When the Portland Timbers hosted Mexican club Morelia on July 3, a couple of the Timbers players were unknown to most in the audience at Jeld-Wen Field.
But fans from Clark County might have recognized them.
Foster Langsdorf of Vancouver played the second half for the Timbers. Anthony Macchione of Camas played 20 minutes. At one point, Macchione beat two Morelia players down the line and sent a cross into the 18-yard box.
“That was a great experience,” Macchione said.
Another highlight came on Sept. 8, when Macchione scored the goal — with an assist from fellow Camas High student Jacob Kempf — to earn the Timbers a 1-1 draw in a MLS Reserve League game against Real Salt Lake.
Such opportunities are only a dream for most teenage American soccer players. But for players in the Timbers Youth Academy — which includes a heavy presence of players from Southwest Washington – a taste of professional soccer is possible.
“It’s really amazing,” Langsdorf said. “Out there in front of thousands of players, there is a little bit of pressure. But it’s also just fun. You don’t have a lot to lose. You go out and try to complete your first pass.”
In addition to playing with the Timbers first-team in that exhibition match, Macchione and Langsdorf are among the high school students from Clark County who have played for the Timbers in MLS Reserve League matches. Niko De Vera and Jacob Kempf also have seen action with the Timbers Reserves.
Macchione and De Vera are seniors at Camas High School. Kempf is entering his junior year at Camas. Langsdorf is a Mountain View senior who will play college soccer at Stanford.
Mike Smith, head coach of the Timbers Academy, said that the opportunity to play in Reserve games adds incentive for academy players during training. Smith said the number of Clark County players getting that opportunity is “a great indicator of what a hotbed of soccer it is.”
Playing with and against professionals can be intimidating.
“In my first (reserve) game, a ball got played to me and I waited and I didn’t get my body positioned right,” said Macchione, who first played with the Timbers Reserves as a 16-year-old. “One of the defenders from the Sounders absolutely went through me. At that moment I realized this isn’t youth soccer anymore. This is a higher level.”
Getting the Timbers and soccer in America to a higher level is the reason for the academy program. Timbers head coach Caleb Porter views the youth academy as a key piece of the club.
“The value for me is that hopefully we get a player that’s good enough to make the first team eventually,” Porter said. “We need to keep tabs on our youngsters. The ones who are rising to the top we need to give an opportunity to taste first-team football, to taste professional soccer.”
For high school kids, it’s a sweet — if eye-opening — opportunity.
“You can’t play soft out there,” Kempf said. “You can’t spend too much time on the ball or you get it stripped.”
De Vera, a senior at Camas, said after his Reserve League debut in August that it took about five minutes for the adrenaline and panic to subside.
“This just makes me want to work harder so I can get called up for more reserve league and first team games,” DeVera said.
Growing up near Kalamazoo, Mich., Porter said he was 12 years old when he started traveling two hours to Detroit several times each week to play for an elite youth club. He also played in the Olympic Development Program, but didn’t experience pro soccer until he was drafted out of Indiana by the San Jose Earthquakes.
“That’s a problem in this country, because most kids in other countries, they taste professional soccer at a much earlier age,” Porter said. “They rub elbows with professional players, they see them every week, there is a connection there.”
Macchione said training alongside professionals exposes young players to an intensity they don’t see even at the structured academy practices.
“At the academy level, we take it serious, but we’re not really playing for our job,” Macchione said.
“You also feel pressure from our standpoint, because you’re really hungry to get in their position. As an academy player your goal is to play professional football, so as an academy kid every time you’re our on the field you’re really pushing for that goal.”
Langsdorf, who learned last week that he was accepted to Stanford, credits his time in the Timbers Academy for the opportunity to play college soccer in the Pac-12 Conference. The Timbers under-16 and under-18 youth teams play top competition in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy League. That provides exposure to college coaches, Langsdorf said, and competing in practice to earn playing time improved his training habits.
The academy program became a year-round commitment two years ago, which means youth academy players cannot play high school soccer.
Langsdorf said losing the chance to play with friends at Mountain View was a difficult choice.
“But I know that if I want to make it to the next level, the academy is the best option,” Langsdorf said.
Local players: Nine players from Clark County are full-time members of Timbers Youth Academy teams for the 2013-14 season.
• Members of the under-18 team are Niko De Vera, Washougal (Camas HS); Jacob Kempf, Camas; Foster Langsdorf, Vancouver (Mountain View); Anthony Macchione, Camas; Matthew Palodichuk, Battle Ground (Camas HS); Peter Prescott, Vancouver (Mountain View); Isaac Strever, Vancouver (Mountain View)
• Members of the under-16 team are Carlos Cabrera and Carlos Rodriguez-Diaz of Vancouver.
• Additionally, four Clark County players are in the program as developmental players, meaning they train but are not guaranteed time in games. They are: Collin Partee, Ahmon Afenegus, Grant Alcorn, and Alexander Firl.