By one measure, Inter Miami CF’s academy just wrapped up their third season of operation. But by another, the successful 2021-22 campaign represents a first full year of competition.
After launching in 2019, the academy played in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. But when the COVID-19 pandemic began at the start of 2020, the league shuttered. Soccer ground to a halt for the time being.
Much has changed since that time. MLS NEXT Pro and MLS NEXT eventually launched, offering a platform for players just beneath the MLS level that Inter Miami joined by launching Inter Miami II. The academy has grown and now offers a pathway from Under-12 up to the pro teams.
One of those changes included the hire of Craig Dalrymple as Academy Director in June 2021. The longtime youth national team director moved from Vancouver, where he spent 10 years working with the Whitecaps academy.
"It's been a really positive year, I knew it was going to be positive, I had high expectations, I knew the talent pool was strong," he told MLSsoccer.com. "I knew the environment that the club was created was going to be conducive to accelerate a player's development and I think that's been proven this year."
Making noise at the youth level
Even though success in building a youth pathway can be difficult to quantify (outside of producing pros), Inter Miami has enjoyed a stellar 2021-22 season. There's been plenty of on-field success: a talented Under-15 squad won MLS NEXT Cup. The U-17s reached the semifinals of the Generation adidas Cup earlier in the spring. Nine players have appeared for Inter Miami II in MLS NEXT Pro action. A trio of prospects will play in the inaugural MLS NEXT All-Star Game on August 11. The two youngest age groups, U-13 and U-14, combined for a 43W-1L-3D record in MLS NEXT league play.
Several players have been called into youth national teams, representing four different countries. Santiago Morales, Tyler Austin and Justin Ellis have appeared in US Under-15 camps. Tyler Hall (U-17), Benjamin Cremashi (U-19) and Noah Allen (U-20) have also received US call-ups. Israel Boatwright and Edison Azcona have appeared with the Dominican Republic, helping the Under-20 squad qualify for next year's World Cup. Kobi Thomas played with Jamaica's U-20s and Bryan Destin with Haiti's U-20 setup.
There have been a handful of homegrown minutes played in MLS. Those have mostly been Allen earlier in the season, though Azcona has five MLS appearances across his two seasons.
"It's in the blood"
Given the diversity and talent pool in South Florida, that kind of success comes as no surprise to Dalrymple.
"There's a real passion, and the community has a real passion for players that want to play, they can't get enough football," he said. "We train them two to three hours a day, but they still want to do more. They want to go home and play some street football, do extra.
"Everybody plays. You know, when we host games, our facility, or the families come around the younger brothers and sisters play football on the sidelines and mom and dad are joining in, you can see that generally it's in the blood."
When he assumed his role as Academy Director, there was a solid foundation put in place by now-Inter II coach Darren Powell and first-team assistant Jason Kreis. But Dalrymple had plenty of room to work, and started to identify ways to tweak, build and improve. One of those was ensuring that there was a consistent message across the age groups. Coaches presented their in-game ideas and club identity to the rest of the staff, and Dalrymple took it from there.
"My job is just to tie it all together, get the consistencies and commonalities, and making sure that when a player moves from U-13 to U-14, it's not a completely different style, it's not a completely different voice, it's not a completely different way the coach wants that individual to play," he said. "There's consistent consistency. That was a big, big implementation this year, the coaches really bought into that some real good, healthy discussion on how we see the game, and how we want to keep it true to South Florida and keep it true to Inter Miami."
One of the biggest themes that emerged from those discussions was possession. But more importantly, purposeful possession.
"Typically, in South Florida, it's keeping the ball for sake of keeping the ball, but we want it to be more purposeful, a little bit more vertical, a little bit more effective to turn teams a little bit quicker than traditionally South Florida teams would want," Dalrymple explained. "We want to make sure we emphasize speed: speed of thought, speed of movement and we took opportunities or took advantage of opportunities of transition."
Just the beginning
He also acknowledged that they only just started the process of working towards a uniform, cohesive style. But one of the factors identified, outside possession, is to dominate the opponents and take the game to them.
When it comes to the pro pathway, perhaps the last signpost to pass when it comes to building a strong youth setup is the transition from amateur to a first-team contributor. Dalrymple thinks that is only a matter of time – though patience is required. Success with Inter Miami II indicates that it may not be too far off.
"In the next two or three years, I think you'll see a lot of players progress successfully into the professional game from Inter Miami," he said. "But we've had seven, maybe eight U-17s debut at the second team level. And not just token, jump on the field for five minutes, I'm talking starting games, and significant minutes. I think we're one of the youngest MLS NEXT Pro teams in the league consistently, but we're hovering around the playoff line."
Other initiatives launched in the past season (or will launch later this fall) include the addition of Under-16 and Under-19 teams. It's yet to be determined where the U16 squad will play, while the U19 team will play in the local United Premier Soccer League division. Work remains in place on coaching development, monitoring player progress and pushing some of their brightest prospects up age groups.
When it comes to the next season, Dalrymple is eager to see how these processes continue to evolve.
"We did so much in the last 12 months, I think it's the case of just continue to grow roots with all those new initiatives, let them flourish, let them take root and just grow and develop naturally, organically with the season," he said.