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When Michael Seaton moved to Prince George's County from Jamaica at age 7, he went from the soccer-crazed Caribbean, where every kid played in the streets, to a country just beginning to appreciate the sport. But with a little prodding from his mom, he kept playing, and in January, the lanky teenager signed as a professional player with D.C. United. At age 16, he's the first Major League Soccer player born after the league was established in 1996.
Until last month, Seaton was a junior at Central High School in Capitol Heights, Md.
"People around here, in my area, they like basketball and football," says Seaton. "When they hear soccer, they're iffy about it. But when you put pro next to it, they're like, "Oh, pro, you're a professional soccer player."
Going pro at a young age
Seaton is about the same age as the team he now plays for — both were born in 1996. He came to the United States at just the right time, as the game's popularity started to take off. But he says, it's a bit strange being surrounded by players twice his age.
"I don't relate to them a lot, because they talk about bills, kids and housing and stuff," he says. "But you actually learn a lot from them. They give me advice, they pick on me."
He stopped going to high school in January, and now is working with a tutor toward his GED.
He's so focused on soccer right now, he hasn't really thought about what comes after that, or a plan B.
He set his sights on a career in professional soccer a couple of years ago, he says, when he started playing with the D.C. United Academy, which trains local youth.
"Michael was one of those kids, he came in, we weren't really sure about him," says Tom Torres, who coached Seaton in the academy. "He was a big kid, he was a fast kid, that wasn't an issue. But as he started to try to do things and make his technique better, and figure out, 'Hey, I'm not going to be able to do it just with my speed,' you started to see he had potential to be something really special."
Seaton says as academy coaches pushed him, he started to see that as a sign of their plans for his future.
"They kept pushing me," he says. "Even when I mess up, when I want to give up on the field, they push me. Me and my mom would sit down in the car, and I tell my mom, 'Oh, they're shouting at me, doing this and that.' And my mom thought about it and she actually said, 'They're trying to make you go pro, I know that for a fact, because they're not pushing other kids as much as they're pushing you.'"
Soccer in the States growing, but still lags behind the world
The United States is still way behind the rest of the world, when it comes to cultivating talented young soccer players, says Sonny Silooy, director of the D.C. United Academy. Silooy grew up in the Netherlands, where he had a long career in professional soccer.
"When I was growing up with soccer, there was no computers, there was no cell phones, no media," says Silooy. "The only one thing was my ball, and I play soccer every day. That was the culture."
Major League Soccer is relatively new in the States, but soccer academies are even newer, established in the past decade or so. In Europe, generations of kids have been training at league academies.
"At the moment, what I see, nobody is ready for Europe, in youth soccer," says D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen. He says training more young homegrown players like Seaton is what will take soccer in the U.S. to the next level.
"We need to get up to speed with the rest of the world, and develop our young talent at an earlier age, and put them in environments to succeed at an earlier age," he says.
Meanwhile, Michael Seaton says he's trying to stay humble, and not let going pro go to his head.
[Music: "I Get a Kick Out Of You" by Charlie Parker Quintet from Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve]