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Real Salt Lake's system leads the way

Real Salt Lake's youth academy could pave the way for others.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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SALT LAKE CITY

Defining the problem is straightforward: there is too much America and not enough Major League Soccer teams.

It is well established by now that youth development is best left up to professional soccer clubs. The environment and incentives are optimal there. But youth academies run by professional soccer clubs remain in chronic shortage in this country. There are, at present, just 19 MLS clubs, and not yet all of them have an academy. That’s very few talent incubators for very many talented players.

Real Salt Lake may have found a solution. Upon entering the league in 2005, they mooted a simple if unprecedented solution to a big problem. Their market produced no talent to speak of. There are areas where local and immigrant talent coalesces to forge a soccer hotbed – Southern California alone produced five starters on the under-20 national team now at its World Cup in Turkey. And then there are places like Utah, where youth soccer is still no more than a rite of passage in an American childhood, like sleepovers and trick-or-treating.

In a league predicated on fairness and growth, this wouldn’t stand. So, unusually, RSL was granted Arizona in addition to its own state as part of its development territory. No other MLS team could recruit youth players there. “That’s been a big bonus for us, getting those players that are out of state,” says RSL head scout Andy Williams. “The Phoenix-market for players is a little bit better standard than here.” That’s to put it diplomatically.

But rather than bring prospects from Arizona to an academy in Salt Lake, RSL decided to simply build its academy down in Casa Grande, Ariz., some 600 miles from their stadium in Sandy. That makes it the only MLS team with an out-of-town academy, let alone an out-of-state one. It won’t, in fact, open one in Salt Lake until next summer.

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“You’ve gotta go where the talent is,” says RSL general manager and vice president of soccer operations Garth Lagerwey. “When we came into the league, I think the league knew that our home territory was inadequate. The Salt Lake area has produced one player in the history of the league in the past 18 years – Justin Braun. Our total home territory has produced fewer than ten players. So it’s by far the worst of any of the home territories granted to MLS teams.

“We knew we had to recruit from outside of our home territory to come even close to having something like Los Angeles has or New York has,” Lagerwey adds. So in 2010, RSL opened its academy some thirty miles outside of Phoenix with business partner Ron Burks, a philanthropist who hopes to get underprivileged kids college scholarships through soccer, should they fail to turn pro.

They now have some 80 youth players in residency. RSL is now the only MLS team whose youth teams have made the Development Academy playoffs in each group in each of the past three years. Last year, 27 of their graduates earned college scholarships. Four have signed with the senior team and the club expects to remain on pace to sign two players out of its academy every year, a success rate even world-class developers like Barcelona and Ajax would be satisfied with.

It begs the question if this is the way forward for MLS, which will never cover the entirety of North America with sufficient franchises to funnel all talent into its development system. “I think one of the biggest challenges we have is that we need to incent recruiting from other territories that aren’t MLS territories,” says Lagerwey. “Because what’s happening right now is those kids are going to Europe or Mexico.”

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The issue, argues Lagerwey, is that RSL gets to recruit just five youth players from outside their (and anybody else’s) territory. That’s turning into eight in 2014. But, he says, “You’re still not at two per age group even. The pity is that we have kids that want to come and we turn them away and say, ‘Sorry, we cannot take you.’” Most clubs don’t even get that many; the Los Angeles Galaxy have just one out-of-territory exception. So the many premier prospects who don’t fit into these sparse slots fall between the cracks, to the detriment of MLS and the U.S. national team program, which could miss out on dual-nationals.

“Look at the last 20 kids that have signed in Europe or Mexico,” Lagerwey says. “The great majority are from outside MLS teams’ home territories. And part of the reason they’re going is there is no MLS team in which to feed them and that is a problem of our own making.”

There’s an easy fix for this issue. Some other MLS clubs already have the rights to more than one state – Sporting Kansas City has the exclusive recruitment rights to Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma, for instance. And MLS teams can currently have two affiliate clubs out of state, the way the Chicago Fire has one in Louisiana. An increase in the number of out-of-territory players allowed and a proliferation of out-of-town and out-of-state MLS academies or affiliates could prove a major boon for the competitiveness of North American youth soccer.

And in RSL’s Arizona academy, the paradigm already exists.

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