"Marconi, Sydney United, are the best games" - Jaiden Kucharski
It can be daunting for some to play against Senior Men at the top tier of New South Wales football. But for 19-year old Sydney FC NPL attacker Jaiden Kucharski, it is an environment where he thrives.
The 19-year old has been with the Sydney FC youth set up for several years and is emerging as one of the brightest talents in the NSW NPL.
After scoring a double in round one of season 2022 against the Northbridge Bulls, Front Page Football caught up with Kucharski to talk about his idols growing up, his time at Sydney FC and representing Australia on the Asian stage.
Kucharski, of Polish descent, idolises many footballers, but two strikers stand out.
"Tim Cahill was someone I looked up to growing up, like most Aussie kids who want to be footballers," Kucharski told Front Page Football.
"But as I got older, I [looked] more towards Robert Lewandowski as an idol. His striking presence, goals, and what he's done in Europe in the Champions League [are] unreal. He's someone I look up to, especially as I have Polish heritage."
Growing up, Kucharski always played in a competitive football environment in New South Wales.
"At the age of five, I just started at my local club Glenwood Redbacks," Kucharski said.
"Then I went into an academy called Football Development Australia and spent two to three years there. Then I joined the SAP West team at Football NSW.
"After that broke up, I went to Blacktown City for one year [in] U11s, and then [the] Football NSW Institute [from] U12s to U14s, and then Sydney FC for the next six years."
Kucharski's decision to join the Sydney FC youth academy was an easy one as he knew the coaching staff from his time at Football NSW.
"I knew Kelly Cross, one of the head technical directors at [the] Football NSW Institute when I was playing there," he said.
"He was later one of the TDs at Sydney FC Youth, and he asked my parents if I wanted to come along and move to Sydney FC. I got along with him very well, so I decided to follow him to Sydney FC."
The tight-knit environment at Sydney FC has primarily contributed to Kucharski donning the sky blue colours for more than five years.
"The family dynamic of Sydney FC is close," Kucharski said.
"The coaching staff are really good. When you're so close to the A-League stuff that you see training at Macquarie, it is very motivational, especially if you're 16, 17.
"You see the A-League [Men] team train next to you, you say hello to them, and it shows how close the club is, and they give you a lot of opportunities to play.
"If you play well, they will reward you by pushing you higher and playing in tougher environments."
During his time at the club, Kucharski has seen many positive changes at Sydney FC that have made everyone feel welcome no matter what age group.
"Only the U20s and first grade used to train at Macquarie," Kucharski said.
"But now that everyone is at Macquarie, we always make contact towards the younger groups such as the U13s and U14s.
"You can say hello to them, and I think that's what Sydney FC do well. We always greet everyone that we see, especially when someone is in Sydney FC gear.
"Sometimes we have the younger ones working with us where they can have a chat. When I was in the U18s, we had a presentation night, and we would write a letter to a U13s player, talk to them for a bit, and give out some tips or pointers to feel welcome at Sydney FC."
In NPL football, the transition from U18s and U20s to Senior Men was a challenge for Kucharski. But it didn't take too long for him to adjust to that environment.
"When I made my NSW NPL debut against Wollongong Wolves off the bench, I was just 16," he said.
"That was scary playing against Wollongong, who, at the time, were the top team to play against. They ended up beating us 5-0 that game.
"I only played seven minutes. It was nerve-racking at first, but a fantastic experience even though I didn't play much. These men were [in their] late 20s to early 30s with big physicality and years of experience.
"But now I've been in the first grade set up for a couple of years; the dynamic has changed. I'm now one of the players that the U13s and U14s look up to, so if I look scared, then they will get scared too.
"The more you do something, the more someone gets used to things such how to act, react, play, and then you get more confident."
Kucharski has also represented Australia in Asian international tournaments and explained the differences in youth football between Asia and Australia.
"As a kid, you always dream of representing your country," Kucharski said.
"Playing in Asia is a lot different. You're away for a few months; you're in camps with lead-ups, new boys come in, new boys come out, a lot of shuffling.
"It's very different in Asia. There are many factors you have to consider, such as climate and, in some cases, food quality [and] hydration levels. At my first tournament in Thailand, the humidity was 100%, and five minutes into a session or game, it would be pouring down rain.
"It's very eye-opening going overseas to play football. You get to look at the culture, and it's something I will never forget."
From his experience, Kucharski has understood how certain Asian countries play and the dangers of complacency against an Asian opponent.
"You have heavyweights such as Japan and South Korea, " he said.
"Japan play very quick; South Korea are physical, especially up top and in defence. Vietnam was the shock one for me. When I was 15, I didn't know beforehand how big football [was] in Vietnam, and they were a very good side.
"A lot of our players underestimated Vietnam; the same happened against Thailand, we lost 1-0 to them. Those games helped me realise just how competitive football is in those countries and how I need to adapt to other styles of play."
When talking about the youth development situation in Australia, Kucharski says that there are advantages that Asian countries have over Australia.
"I feel like the youth set-up is alright in Australia," Kucharski said.
"Unfortunately, we have a geographic problem where it is hard to get players from all across Australia in camp at once. In countries such as Vietnam or Thailand, it's not that long of a distance to meet up.
"They have regular camps as it's easier to get the players together. Therefore, they get more training sessions [and] games together and develop a core group that grows up together. They know each other's strengths and weaknesses. Whereas in Australia, we might have two camps before we go to a tournament."
Tomorrow, Sydney FC hosts NSW NPL powerhouse Marconi Stallions in round two.
For Kucharski, games against historic sides such as Marconi excite him the most.
"Last year, I came back from injury, and we played them in round one," he said.
"It was at Marconi Stadium, and I scored the winner off the bench, we won 1-0, so they won't be happy about that.
"I know a lot of their players, a lot of them grew up around Blacktown City. I always watched their first team play. They've always been that big club that have the big players every year.
"For me, playing against sides such as Marconi, [and] Sydney United, with their unique history and experienced players, are the best games. You want to play against those teams when you're young.
"We have a very strong core group of players, and I think we will challenge those sides throughout the season."
Sydney FC NPL host Marconi Stallions in round two of the NSW NPL Men's competition on Sunday night at Illiden Sports Centre, Rockdale (Kick-off at 6:45pm AEDT).
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