One of my favourite things about America's National Football League is over before the season begins. Every year a team is selected and a camera crew from HBO follows them for their pre-season training camp. It shows the wonderful juxtaposition between elite athletes enjoying camp in their multi-million dollar mansions and a gaggle of journeymen and youngsters fighting for their lives for a chance to suckle on the prosperous teat of pro sports. Every year a few underdogs will make it through the cut throat process and get to play in the NFL. For the rest, some will make it onto practice squads, but many will go back to civilian life. Their dream is over.
For the saints youth teamers the stakes aren't quite so high, anyone that doesn't make it into the first team squad will find playing time on loan or in the academy. However, pre-season does give them a chance to fight for a place in the first team and as such is a fascinating time of year.
This year perhaps even more so. The club have unexpectedly had to replace their manager and in doing so Les Reed placed great emphasis on youth development. Claude Puel has a proven track record in this regard and with the rigours of European football on the horizon there may be lots of spots in the first team squad for our boys to play for.
We are a few weeks into pre-season and with the boys jetting off to Holland today it is about time we had a look at how the younger lads are prospering amongst their senior colleagues. Eleven players not regularly in the first team squad made the trip over the pond. They were: Harry Lewis, Yan Valery, Alfie Jones, Jordan Turnbull, Jack Stephens, Jake Hesketh, Josh Sims, Sam McQueen, Lloyd Isgrove, Olufela Olomola and Sam Gallagher.
And as the squad jet off to Holland it seems we have our first "cut" of the pre-season. Unfortunately for Josh Sims he seems to be the only youngster listed above that has been dropped from this week's trip. Seems a bit harsh but he'll join up with the under 21 squad as they prepare to face Fulham this time next week.
Of the ten remaining we'll start with the youngest, the player we know the least about, Yan Valery. Yan is a tall right back that looks an absolute thoroughbred on the pitch. He's the kind of player scouts can dream big on. There was a line in moneyball where Billy Beane says to his scouts "you guys just sit around talking the same old "good body" nonsense like we're selling jeans". Well Yan Valery could shift plenty of crates of Levis. His inclusion in the USA training trip was something of a surprise so lets have a look at how he got on in the match against the DC United U23s:
Comfortable on the ball, a great engine, not afraid to throw himself into a challenge. It was definitely a promising performance. Obviously there were the kind of mistakes you expect from a 17 year old and better opposition would have punished him but there is reason to believe he could be a better option than Cuco quite soon.
Yan was the only second year scholar that made the trip, there were three third year lads in the camp. Harry Lewis, Olufela Olomola and Alfie Jones. Much has been said about Alfie Jones last season, he has made great strides towards getting in the first team and his progress this summer will be interesting. Harry Lewis was one of two keepers to make the trip and will have to make an impression quickly as many think it is a position that needs bolstering via the transfer market. Added to that the under 18 squad now boasts two England youth internationals that will be breathing down his neck. Olomola is the youngest current player who has sat on the bench in the premier league. He has the physicality to play in the top league, just need to show Puel there is more to his game.
Josh Sims was the only fourth year scholar to make the trip. He is another with a point to prove. He was a permanent fixture in the under 21s last season but has stopped getting the call from England after winning the u17 euro champs a few summers ago. Not making the Dutch trip is a set back but he is still young enough that playing in the premier league 2 isn't stunting his development.
Our own shirleymush waxed lyrical about the virtues of Jake Hesketh and the task ahead of him this summer earlier in the week. He is the only 5th year in the USA as Jason McCarthy is on loan at Walsall and Jake Flannigan and Ryan Seager are sat in the treatment room.
Jordan Turnbull and Sam McQueen are 21 year olds coming into the new season. They both had spent last season on loan. Sam Mcqueen was obviously well fancied by the club a few years ago and was rewarded with a long contract that still has two years to run. Probably another year of loans for these two. Turnbull has atleast 5 centre backs above him in the depth chart and there are a bunch of younger centre backs in the academy looking to overtake him. This is the age group Luke Shaw, James Ward-Prowse and Harrison Reed graduated from and also the same age as £12m new boy Pierre-Emile so time is running out.
Also in this school year is last year's U21 captain Dominic Gape and Bevis Mugabi. Both of these have a year left on their deals but missed the USA trip to have trials at Yeovil Town. They have played in a couple of pre-season friendlies and might have earned themselves a loan in league two.
Jack Stephens is 22 and had two loan spells last seasons. A frustrating spell on Middlesbrough's bench followed by a good spell in league one with Coventry. He comes into the season with a winners medal along with Ward-Prowse and Matt Targett after they conquered all in Toulon for England U21s.
The oldest in the group is Lloyd Isgrove. The Welsh international is 23 going into the new season and really has to break through or leave the saints this year. He now has three successful loan spells under his arm and is adored by fans wherever he plays. In fact, it has become something of a tradition that Isgrove is the MVP of Southampton's preseason fixtures before being relegated from the squad by new signings.
So at 6pm today is another important test for the youngsters in their quest for first team football at Southampton. The team will face PEC Zwolle but as the squad has now expanded to 28 there will be less time for the youngsters to impress.