The soccer pitch at Bellarmine Prep was still — most of its usual occupants traveled to Ireland earlier in the week for a cultural exchange tour. Connor Thompson sat in the corner on the bleachers soaking it in.
“There’s nothing like playing high school soccer,” the senior defender said. “It’s just a perfect environment being here, there’s almost no other place I’d rather be.
“I’m just really grateful for the opportunity to be back on this field.”
Thompson rejoined the Lions this season after spending his junior year on a field about 25 miles north — Starfire Sports in Tukwila. Thompson played for the Sounders Academy U16 squad. During the 2013-14 season, he played in 22 of the 30 regular-season games — starting 20 — as the team finished third in the Northwest Division of the Western Conference at 13-5-9.
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“We never stood in his way,” Bellarmine Prep coach Joe Waters said. “We encouraged it, and we said, if it doesn’t work out, we’re always here.”
Last summer, when a second season with the Academy didn’t pan out, Thompson welcomed the invitation to return.
“I just had to adjust, I had to get used to it again,” he said. “I was so engaged in the Academy that it’s hard to go back. … Everything is just different.”
TASTE OF BIG TIME
Thompson has played club soccer since fourth grade — including three years at Harbor FC and five with Washington Premier FC — but the Sounders Academy was different.
He trekked to Tukwila four times a week for two-hour training sessions, and traveled as far as Florida for matches.
“If we were away, we were flying,” Thompson said. “It was challenging balancing homework and schoolwork and friendships.”
The Academy mimics a professional organization — travel and food are compensated, athletic trainers assist players, and video is used to measure performance. Squads typically carry between 18 and 20 players, and the competition is cutthroat.
Academy technical director Marc Nicholls estimated player turnover at 10 to 15 percent per season.
“There are a number of factors,” Nicholls said. “One is, are they going to play? You might be a very talented player, but let’s say, for example, we have several players at your position and we see you’re lagging behind these other players, and not getting time. It’s better for your development to train elsewhere.”
Thompson heard a similar story in July. An older player was already in line at centerback for the U18 squad, and younger talent cycled in applying more pressure.
“It was either that I would kind of sit and have to battle for some time, or go back to my old team,” Thompson said. “My coach explained, ‘You know, it might be better if you go back to your club team and get your senior season over.’ ”
Thompson said it was a hard decision to understand and accept.
“It’s a great disappointment to suffer when your dream for that kind of comes to an end,” said Waters, who played professionally in England and the U.S. for 23 years, including for the Tacoma Stars of the Major Indoor Soccer League from 1984-92. “It’s very disheartening as a player, and it’s very hard to recover from.”
Waters, and Thompson’s WPFC team, immediately expressed interest in his return. The commitment from his coaches to his continuing development helped ease the sting.
“I just think about how it was such a great, perfect opportunity that didn’t work out,” Thompson said. “When I knew I wasn’t going to be with (the Academy) again, I knew I had to recover and just be good for my other teams.”
BACK AT BELLARMINE
Thompson didn’t reel much. He was back competing with WPFC by September, and spoke to Waters about returning for his senior season at Bellarmine.
“I told him during the school year that I’d be coming back, but I think he already knew,” Thompson said. “All he told me was that he was excited and we had a lot of work to do.”
Thompson was appointed a captain, based on varsity experience his freshman and sophomore seasons. He is the only player on the Lions squad who competed at state in 2012 when Bellarmine took third. The Lions haven’t reached the tournament since.
“His experience as we go through this is going to be massive,” Waters said. “And how he decides to express that is going to be absolutely critical for us as a team.”
The Lions are off to a 3-0-1 start in the 4A Narrows League, including a 2-1 win against league favorite Gig Harbor on March 26. Thompson has had an impact, recording three goals. He often calls out advice and adjustments to his teammates.
“We’re expecting big things from him to lead these boys and teach them what it is to be a successful soccer player,” Waters said.
Thompson, who is uncommitted to a college program, is focused on leaving everything on the pitch, knowing there’s a possibility this season could be his last.
“I’ve always been taught to give whatever you have, never to regret what you could have done,” he said. “So I’m just going to soak it in.”