Inside Sacramento Republic’s historic signing of 13-year-old Da’vian Kimbrough


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There’s a reason why “If you’re good enough, you’re old enough” still adorns the Manchester United dressing room walls over 50 years after former manager Sir Matt Busby famously coined the phrase.

Thousands of miles away, at Sacramento Republic, there’s a record-breaking youngster proving that mantra: Da’vian Kimbrough.

Last week, Sacramento signed Kimbrough to a professional contract, making him the youngest senior professional soccer player in United States history. Kimbrough, a forward, was signed at 13 years, five months and 13 days old, younger than MLS record youngster Maximo Carrizo (New York City FC; 14 years old) and NWSL record holder Melanie Barcenas (San Diego Wave; 15 years, four months, 19 days) were when they signed.

Kimbrough’s from a sporting family, but soccer wasn’t prominent in his household. His father, Dom, played football growing up, and his mother, Jessica Cervantes, was a basketball player in high school. His grandfather, Roberto Cervantes, was the first to introduce him to the sport, taking him to Woodland Soccer Club in their area. 

Kimbrough joined Sacramento’s player academy as an 11-year-old in 2021, where he debuted with their U-13 team. In his first season, he scored 27 goals in 31 games while playing up a level. The following year, he scored 34 goals across 50 appearances with the Under-14s and Under-15s in MLS Next competition. 

In June, Kimbrough was a guest participant with the New York Red Bulls Academy at the Bassevelde U-13 Cup, a youth competition in Belgium that also featured youth teams from European clubs like AZ, Celtic, Club Brugge, Juventus, PSV, RB Leipzig, Anderlecht, Benfica and West Ham among the 16-team field. The Red Bulls became the first MLS club to win the competition, with Kimbrough scoring six goals on his way to winning tournament MVP.

For Todd Dunivant, Sacramento Republic’s general manager, the internal advice was to act quickly to secure his future. 

“He’s been with our academy now for two years,” says Dunivant, who had a 12-year MLS career as a player for San Jose Earthquakes, LA Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and Toronto FC. “For the last year, the academy coaches have been nagging at me and coach Mark (Briggs), saying, ‘Hey, this guy’s different. This guy’s special.’

“We rely heavily on (the academy staff’s) expertise, as they’re on the ground day in and day out. I get to see the kids on game days or if they’re promoted to first-team training, but how strong they were pushing him was unique to us. Ultimately, though, when you look at his record over the past two seasons, scoring 61 goals and playing and winning the tournament in Europe, it became clear he was a special talent.”

After returning from the tournament in Belgium, Sacramento discussed Kimbrough’s rise with his family and agreed to start involving him in first-team training. He was initially exposed to technical drills with adult players, many of whom have carved careers in MLS and at top-five European leagues. He quickly progressed to participating in full sessions as it became clear he could hold his own with professionals.

Kimbrough poses with his family and Sacramento Republic staff.

His impressive performance in front of scouts from America to Europe increased interest from elsewhere in landing his signature. The Red Bulls were one of multiple MLS academies hoping to sign Kimbrough, a source briefed on the signing process told The Athletic. However, the prospect of remaining near his hometown of Woodland, Calif. for the next stage of his development, as he keeps his options open for a potential move to Europe rather than the domestic first division, proved one of the most decisive factors in committing the next stage of his development to Sacramento for Kimbrough and his family. 

“Him being home was the whole reason for us doing this,” Dom Kimbrough, Da’vian’s dad, says. “We didn’t have to ship our kids across the country or to a different state. For him to continue to develop here allows us to keep him home and be loyal to the club that actually developed and put all this work into him. And now we get to give back to them, as well.

“They always pushed him. If he plateaued at a certain age group, they moved him up to continue to work, and then he’ll rise again and move up again. So they’re giving him opportunities. And he’s not shying away from the moment given the age which, in soccer, we’re learning if you can play, the age doesn’t matter. Of course, we’re monitoring it as parents to ensure it’s a safe environment, but we have all faith (the club) are doing that, as well.”

As part of the safeguarding process, his training schedule will be modified and monitored with the club’s sports medicine staff in consultation with his family and USL safeguarding guidelines, which lays out a variety of inappropriate conduct and best practices (see the full guidelines here). He will continue a mixed training regimen that provides him with the benefits of competing with professional players on the first team, as well as the unique development opportunities the academy provides. There will also be particular considerations for safeguarding a minor in a professional environment with adults.

One avenue the club is targeting to enrich his development is by exposing him to European soccer environments. Like several other USL Championship clubs, Sacramento Republic is connected to a European club through their owner, Kevin Nagle, who completed his takeover of English Championship side Huddersfield Town earlier this summer.

USL Championship side Orange County SC made use of their partnership with Dutch outfit Feyenoord last year, sending three youngsters to a pre-season camp where they trained with the Eredivisie club’s youth players, and the Republic is in the process of arranging plans for Kimbrough to have similar opportunities in Europe, not exclusive to Huddersfield. 

The opportunity to gain that experience was another significant consideration for Kimbrough, who aspires to play in a top-five European league.

“That is his dream,” says Dom Kimbrough. “That is his goal. We felt that if that is the dream he holds, the pathway we discussed with the club is going to put him on the path to reaching his goal of playing over in Europe and in a top-five league.”

In recent years, the pathway from the USL Championship to Europe has proved fruitful for highly-rated American prospects. Last year, Kobi Henry transferred from Orange County SC to French Ligue 1 club Stade de Reims for a league-record fee after deciding to ignore the advances of MLS clubs and sign for a USL side. 

Henry was handed his first professional start at 16 and became an important defender the following season, starting 18 matches as Orange County won the league. He was also involved in the United States youth set-up, featuring for the Under-17 and Under-20 sides, and even made the bench for the senior side in December 2021. In June, 18-year-old Josh Wynder surpassed Henry as the most expensive player to depart the USL Championship for a top-five European league, joining Portuguese giants Benfica for $1.2 million from Louisville City.

While Kimbrough does not have a European passport and will therefore have to wait until his 18th birthday to consider moving across the pond permanently, joining a USL club with connections in England and a willingness to move him opens the door to his European dream being realised without barriers. 

“As we talked to his parents, it became clear that Europe was ultimately a big goal of his, and we have more flexibility to do that, being an independent club,” Dunivant says. “We are the ones that ultimately will make that decision with him and the family. Other leagues have more layers to that, and USL is now showing that we can advance players to Europe. There have been multiple examples of that recently – big sales of players that have skipped the MLS system to go to the more free system of USL that can potentially allow for that move more seamlessly.”

Promising young players like Kimbrough have opted for USL in recent years because it can provide an easier pathway to Europe than MLS, which often commits young players to longer-term contracts and tends to seek higher transfer fees when selling players abroad than USL teams do, among other complications. 

While he has shown incredible potential, there is appropriate attention from the club and Kimbrough’s family to keep his feet firmly on the ground as his inevitable record-breaking debut appearance draws closer. The desire to protect Kimbrough from pressure is particularly pertinent for Dunivant, who was on the pitch when Freddy Adu became the youngest player in MLS history as a 14-year-old in 2006, and was dubbed ‘the next Pele’ and ‘the savior of American soccer’.

“There’s no need to heap that kind of pressure on him,” says Dunivant. “This is not somebody we’ll be leaning upon to start games when he’s 13 and a half or 14 – it’ll be when he’s ready. We will ramp it up in the right way that makes sense. The pressure (Adu was under) is not fair to anyone at that age, and we won’t put that on Da’vian. He is going to go at his pace, and it’s our job as a club to set him up for that through a development plan that continues to challenge him in the right way and puts him in positions to succeed. 

“There’s always going to be setbacks, and we have to be cognizant of all of it. He’ll be one of the guys, and after getting his feet wet, it’s about understanding that he’s there to do a job. It’s not just the young kid. If he’s good enough, he’s old enough.”

(Photos courtesy Sacramento Republic)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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