International Experiences That Open Doors and Inspire with Mark Dillon

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Young players are now finding that there are routes outside of their home country that could lead them to big things. Someone that has taken this step is Mark Dillon, who left the US Soccer system behind to become one of the first American soccer players to play in Britain, at Wrexham AFC (yes, the one now co-owned by Ryan Reynolds!).

Mark joins Skye Eddy on SoccerParenting.com for High Performance Week, to educate parents on International soccer experiences - including his own soccer academy, The Talent Projekt. Launched in 2019, The Talent Projekt was set up in Dusseldorf, Germany with 20 young American players born in 2004. It helps young players develop and nurture in a foreign environment, both on and off the pitch. 

We hope you enjoy this fascinating insight for High Performance Week! Leave your thoughts and comments in the box below - the transcript to the interview can also be found further down.


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TRANSCRIPT:

Skye:
Okay. Hi everyone. Welcome back to our High Performance week. So excited to be joined here by Mark Dillon, who's the executive director of the Talentprojekt, based in Germany. I know they have programs in Germany. Mark, do you also have programs in Spain, or any other countries?

Mark:
No. No. We're just focused on Germany.

Skye:
Awesome. Well, let me start over with that. I don't like that. Sorry. I should know. I guess there's some programs that do both. And the reason I said that is because Jeff said he was just going to Spain. Oh, but maybe it's just because he's playing in a tournament there.

Mark:
Yeah. That's true.

Skye:
Jeff is a friend of mine. Okay. I'll start that over.

Mark:
Okay.

Skye:
Hi everyone. Welcome to High Performance week. So excited to be joined here today by Mark Dillon, who's the executive director for the Talentprojekt based in Germany. Today, we're going to be diving into his programs, really getting some clarity around different pathways that are available for our children who have big dreams. And kind of peel back the layers and talk about just an international experience, and what that can do to our children when it comes to their motivation, their inspiration, their joy and love of the game. Mark, thanks so much for being here today.

Mark:
My pleasure. My pleasure.

Skye:
I want to dive in just to start with, can you just kind of peel back the layers, and look at big picture of the Talent Projekt. What your aims are, what the structure is of your program, just to give parents, that maybe haven't heard of these types of programs, some perspective on the work that you're doing?

Mark:
Sure. Well, maybe I can start with the kind of the genesis of the Talent Projekt. I've been involved in the professional game in various incarnations for about 40 years in the United States, but also deeply involved in Europe. And I was involved with bringing American boys into the European system for a number of years. And some, high profile. I was involved with Landon Donovan and Bobby Wood and a few others.

But FIFA passed a law in 2009 that prohibited international transfers under the age of 18. And what this did was, it froze out American players from any opportunities to get into the European system where they could develop and really to develop their full potential. So, I created the Talent Projekt as a study abroad program. And then around it, I wrapped, extracted a Bundesliga, player development protocol system, so that it would allow talented young American boys the advantages of getting into the European system without falling out and falling into trouble with FIFA law.

Basically we're a fully immersive program where we bring players in. They have to do... They're screened for both football, soccer talent, intelligence, academic performance, character and personality, and they fully immerse for a year. They learn the language, they develop cultural agility. They understand player development protocols, how to play in a professional system in Germany, which is very, very high level. And essentially, they get an experience that can't yet be replicated in the United States. And so it's accelerated learning, accelerated growth, accelerated development. And that's our aim.

Skye:
How does it work with... I assume that some of these boys are coming from maybe an MLS academy of some sort. How does that work with their getting support from their home organization to then leave and do this for a year? I'm sure you run into issues with that.

Mark:
Yeah. Yeah. That's a very good question Skye. Some are very supportive and some are not. And, at the end of the day, the player and the parents make up their mind. Most of the time, when a player, particularly when he's below 16, hasn't signed a professional contract yet, then they say, "He can go, and he's probably going to improve a lot better, and come back to us a year, a much better player, more mature and more worldly." And so, the pushback hasn't been too severe. Some clubs have been absolutely anti Europe. "Don't let them go. We give everything you need to develop to the top level here." So, we avoid those fights.

Skye:
Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. I can imagine that there's some issues. Now I'm just curious, talking to you. What about like any issues that would come into play in the future if they were to sign, when it comes to training compensation? Do you then become... Do you hold a player pass for these players?

Mark:
We do. But we don't seek training compensation from the professional clubs. Our history is relatively short, but we've had extraordinary results in getting players into professional levels. So, we are doing something right. Our business aim is not to seek a training compensation, but to seek a backend. If a player becomes successful, then we get to share in the success fees. If it's from transfers, and that we want to of course share with our partner clubs that work with us.

Skye:
Yeah, no, I love it. Well, you mentioned results. Let's talk about them just a little bit. Share with us some of the results that you've had, whether it be placing players in Germany, or just the experiences that they've had.

Mark:
Well, a lot of it is dictated by the passport. Of course they cannot sign professionally in Europe before they're 18, which kind of sometimes limits us a little bit. Although, we're evolving towards that progressive years. But we do have players that have dual passports, and that has opened the door for some of our boys to be signed overseas. Now, Step Soghomonian, he's with Fortuna Dusseldorf and Luca Fava was our first signing. He's currently at Vfl Bochum and then David Molina went to Santos Laguna in Mexico. And then we have other players that have signed professionally in the United States. And they signed professionally prior to their 18th birthday. We have now eight players who have gone pro prior to their 18th birthday. And we're only now recruiting for our fourth cohort. Those kind of results really exceed what our expectations were when we started.

Skye:
Yeah, Absolutely. Now, were those players that... I guess I'm kind of curious if there are players that feel like they need to do something because they're not getting the support they need generally speaking. Were these players that were on this pro pathway anyway, and then you just supported them, or are you seeing this being just transformational?

Mark:
Well, it is definitely transformational because they get into an accelerated environment where they're training twice a day. And I mean, the training demands, it's a very, very intense environment, and we're basically replicated Dortmund or Bayern Munich. And we have outstanding coaches, and we have a wonderful environment where they are completely immersed in that. So, they're training twice a day. The cognitive demands on the player are as equal to the physical demands on the player. And they have a lot to learn, and it goes way beyond basic technique. And it goes into pattern recognition, and reading visual cues, and getting a firmer grasp of the language of time and space. And this has to be done in a... You got to be really intelligent and you got to be open to learning.

Mark:
You get these guys in this environment, and they may struggle for a little bit. But I will tell you, after about three months, this all starts to aggregate and you say, "Wow, where do these guys come from?" All of a sudden their body language changes, their decision making changes, their touch gets so quick. Their game gets so much faster. And this just goes to show... One of the things that we've been trying to prove is that when you give American kids the same football diet, the same environment, the same sort of place where they can develop, they close the gap on the Europeans pretty quick.

Skye:
What is that? My daughter went to the TOVO in Spain. So she had an international experience with Todd being in Spain. And I think that, for my daughter specifically, but I think that this kind of plays out the same thing. The adjustment time to get these players to the point where they're open to learning, is significant, or is definitely... There's a period of time that it takes for these players to become open to this learning and to be able to accelerate their learning. What do you think that is? Is that based on just the culture that these kids are growing up in, maybe of like high stress or... Any thoughts on that?

Mark:
Well, I think I may have used the term open to learning and I think that wasn't the right term, Skye. I think that they're all open to learning. They're all hungry. And this is one of the things that in our screening process... and our screening process is pretty extensive. We look for guys that are hungry. And so they get into that and they're eating it with a spoon. They want this training, they want the learning, they're paying attention. The game is a lot faster, and the demands are a lot higher. And so, we have to understand. I mean, understanding how young people learn is really a huge part of the way we develop our players.

Mark:
And so, we can't expect them to, even though they come out of possibly MLS club or some of the top... We got players really from some of the top clubs in the country. They're really, really technically good, but they have a different approach to the game. And so, they need to get in that environment where it's boom, boom, boom, boom. They have to be a hundred percent focused and concentrate every second. And that sometimes, that takes time. It takes time to develop that level of concentration. And of course their fitness has to improve because it is a different type of fitness. It's much, much faster, much more explosive. And that takes some time also.

Skye:
Yeah, you briefly mentioned the passports, and the need to be a dual citizen, or to have two passports or, a European passport in order to be able to sign earlier. I get that question a lot from parents who think that, "Oh, we're going to go on holiday here to England. My son, or daughter's going to try out with a couple teams." And I'm like, "Well, do you have a passport?" Like, "Are they able to do that?" Can you just answer that question once and for all, for people. Like what's required in order to sign and the ages and such?

Mark:
Yeah. Eighteen is the minimum age for signing on an international transfer. Now, if you're in the same economic zone for example, the EU and you have an EU passport, then that brings that down to 16. So, our guy at 15, no, you cannot sign at 15. At 16, you can. We have a boy with a Czech passport. We have two boys with Polish passports. We have one with a Spanish passport. They're American kids, but they're by virtue of... Christian Pulisic is a perfect example. He's an all American boy, but he had a Croatian grandfather. And because of that, he was able to apply for Croatian citizenship, which... And this is the difference in his career. He's signing at Dortmund at 16, and he's playing in the first team at 17. That would've never happened.

Skye:
Yeah. Yeah. So, for parents who are thinking about this pathway for their children, go start working on the other passports. My mom's from England, and I don't have dual citizen. Because as a girl, you have to get it before you're 13, or it's just impossible to get. And so, that was something that we never even really knew about. So, maybe just kind of food for thoughts for parents out there that are thinking.

Mark:
There's always ways to get... You can't get them in on pro contracts. But there's a lot of times when a professional club, particularly one with deep resources, will look at a player and then they might say, "Well, from the United States, he's 18 months out from being able to sign."

Mark:
But they'll find a way to, either through options, or pre contracts or things like that to get guys in, or just say, "Listen, we want to develop a relationship with you. And we really want you on your 18th birthday. So what we're going to do is we're going to invite you into the club every month. You come for two or three days and come back again and come back again and come back again. And we're just ticking the time, the clock down to your 18th birthday. We want you to be on our contract at 18." And that happened actually with Luca, one of our boys that went to Bochum and we had to just tick down until his 16th birthday, because he had an Italian passport. And so we were able to do that, but he got the Italian passport, and then the next day he was a Bochum player.

Skye:
Yeah. Amazing. That's so exciting. Some of these players are getting placed in Germany. Let's talk about the benefits for the players who maybe aren't getting placed. Like it's just maybe not playing out for them there. But I imagine that the life lessons, maybe even the interest that the American clubs now have in those players, is pretty strong.

Mark:
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. And well, everything changes with them because they develop a... This isn't a soccer camp. They're away for a year. They got to learn the language. They've got to develop cultural agility, understanding how other people in the world think and see the world. And this is really important. They have to be accountable. And so that takes a certain level of maturity. Say, "Hey, this is your performance dictates where you're going to be playing. And so don't blame the coach. Don't blame the guys next to you. You want to be on the team sheet, then pick yourself for it at training this week. And that level of accountability is really important, but it also extends to off the field, how they manage their time, because they have to stay up with their academics at a very high level.

Mark:
And if they don't, they don't train or they don't play. Because we want to make sure, and we have to be very transparent. It's hard to become a pro. It's not an easy thing. And it's even harder in Europe because there's so many good players over here. It's not impossible, but it's hard. And so, we want to make sure that when the guys are with us, they're developing skills that are going to take them beyond the game. And they have to be... They most certainly have to be qualified for a university that they would aspire towards.

Skye:
Yeah. Love it.

Mark:
They have to conduct themself well in a manner that shows leadership and maturity.

Skye:
No, I'm so grateful for the experience that my daughter had internationally in high school. She came back just such a transformed person, just from these life lessons and perspective and all of those things that we can imagine. Do you have any programming for girls?

Mark:
Not yet, but that's definitely in our strategic plans, but we don't have the infrastructure yet. And we think that could be a 2023 project.

Skye:
Awesome.

Mark:
Certainly a lot of demands. And my own daughter is the COO of the company, and head of US operations. She played four years of college and she said, "Hey dad, we should get girls going."

Skye:
Well. I mean, the German league's been around for a long time. It's starting to gain a lot more traction. And I think that there's a lot of cool opportunities there. And I know that there are a number of these types of programs that are popping up in a variety of countries. I, in fact, yesterday was talking to a parent who was trying to navigate a program for her son who's in high school, in England, because he has an English passport. But she was like, "Which program do I choose?" And I was like, "I don't know how to address this because there's so many programs." What suggestions do you have for parents that are looking into these programs for their children. Questions to ask, things to be thinking about?

Mark:
Well, first of all, I think you need to assess what the grand objective is. If they really feel that they're on a professional trajectory, and they want to stay on a... then you have to really ask some hard questions, you do. Because there's programs out there that are really, really good. They offer good coaching and a really nice life experience, but they're not designed around professional development. And so, you have to ascertain that going forward. And what is the record of bringing players up to pro levels, and who wants to play against them? Because that's also an indication of if the Bayern Munichs and the Dortmund's and the Red Bull Salzburg don't want to play you, that's a sign that's really, you're not a serious program. They want to play us.

Mark:
But I think there's a couple really important things that you touched on. One is that there is a real problem with the UK. And I love the UK, and I lived there for three years, and I had wonderful experiences there. Americans cannot get a work permit to play in England without an English passport. And so that basically that's hard. Unless they make the US national team and play something like 75% of the national team games in a specified period, there's zero chance to move up. Okay. And now this is also true for most of Europe.

Mark:
Now I'll give you a clue that's really, really important, which is why there's about 80 Americans playing in Germany right now. The United States and German government have a treaty agreement that extends over... It's actually from the employment world, the labor world. And it means that when a German company offers an American, a employment contract, they have to give them the visa. So, that's the easiest. That's just low hanging fruit for Americans to go in there. They get a contract offer, they get the visa, and there's no quotas on Americans and the company or anything else like that. They can move right in. This is the only place in Europe this exists.

Skye:
Got you. No, all of this little nuance, the backstory is really important. Well, thank you so much for your time. As we're wrapping up here, do you have any little last words of advice? You know, this High Performance week is really geared towards parents who have children who have big dreams. And so obviously you're interacting with those parents on a daily basis. Any general advice for parents who are trying to navigate this pathway with their children?

Mark:
Well, we say that these are years that, really between 14 and 17, are irretrievable. You don't get them back. And so when a player really has big dreams, and if the possibility of... Any player that's been to Europe, that has made it over in Europe will tell you, they'll tell you the exact same thing, "Get to Europe as soon as you possibly can." Because it's a difference and it will make a massive difference on where they ultimately end up. It's just such a different environment.

Skye:
Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you again so much for your time. We appreciate your voice. It's an important one, and we'll be excited to follow along with the Talent Projekt, and see all of the great things that you're doing. So thanks again for your time.

Mark:
Right. Thank you very much. Bye bye.