KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Luis Pacheco watched the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final with mixed emotions.
Pacheco was born in Mexico and moved to Michigan in 1997 when he was 9 years old. His dad worked for Chrysler, and he attended Rochester High School.
Pacheco later played for the University of Louisville men’s soccer team, becoming a youth coach in the Louisville area and volunteer assistant for the Cardinals before joining the Sporting Kansas City Academy as the U-13 coach in August 2017.
But he’s never forgotten his roots.
“At the end of the day, Mexico-U.S., I’m always going to root for Mexico,” said Pacheco, who is originally from Mexico City. “However, as you start seeing some of these kids go through the system and actually be part of the national team for the U.S., you can’t help but to root for them. You want them to do well.”
That’s what gave Pacheco pause when former Sporting KC star midfielder Gianluca Busio subbed on for the U.S. men’s national team during a 1-0 win against Mexico in the Gold Cup final.
Busio joined SKC’s Academy in 2016 and signed as a Homegrown Player with the club in August 2017, shortly after Pacheco’s arrival.
“When he came on to play against Mexico and the Gold Cup, it was a bittersweet feeling," Pacheco said, "but I was extremely happy for him. There are conflicts. At the end of the day, because of my origins, I’m always going to have a heart for Mexico.”
Through his job with Sporting KC, Pacheco helps fill a critical role in the growth of U.S. soccer – growth he’s seen firsthand and marvels at today.
“When I was growing up, I remember at a top club in Michigan, I was training two days a week,” Pacheco said. “That training session was, 'Go out there and you’re gonna play this other team,' and that was your training session.”
Things are vastly different with the Sporting KC Academy, which takes a holistic approach to intensive player development.
“Now, we have a curriculum. We have a nutritionist that we can discuss with. We have a psychologist that we can have the kids potentially talk to — we have a very clear idea as to how we want to make sure that these kids develop, not only as people but also as soccer players,” Pacheco said. “For us to be able to have a hand on these players on a consistent basis, and the players to want to be involved and really have this dream and see it as a possibility, these kids are developing much faster than my generation did in this country.”
Ultimately, Peter Vermes, Sporting KC manager and sporting director, said he believes the Academy will serve as “the lifeblood of our club.”
“The idea is that you have this pro player pathway — it’s the Academy, your second team and your first team,” Vermes said. “You’re going to develop players within your model of play, also with the positional characteristics that you’re looking for, so that one day they can come and contribute to the first team. There are lots of different ways they can contribute. They can be a depth guy, they can be a starter, they could wind up being a really big impact player.”
Pacheco’s job is to help those players reach such heights.
Busio is one example. Sporting KC sent Busio to Venezia FC in Italy’s top league, Serie A, for a club-record $6.5-million transfer fee before incentives in early August.
Also last month, another former Sporting KC Academy player, forward Daniel Salloi, became the club’s first to walk the pro player pathway all the way to the MLS All-Star Game, where he buried a penalty kick to help the MLS side top a team of all-stars from Mexico’s Liga MX.
“I think it’s good with Sporting that you kind of match the systems — the Academy, the B team and the first team — so you adapt and you get to know the system and how it works ...,” Salloi said. “Obviously, it’s a big difference when you step up, but it’s a good introduction.”
Vermes sees that vertical integration as key to creating a pipeline of players for Sporting KC and counts on Pacheco and others on the Academy staff to fulfill his vision.
“Whether it’s culture, style of play, model of play — everything aligns from our U-12s all the way through the senior team …,” Pacheco said. “Everything that we work towards is making sure that we prepare the players for the first team here. In terms of the vision and how we align that, we do that in different ways. We already have the model based on what they do with the first team. We already have the culture based on what they do with the first team. Our job is to continue that and identify how to teach that to the kids in our age group.”
In part, through his efforts, Pacheco sees a bright future in the U.S. for soccer.
“We’re still in an early stage," Pacheco said. "However, in this country, because of everything that you have available for it, that movement is going to be very fast and it’s going to continue to be very fast ... Just like with the development of players, that’s also in the growing stage in terms of the support from fans for MLS teams or the national team. It’s also part generational. It’s going to get stronger and stronger, but it’s going to move fast.”