Francis Jacobs is not, declares Oliver Wyss, another Freddy Adu, and whatever pitfalls befell the most celebrated of young American teens to go pro in soccer do not await the Laguna Beach 14-year-old who just signed a professional deal with Orange County Soccer Club.
Jacobs might be a generation, or more, younger than his new teammates, but Wyss — the sporting president and general manager of the Irvine-based club in the second-tier United Soccer League Championship — has no doubts that he’s ready to make this move.
Whether he’s ready to play in a pro game, against men more than twice his age, is another matter altogether. Jacobs is eligible to step onto the field when OCSC plays the Las Vegas Lights on Saturday night at Great Park’s Championship Stadium, but don’t expect that to happen.
“We feel very strongly that Francis will have a long professional career in front of him, and we don’t want to be the end piece,” said Wyss, a former Swiss pro who did not disclose the amount or length of Jacobs’ contract. “We want to be the first piece, and then move him on [to a bigger club in a bigger league] at the right time.
“It’s time now for him to prove he can make our 18 [-man game-day roster] and ultimately represent our first team in official games. But there’s no time set for that. We let him grow, and it’s going to be up to him to prove when he’s ready.”
If that’s not until next year or the year after that, no problem. The aim is to take an immensely skilled youngster, embed him in an environment designed to accelerate his growth, and let the development process take its time. That’s how it’s done around the world and increasingly in the modern American game.
Jacobs, whose deal was announced Monday, is the youngest player to sign for a professional U.S. club, at 14 years, 4 months, 29 days when he put pen to paper on July 26. That’s about two weeks younger than Adu, who has spent much of his career out of the spotlight in lower-tier leagues around the world, was when he signed with D.C. United in November 2003.
Adu was thrust into a starring role, a novelty used to draw attention to Major League Soccer when its existence was far from certain. Too many responsibilities and too much pressure was hoisted onto his shoulders, and he’s somewhat of a cautionary tale in the game.
“This is not the story for Francis,” said Wyss, a longtime friend of the Jacobs family who watched the boy develop with the Irvine Strikers youth club and invited him to train with OCSC’s first team in May. “For Francis, we have a very, very talented player — a rare talent — who will be given time to develop.”
That was crucial to the process. Jacobs, a 5-foot-11 central midfielder who is good on the ball and “loves passing,” isn’t the first youngster to sign with OCSC — starting goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes was 15 when he joined the club last year — and Jeff and Cindy Jacobs, Francis’ parents, trust the plan Wyss and head coach Braeden Cloutier have devised.
“What really seemed perfect was that he can live at home and train 15 minutes away and still be surrounded with friends and trying to keep his childhood intact as much as possible ...,” Jeff Jacobs said. “It’s been an incredible experience, from May until now. He’s more invested and prospering and developing. That part’s the amazing part for me.
“Everything else — playing in games — I don’t think about. There’s no expectations, there’s zero pressure, just get out there and train, do your best, get in school, have friends, have a life, enjoy.”
Jacobs is getting personal attention from talent manager Didier Crettenand and will continue to see action with the Irvine Strikers. The USL is starting a league for its clubs’ youth academies next year.
“This is not the story for Francis. For Francis, we have a very, very talented player — a rare talent — who will be given time to develop.”
“It’s really exciting,” said Jacobs, who will attend a private high school and receive funding for college. “I was always playing up an age or two [in club soccer], and playing against an older age group really helped a lot. ... I feel I’m really prepared. What an exciting adventure.”
Development of young talent has become far more sophisticated in North America since Adu’s time. Canadian teen Alphonso Davies, now playing for Bayern Munich, was starring for the Vancouver Whitecaps at 15. Efrain Alvarez, who just turned 16, is a regular for the Galaxy after turning pro last year. Not every young signing turns out as hoped: Jack McBean, who signed with the Galaxy in 2011 during his junior year at Corona del Mar High, retired last year after just 59 MLS games in eight seasons.
“There’s no guarantees,” Jeff Jacobs noted. “I mean, this is something that, yes, has been thought out, but the best-made plans of mice and men often go astray. My wife and I wouldn’t have decided to do this but for the fact that we’ve been watching all summer long, plus Oliver and Braeden know what they’re doing and have a plan for him. So it seemed like the right thing to do, for someone who is as passionate as Francis is about soccer.”
Cloutier, a former MLS forward who guided OCSC to the USL’s Western Conference championship last year, is most impressed by Jacobs’ “thought process.”
“He thinks the game really fast, he’s good quality on the ball, and he makes the right decisions ...,” Cloutier said. “Right away, the players realized this kid’s got something, you know? He’s getting into duels now with some of the strongest players on our team, and he’s held his own. He doesn’t lose the ball. If he can hold onto the ball and shield the ball and knock a forward off the ball, that’s a big part of the game right there.”
Jacobs has plenty to work on — his passing range, ability to read tactical situations and be in the right spots, the technical side of defending, bettering his weaker left foot, becoming physically stronger — and Cloutier believes he’ll get there.
“He’s ambitious, he’s coachable, and he’s really good on the ball,” Cloutier said. “I think that’s a really good start for a young player.”
Support our sports coverage by becoming a digital subscriber.