17-year-old Louisville native Joshua Wynder has become one of the rising stars in the American soccer landscape this season as a starter for one of the USL Championship's perennial contenders. | Photo courtesy Em-Dash Photography / Louisville City FC
It takes a lot to build a club from scratch.
Pulling together not only a team of players, but a staff that can deliver on the high expectations everyone enters an inaugural season with is an arduous task, and one that can set the platform for everything that will follow.
For James O’Connor – the current President of Louisville City FC and Racing Louisville FC, but previously LouCity’s first Head Coach and Technical Director – that was the aim as he transitioned from the playing field to the sideline and front office.
Of course, there were long-term aims for an Academy structure, but the focus was on the here-and-now, putting a winning team on the field and establishing a culture that would make that a habit year-in and year-out.
Still, that first season did provide a glimpse into what that future could hold.
“There’s a great picture of Josh Wynder, actually, as a supporter as a young boy – he’s still a young boy now,” said O’Connor recently. “I think he’s probably 10 or 11 and there’s a picture of him at Slugger with Niall McCabe, and it’s great to see that aspect. We've had a young child who's been supporting the team in the stands and now is playing outstandingly well every week.”
While LouCity is one of the younger Academy programs in the Championship compared to those at clubs like San Antonio FC or Orange County SC – it officially opened its full-time program in 2020 – the groundwork began being laid two years prior when the organization hired current Academy Director Mario Sanchez as its Director of Youth Development and Community Relations. An experienced college soccer coach and former professional player, Sanchez had previously worked at the University of Louisville during his coaching career, which offered him some knowledge of the talent base and youth soccer landscape.
At that time, the road to a fully-fledged Academy program began at the grassroots level.
“We initially just started just doing training sessions, open to the community,” said Sanchez. “I would go around different parts of Louisville and then it was free clinics, allowing every kid the opportunity. Slowly we started pulling in some of the better kids.”
Those community-based sessions allowed LouCity to put together a team that participated in the inaugural USL Academy Cup in May 2019. Among the players in that group led by Sanchez were both Elijah and Joshua Wynder, whom Sanchez had gotten to know as youngsters at University of Louisville soccer camps, as well as defenders Owen Damm and Sebastian Sanchez, and midfielder Carlos Moguel Jr.
“That was a great experience for us as a club,” said Sanchez. “Seeing these kids integrate, and I think for those kids to see the professionalism both from our club and from USL, they saw what the end game was, and that there was already kind of a pathway.
“After that event is when we started having kids train with the First Team.”
Three years later, all five of those players are now signed to professional contracts on LouCity’s First Team. It’s a testament to the collective belief within the club of its culture and methodology but also to the investment from the club’s ownership. The arrival of not only Lynn Family Stadium as the first “next-generation” soccer-specific venue in the Championship two years ago but the opening of the Lynn Family Sports Vision & Training Center has put player development at the forefront in the way O’Connor originally envisioned.
Current Louisville City FC Academy Director Mario Sanchez has led the development structure at the club in concert with First Team leadership. | Photo courtesy Louisville City FC
“That’s something that is important to us,” said O’Connor. “We want to be able to provide opportunities for not just players but the whole community, and I think if you've got children that love the sport and are keen to go on to play professionally, we wanted to be that outlet. We wanted to be able to provide a service where we could take young talented players, develop them, and then create opportunities.”
It also speaks to the cultural ideals that have helped keep LouCity not just as one of the perennial contenders for the USL Championship title each season, but as one of the best-admired clubs in the United States. Add in the relationships between Sanchez, former LouCity Head Coach John Hackworth, current LouCity Head Coach and former assistant Danny Cruz, and the speed with which LouCity has arrived in the player development space shouldn’t be a surprise.
“I think the biggest thing is from the top down, meaning from ownership, through the President, through myself, through the academy director, there’s a strong belief and youth development,” said Cruz, who played for Sanchez collegiately at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. “[We have] a strong belief in these young men starting at a younger age, giving them opportunities to hopefully one day be able to wear a Louisville City First Team jersey with their name on the back in front of their family and friends. I think we've obviously seen that through different players so far coming out of our Academy, but I would say for sure for the future as well.
“We firmly believe in this development.”
Louisville City FC's Niall McCabe and Joshua Wynder provide a link to the club's beginnings, and the potential it has brought to young players in the region, while competing alongside one another. | Photo courtesy Connor Cunningham / Louisville City FC
When Joshua Wynder received word he’d earned his first call-up to a United States youth national team in May, being called into the U-19s camp that played a pair of games in Spain against England and Norway, his reaction was understandable.
“It was amazing,” said Wynder. “That’s been my dream for a long time, to finally get the call-up was a great feeling.”
For Sanchez, the sentiment was slightly different.
“I’ll be honest with you, my first reaction was ‘well, finally’”, he said with a laugh. “I think Josh should have been there years ago. I think Josh has proven for years that he was one of the top players.”
If there’s a current rising star in not just the LouCity firmament, but that of U.S. soccer overall, it’s Josh Wynder. Having recently celebrated his 17th birthday in May, the Louisville native has been a fixture in the center of defense for the club in the USL Championship and Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup this season and has commanded the spotlight in impressive fashion.
It’s not just the physical development that saw Wynder play with elder brother Elijah – two years his senior – throughout his youth career, but the mental strength and ability to make the right decisions at the right moment that have put Wynder in a position to become the Championship’s first player to command a seven-figure transfer fee in the future.
“I think one of the biggest things is composure, and then coachability,” said Cruz of Wynder’s best attribute. “He has a good head on his shoulders. He’s composed even when under pressure. And then I think the biggest thing is his character. You know, when we look at the development of these kids as they’re coming through, they’re not just learning how to be soccer players, but they're learning how to be pros.”
The element of character has been central to the culture that O’Connor wanted to build when LouCity launched seven years ago. It stands as one of the central pillars for the club’s development philosophy now, with the standards that have been applied and enforced in the First Team being applied in the youth ranks alongside the pressing, fast-paced style that LouCity has become known for on the field.
“I think fundamentally you want them to understand the philosophical approach,” said O’Connor. “That's really important to them. Obviously, you want to develop the person as well. I think we take great pride in that. We will take players and have players with the understanding that we want them to be good players, but we need them to be great people. I think that's something we place great emphasis on off the field. We have a culture model which we go through with the players, they go through that in the academy.”
“It’s always about the team,” added Sanchez. “No player is bigger than the club. No player is bigger than the team. So that’s something that we make sure that our little kids, and our coaches who work with our little ones all the way up understand that, yeah, there might be special players, but the team's always first. So, when they go into that [First Team] locker room, there's humility to them, and they understand that no matter what, it’s not who you are, that they’re going to be humble and put the team first.”
That’s reflected in Wynder’s demeanor. For a young player, it could be easy to get caught up in the excitement of what could be after the success he’s achieved this season, and the adulation on social media that’s now present whenever an exciting new young player appears.
Yes, he’s thought about what it might mean to play for the senior United States Men’s National Team, and about doing so with former LouCity teammate Jonathan Gomez – “I for sure thought about that before, how cool that would be if that would happen,” he said. “Unlikely, but you never know,” – but he also knows how much still needs to be done to get to that point.
Gomez, though, served as the ideal teammate for someone with the sort of dreams Wynder has. The 2021 Championship Young Player of the Year, now part of La Liga’s Real Sociedad after his transfer in January, showed the other young players at LouCity what was possible, while also helping try to push their games forward as well.
“It was amazing,” said Wynder of Gomez’s influence. “He was here doing his job, playing amazing, and also helping me a lot. We’re best friends, he was pushing me to come in on days off and keep training and keep working. And now I think that’s why I am where I am.”
Wynder is now that player for the next generation of LouCity Academy players, providing the inspiration and example for them to follow in his footsteps. As a native son, he’s also delivering a massive amount of pride for the fans in the stands, as Wynder once was himself.
“It's showing the kids that are currently in our academy, that it's real,” said Cruz. “That if they put in the work every single day, that opportunities are going to come, and that they have to take those opportunities when they do come. When they see the 17-year-old kid – or 16 at the start of this year – playing real, meaningful games that matter week-in and week-out, it’s something tangible. Some of those kids are not far off his age, right? So, I think it's massive from that standpoint.
“From a community standpoint, one of the biggest reasons this academy was started was to provide another opportunity for kids in this city, or state. When I come to work early in the morning, and I leave late in the evening, and I see hundreds of kids on our turf field. I think it speaks volumes to what the club is trying to do.”
What Louisville City has accomplished already through its development platform has added to the rapidly growing pathways that are now appearing elsewhere in the USL Championship. Including Gomez, five players this year have been transferred to European clubs directly from USL Championship clubs, with Wynder’s United States YNT teammate Kobi Henry the most recent to Ligue 1 club Stade de Reims in France.
The potential for young players to create that opportunity via the USL Championship is one that Cruz welcomes. A former United States U-20 international who made more than 200 professional appearances in his playing career, Cruz believes the future for players coming up through the Championship on the way to overseas and international success is one primed to accelerate rapidly.
“I’m really thankful to be a part of an organization like this in a league that is providing more opportunity,” said Cruz. “You know, I think that there were times when it was only Major League Soccer where these moves that you were seeing were happening. The reality is, as our league continues to grow and players continue to develop through the academy and into the First Team, I think over the next three-to-five years, you’re going to see it skyrocket.
“My hope is that the Kobi’s, the Gallegos’, the Gomez’s – and the Wynders’, eventually – go there and they perform, and the reason they’re able to do that is because they came from a league where they were challenged. This is a challenging league where they’ve learned how to become good pros.”
Louisville City FC's Joshua Wynder (4) captained the United States U-19s as it took a 2-1 victory against England in Marbella, Spain on June 6. | Photo courtesy U.S. Soccer
The progress isn’t just happening in Louisville. Clubs like Indy Eleven, New Mexico United, and Phoenix Rising FC – which will face LouCity at Lynn Family Stadium in the USL Summer Showcase next Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET | ESPN2 | Tickets) – have in the past two years made first professional signings out of their development platforms. Beyond that, the number of USL Academy players not only being incorporated into training at independent USL Championship clubs but seeing First Team action is continuing to rise.
Sanchez shares the view of Cruz as to the potential this broader investment in player development can have not only on the Championship, but the visibility for players with aspirations of competing at higher levels or on the international stage. Both believe Wynder’s call-up to the U.S. YNT may not have happened without LouCity’s presence, and that previously untapped regions of the country can now offer similar platforms through USL Championship clubs.
“I think of another market like El Paso,” said Sanchez. “The younger ages are not represented on youth national teams. I would like to think that because of Josh and who he is, eventually he would have got the opportunity but for sure, I think with everything that's been created here – Josh has to get the credit for taking advantage of it – he has a platform now that people can’t deny him.
“No matter who you are, whether it’s U.S. Soccer, or potentially clubs around the world, now there's a platform for someone like Josh and other kids in the future. Hopefully, it’s kids like Carlos [Moguel Jr.] and people like Sebastian [Sanchez] and Owen Damm, all these kids that we've signed. Now they have a platform that they continue to run with and that helps propel them, whether it’s to Europe or other national teams.”
As far as the club has come in under a decade, what’s inarguable is midway through the club’s eighth season in the Championship, and two years into the introduction of the LouCity Academy, Louisville City FC seems set for an even brighter future than the history the club has already built.
“It’s been an amazing adventure,” said Sanchez. “I have to give the owners and [former President] Brad Estes a lot of credit for having the vision and of course for providing the support, both financially and I guess you could say emotionally to invest as they have into the academy and the future of LouCity and Racing and youth soccer in the community. It’s gone extremely quick, but I’m extremely proud of how much we’ve accomplished in a short time.”