I had a dream that I could make it to a professional level, but from there, it's just kind of naturally progressed from one age group to another.
I was fortunate to work in great environments with mentors and a high-level of know-how and collaboration. We are building the same environment here in NYCFC where all staff contribute to the learning and growth every day.
What do you think is the hardest part of developing young players?
I think if you take the example of James Sands, if you look at his path in our system, it was not a straight path at all. It was a bumpy road, it might seem like a perfect clear example of a talent that goes through to the First Team, but there was a lot of challenges on the way, and I think a lot of people don’t realize how much work, and how many challenges James and the staff went through. This happens all the time in our Academy environment, and it takes grit and perseverance to pass through the path of becoming a professional soccer player.
Our job is to try to predict the future, which is why, as I said, you need to have a positive view on the talent and keep players who you believe have a chance in the system. Because you don't know some of the elements that you’re not in control of their family, their school, their friends, their life outside of football. Sometimes that's a catalyst for players maturing and growing up, and suddenly everything clicks.
I wouldn't say that there's one secret ingredient, except that we have to be able to predict the future, which is the tough part. Experiencing more players going through makes it easier to predict because you've seen examples of which players will make it or not, and most importantly how to help these players on their pathway when they are up and when they are down.
The club currently counts three Academy players on the First Team roster, how beneficial is it to be at a club that trusts youth to step up to the First Team?
It's essential. It's the key to everything is that the collaboration between the sporting departments if you can say it like that, from the whole pathway, all the way through from the Academy to the Second team, to the First Team.
In 2022 season the Academy players contributed with 3352 minutes, which is about 9.7% of the minutes, while our First Team managed to get to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second consecutive year while qualifying for Play-offs for the seventh consecutive year.
It’s essential that there is a collaboration between the Academy and the First Team, and that there is an opening for our players to compete and essentially play. I think David Lee as our Sporting Director has shown how to achieve both sporting success - being in playoffs, playing for titles, winning silverware which is important for the club as well - but doing so by giving so many minutes to U23 players – we were in the top three in MLS.
How do you relax away from football?
I can't - I know it's an obsession. I'm sorry. It's so difficult. There's always something going on.
I try to watch just random TV shows or something that can keep my mind from going, sometimes it’s listening to podcasts or audiobooks and these kinds of things to kind of take my mind off things.
That and being with my family are the only things I have, but I think if you ask my wife, she would say, I'm not really good at putting the phone down and not being on it.
What are your goals with the Academy in 2023?
I think it's a very exciting year. Having been here for a year now, understanding much more about the ecosystem in the soccer world is a big motivation. For me, starting this season. I think having continuity with staff has been positive as well.
We're looking into making a couple of new hires to start being at full capacity and just building on our environment. As I mentioned earlier, we have a huge support from the club, to keep growing and developing. We still have a couple of new people coming in with extra motivation and energy which is something that I look forward to as well.
In terms of our program, I’m excited seeing all the new things that we will add to our program and all the development we will we do internally. We have a group that is working on our style of play and strengthening the alignment across our club.
We have a new tracking system that will help provide technical and physical data to all of our players. We can link that with video and be even more detailed in our support of the players’ IDP (Individual Development Plan). We are implementing a new IT-software across the club to centralize our information, player development plans, training sessions medical reports etc. Implementing this is going to take time, but we are ready as an Academy to take new steps and making our already well-run program even better. Collaborating within CFG in Manchester in these aspects, is a vital part and a huge strength to our club. Spring season is filled with a competitive games program and travel within several of our age-groups. We have our U14 & U15s in Manchester right now. Our U15s won against Aston Villa which is one of the top tier Academies in the UK.
With the NYCFC II season beginning, I am full of confidence that we will see some of our young talented players gaining even more minutes with our MLS Next Pro team and ultimately helping the Club’s goal for sportive success, with playing minutes provided by our talented Academy players.