By Jae Groll
In it’s short time as an MLS franchise Real Salt Lake has already made it’s mark in the youth development arena. With youth development facilities in both Salt Lake City and Florida, RSL have been working to create a premier youth development system to bolster their already top class franchise.
The Arizona academy has only been operational for 3 years but has already had a dramatic impact on youth soccer nationally. In 2008, the RSL U-17 team took the SUM Cup by storm winning the tournament in a PK shootout against D.C. United. This win brought with it automatic entry into both the Dallas Cup for the next year and the prestigious Trofeo Quixote. The Trofeo Quixote is an elite tournament boasting youth teams from some of the most prestigious clubs in the world. Real Madrid C.de’F., FC Barcelona, Sao Paulo FC, Cruz Azul, and Torino FC just to name a few. It considered by most to be the unofficial world youth club championships. In 2009 the RSL U-17 team again looked strong by taking 3rd in the SUM cup.
Fast forward to 2010. With a pool of over 200 organizations, all fighting to get official status, the RSL academy in Casa Grande, Arizona was one of only three chosen to wear the mantle of Official U.S. Soccer Development Academy.
The Casa Grande complex is a complete soccer academy. Spanning the breadth of 45 acres it boasts training facilities, playing pitches and housing for players. According to RSL General Manager Garth Lagerwey, the complex will also soon have it’s own high school to keep the prospects’ traditional education on par with the extensive soccer education that they will be receiving.
Headed by former MLS player Greg Vanney the Casa Grande academy will be fully staffed by coaches and trainers hand picked by Vanney. Lagerwey notes that Vanney has been instrumental in taking the RSL academy to where it is today. “He wears many hats.” says Lagerwey about Vanney. Vanney also helps Claudio Renya who is US Soccer Youth Technical Director to identify young talent across the nation and bring them into the US academy program.
Why Arizona and not Utah where the team is located? Obviously population numbers are a large part of the decision however, not the sole reason. One of the biggest reasons is that many players from Arizona have been getting scooped up by Mexican teams and left the country to continue their soccer careers. This was leaving the US teams to fight for the scraps left over from the wealth of talent in the Arizona pool of players. “Teams like Chivas Guadalajara sign 50 youth players at a time” Said Lagerwey, and it has to be hard for US organizations to compete with that. The Casa Grande academy should go a long way in keeping those organic players here in the states.
Lagerwey has stated in the past that the next step is to bring a top notch academy to Utah to bolster the already strong facility in Florida. Working together, with the ability to draw from Florida, the east coast, Arizona, Utah and the majority of the western states, this academy has the potential to be the most productive academy in the country. Playing in the ultra competitive So-Cal Division can do nothing but help, as the players will be facing some of the toughest competition in the US.
One of the biggest knocks on US youth development has been that it hasn’t always been about actual development. In a country obsessed with winners, sometimes the results of essentially meaningless matches have come before the development of the players, both technically and mentally. Lagerwey and Vanney hope to change this. “We absolutely have to move to a youth system that emphasizes development over results.” stated Lagerwey. If there is one thing that Lagerwey is good at, it is changing seemingly cemented dogmas and outdated practices. Lagerwey insists that the academy will develop the players to play the same ball control and technical style that RSL themselves play.
Lagerwey joined RSL as GM in 2007, a few months after Jason Kreis took over as Head Coach, the GM immediately set out to bring a new style and culture to RSL. Together, he and young coach Kreis quickly turned RSL into an MLS powerhouse. With some bold front office and roster moves Lagerwey’s impact was as effective as it was dramatic. RSL made the playoffs for the first time in 2008 and then topped themselves in 2009 with a jaw dropping playoff run that saw them holding the MLS Cup at the end of the season.
If past results can in any way be indicative of future performance, the RSL Academy in Casa Grande, under the watchful eyes of Greg Vanney and Garth Lagerwey should become a crown jewel. Not only for RSL, but for US national youth soccer as a whole. Watch out world. Here they come.