ESI player who joined Sporting Kansas City's Academy Program. Tommy was the first player to join the ESI Program in 2013.

ESI Alumni Spotlight - Tommy Jernigan

For any soccer player, the Major League Soccer (MLS) Academy system - like Sporting Kansas City’s - is rigorous, but for Tommy Jernigan, the skills and mindset he developed at ESI have been foundational to advancing his soccer goals.

“We are lucky to live in a place that has an excellent local academy,” Tommy said, speaking about SKC. “It was always my goal to make the academy, and I spoke with Stéphane about this goal. However, I did not try out or request to train with the Academy until Stéphane told me I was ready. He has worked with many players that go on to academies, and I trusted his decision completely. Once I was at Academy, I felt ready to face the competitive environment thanks to ESI.”

Tommy didn’t know when he would be ready for the Academy, but he understood that each day, every practice, was an opportunity to get closer to it. 

”Stéphane reinforced that it does not matter how good you are today, if you give it 100% in training and playing, anything can happen,” Tommy said. “In addition, I really enjoy playing soccer and even if I didn’t make Academy, I would have no regrets.”

Tommy, who has the distinction of playing for ESI’s first-ever team, recalls it being a great place to develop his technical skills and decision making, which prepared him well for SKC.

“I have always enjoyed the mental aspect of the game,” Tommy said in reference to the different ways he was able to develop while at ESI. “I used to play left mid or left defender. Stéphane often told me I pushed up more when I was a defender than a midfielder. I am good at distribution and have a strong left foot. My game has changed through time. My last year at ESI, I played central defender and developed both a solid physical presence and athleticism.”

Changing positions, as it turns out, helped prepare Tommy for SKC Academy. “Having played left back and midfielder, I understood how to find passes and understand positioning in a way that really helps my game as central back. I’ve always been defensively minded, but learning and playing different positions was essential to my development.”

Tommy Jernigan, SKC

Along with developing these skills, Tommy was able to travel abroad with ESI and experience soccer in other venues. 

“I went to both France and Guadeloupe twice,” he says. “Each time I experienced something different. My first trip to France we played in a tournament in Brest. The teams were from all over Europe. One of the games we played AS Roma. All the teams paraded through the town carrying their country’s flag.  We also got to tour Clairefontaine and see PSG play in the Coup de France. The beach soccer at Guadeloupe was awesome.”

When he thinks back to his time at ESI, Tommy recalls what consistently helps set it apart. “The standard of training is very high. Stéphane is very focused on the details,” he said.

Off the field Tommy feels that Stéphane also taught him other life lessons, mainly being respectful and the importances of sportsmanship. “Every training session we would greet Stéphane. At the end of every session, we would thank him,” he said.

Since leaving ESI, Tommy has appreciated Stéphane’s continued mentorship. 

“It took some getting used to SKC and Stéphane shared what it was like to be a part of an academy system,” he said. “He has come to some of my Academy games. Stéphane has a very focused instruction based not only on my abilities, but on his expectations of the player I can become. His experience as a professional player gives him a good perspective.”

Tommy maintains regular training sessions with SKC and acknowledges that balancing school and soccer can be a challenge, but he’s up to it. He knows from his experience at ESI it is important to sustain a high standard for training, and it’s a standard he thinks every ESI player relates to. 

“Stéphane is an excellent teacher and I really benefited from his experience as a former professional player,” Tommy said. “He knows what it takes to get there and demanded a high level of training and game play that helped me in all areas. ESI helped my touch, my positioning and my knowledge of the game. ESI training pushes you to think critically.”

Tommy’s next steps include working toward playing soccer professionally, taking after Matt Besler and Gerard Pique, two of his favorite players. Wherever his soccer career takes him, he appreciates that his training at ESI was foundational to helping him achieve his current - and future - goals. At the core of Tommy’s success is this ESI-learned philosophy:

“Put in the work to improve,” Tommy said. “Believe in the process.”

You can also check out our interview with Tommy's parents in our September ESI Newsletter.