Lewiston’s Seamus O’Keefe joining MLS youth academy | Local Sports

Like one extremely famous rust belt prodigy, Seamus O’Keefe is taking his talents to the Sunshine State.

OK, O’Keefe isn’t LeBron James. He won’t be gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated anytime soon. But the 13-year-old Lewiston native is taking a major step as an amateur soccer player, earning a spot in the Orlando City Soccer Club’s youth academy.

Youth academies, for those who have not yet fallen for the beautiful game, are exactly what they sound like: specialized schools, owned and operated by professional franchises, where soccer is part of the coursework — think the Los Angeles Lakers running a prep school. Most franchises, including Orlando City, cover almost all of the costs, investing in young players with the hope of reaping rewards down the road, either on the pitch or financially.

Ideally, a player works his way up through the academy and turns into a homegrown star. If a player catches the eye of a European team before signing professionally with his academy club, the club gets a percentage of future transfer fees under FIFA regulations.

Because players retain amateur status, they’re still eligible to play collegiately, should they so choose.

Orlando City is an MLS franchise, and its youth teams compete in MLS Next, widely considered the top youth circuit in the country.

“It’s a pretty big opportunity because he’s connected to a professional team and there’s a direct pipeline from where he’s going to being a professional soccer player,” said Mike Skelton, an assistant coach with the Niagara University women’s team and an academy coach at WNY Flash who helped Seamus prepare for his tryout with Orlando City.

“If you look in Europe, all the teams that are big that everyone’s heard of, Manchester City, Real Madrid, Barcelona, they all have their own academies. A lot of those players come through, and some of them make the first team, but a lot of them, even if they don’t, they end up playing professionally at some level.”

That’s the goal for Seamus, a sixth-grader at St. Peter’s in Lewiston. The youngest of 10 — a super-sized Brady Bunch created when a father of five and a mother of four married and decided to have one more child — Seamus has been kicking a soccer ball since he was 2 years old, often against siblings as many as 12 years older.

Sports were part of everyday life. Seamus’ father, 52-year-old Tim O’Keefe, was a running back at Baldwin Wallace University, a Division III program that was top 10 in the nation during his time there in the 1980s. His second-oldest brother, 23-year-old Colin, came up through Canisius High School and Buffalo State College and just finished a professional season in Michigan with the Muskegon Risers of the Major Arena Soccer League 2. He’s headed to Greece this month to train and continue to chase a professional career.

Seamus was “taught a lot” by his family members, along with a cadre of coaches. At Flash, he works with U13 coach and boys director of coaching Regan Steele and U14 coach and Boys Elite Club National League director Jonny Black. Along with Skelton, he also works with a private strength and conditioning coach (Niagara Falls’ Rick Primerano), performance coach (Amherst’s John Opfer) and track coach (Buffalo’s Jalen Law).

Seamus has put those lessons to work. He’s been dominant this season for his travel club, WNY Flash’s U13 group, which competes in the ECNL. The team is 22-4-2 — 6-1-1 in the Midwest Conference — and Seamus has 24 goals and three assists.

“He’s very technical, picks up things very quickly,” Skelton said. “I’ll give him one aspect of something to change, and within two or three reps he’s able to pick up up. Technically he’s very good and I think the coachability is also a pretty big factor.” 

The executive director of coaching as the Flash Academy, Eric Dade, took notice. Dade, a former pro in Europe and MLS and a U.S. talent scout, offered to make a phone call should the O’Keefes decide to pursue a higher level for Seamus.

“He said ‘Let me know where you want to go,'” recalled Tim O’Keefe, who became an oral surgeon following his playing days, studying at the University of Miami. “I went to school in Miami, so we called Orlando.”

Orlando wasn’t the only call. Seamus also tried out for the prestigious IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, and FC Barcelona’s academy in Arizona. Seamus was accepted to all three, and the O’Keefes decided the familiar territory and direct professional path made Orlando the best fit.

“He’s been working on this really hard for years, every year he’s just been getting better,” Tim said. “And now this is about the highest level for a kid in the states.”

Seamus and his parents make the move to Florida on July 1. In August, he’ll start practicing with the academy’s U15 team while playing with the U14s.

Seamus admitted to being a bit anxious about the move, but not nearly as much as he is excited.

“It’s new friends, a new opportunity,” he said. “New everything.”

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