SANGOLQUI, Ecuador (AP) — The youth academy fields at Ecuadorian club Independiente del Valle, a rising force in South American soccer, are in a frenzy. As kids between the ages of 12 and 13 play informal games, older ones practice in short spurts under the supervision of coaches, who tell them to keep their pace and handle the ball with intelligence.
Many coaches at the club work nonstop to polish the talents of each player, and they do it in an environment of strict rules.
About 150 youngsters train at the club’s headquarters in Sangolqui, the second most populous city in the Pichincha province and nicknamed “the heart of the valley.” And it's where Ecuador’s national soccer team has found a key source of players as the team returns to the World Cup in Qatar after missing the tournament four years ago.
Among the 28 players chosen by Ecuador coach Gustavo Alfaro for two friendlies in September, 12 had been schooled in the youth divisions at the 64-year-old club that this year won the Copa Sudamericana for the second time. Independiente has been on the rise since 2007, and also played in the Copa Libertadores final in 2016.
The club places a priority on education, with many of the players finishing their high school program.
Players like Bayer Leverkusen defender Piero Hincapié, who is 20, Brighton midfielder Moisés Caicedo, 21, and Real Valladolid winger Gonzalo Plata, 22, are among them. All three were unknown to Ecuador fans until recently. All three came from Independiente del Valle's academy.
Alfaro, who was hired by Ecuador in mid-2020 after Jordi Cruyff left without ever coaching the national team in a match, has taken advantage of the star factory at Independiente del Valle. He used players from the club to start his team's renovation, regardless of the criticism he received for leaving some veterans out of his squad.
“We want a seal of quality, we want this DNA to be not only on the field, but also in our trips, hotels, in their studies,” Independiente sporting director Roberto Arroyo told The Associated Press. “In youth divisions we always want Independiente to be the best-dressed, the most punctual, the one who cleans the dressing room after use.”
When many academy players showed up for their high school graduation on Aug. 18, 13-year-old Jefferson Camacho was the master of ceremonies wearing an impeccable suit and black tie — and he handled his duties full of confidence. Many of his teammates could have handled the task, too.
“We teach kids that their results are absolutely their responsibility, there’s neither excuses nor anyone to blame for them not to be the best,” said Juan Martínez, a coach in the club’s under-19 section and a coordinator for players joining the senior team. “Our players must accept our rules and regulations. We are giving them the best foundations through values.”
When a youngster is having difficulty adapting, psychologists, teachers and coaches work together in an attempt to help him overcome his problems.
“There’s players who could not come to their high school graduation, but sent warm messages to their teammates,” said Arroyo, who added the club has a project named Reinvent ED for player education.
The project includes weekly goals and support from tutors, coaching staff and even club executives, who at least once a week watch classes and talk to teachers about their players’ development.
“Two players came to me to ask for the club's support to go to college," Arroyo said. "We are making contacts so we can support them."
Arroyo said the club's formula has worked so well that it is now selling ready-to-go 18- and 19-year-old players, and no longer only those 25 and older. In August, Independiente authorized the transfer of 18-year-old defender Joel Ordóñez to Club Brugge, and 19-year-old midfielder Anthony Valencia to Antwerp.
Independiente del Valle's graduates give Ecuador a renewed team with an average age of 25.3 years. Alfaro's challenge at the World Cup is to advance to the quarterfinals, one step beyond the team's result in 2006 at the tournament in Germany.
In Qatar, Ecuador will play in Group A with the host nation, the Netherlands and Senegal. The team will face Qatar in the opening match of the tournament on Nov. 20.
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Gonzalo Solano, The Associated Press