Casa Grande, Ariz. • Inside his room atop the Francisco Grande Hotel, Garth Lagerwey looks beyond the desert oasis of lush green fields and cluster of palm trees directly below and circling the hotel.
Real Salt Lake’s general manager describes the parched landscape in the distance on the outskirts of Casa Grande, the city home to his club’s soccer pipeline. In time, it could transform into the lifeblood of Utah’s Major League Soccer franchise.
Forty minutes south of Phoenix is where RSL anticipates the future beginning.
It’s where Lagerwey says, “Honestly, I don’t know if Liverpool has an eight-field complex with a residential set-up dedicated in weather as good as this, where you can play year-round with a national team coach leading sessions.”
That’s what RSL has, and that’s how the club will keep pace with the large-spenders of MLS, through the depths of its residential academy at Grande Sports World. It’s a $20 million facility with six lighted soccer fields, a 58,000-square foot training and conditioning center with four locker rooms, 16 classrooms, an outdoor technical area and two therapy pools.
“I never had this,” said RSL defender Tony Beltran. “To just come here and just live, eat and breathe soccer? To play every day and when they’re bored, they come in here, watch film, lift weights. For me, it was going to an empty field at a park a mile away from my house and dribbling the ball around.”
In Casa Grande — also known as “CG” — the academy started with 18 players in 2010 and has flourished since. There are 87 players from around the U.S. and nine countries part of RSL’s program, with four different teams broken up into two U18 and U16 squads, which represent the academy. Since its inception four years ago, the academy has exported more than 50 players to the collegiate levels and nine have signed pro contracts.
“I call us Barcelona in the U.S.,” said Miha Kline, a former European professional soccer player and director of recruiting at the academy.
They aren’t Barcelona, but the style of play implemented by RSL has a trickle-down effect down to the youngsters in Arizona. They are, as Kline hopes, the eventual leaders of the first team at Rio Tinto Stadium through skill and education.
“Cornerstones you can build around,” Kline said. “I think MLS should definitely mandate [youth academies]. They should set a number of investments you have to have in youth development to have academies like this, because obviously we’re the only one, but it’s a huge benefit.”
Why Arizona? Lagerwey said it’s simple: There are more people in Arizona, and having a residential academy in Salt Lake City would cost several million dollars more just to build a year-round indoor facility for training purposes. RSL’s region to pick from is both Utah and Arizona, so the club has the initial rights to invite players in each state. Starting this year, RSL is allotted eight out-of-state spots, whereas in previous years it was anywhere from three to five.
“We can tag eight kids that we identify at least one full year before they enter college,” Lagerwey said. “We prefer to identify them at 14 or 15 years old; that way we can train them at a meaningful amount of time so they understand our system.”
Eighteen-year-old Jordan Allen is one of those identified. A native of Rochester, N.Y., Allen was 16 when RSL spotted him. He was one of the first players the club recruited and later starred at the academy before playing at the University of Virginia in the fall. He signed a Homegrown contract with RSL on New Year’s Eve and is now one of four former academy players on the first team along with Carlos Salcedo, Lalo Fernandez and Benji Lopez.
“The big thing that has helped me with the transition is the academy wants to play the same way as the first team,” Allen said. “They’re the same set-up, and the coaches down here are really big into playing on the ground — the RSL way. Technically, I got a lot better in my year-and-a-half here — a lot better than if I was somewhere else during that time.”
Justen Glad couldn’t have envisioned an opportunity like he has now. Growing up in Tucson, the 17-year-old defender knew he could have a future in soccer, but the training, going to school in Casa Grande until 4 p.m., and practicing nearly every evening before hitting the gym and studying film?
“You have to be technical and you have to be smart,” said Glad, who spent much of RSL’s preseason training with the first team. “You always have to be thinking ahead, of where to go and where it will be the best. We train like the first team does and implement everything they do down here.”
Which Lagerwey says is a testament to those in charge of the every-day operations, “You have to identify special people to make this work as well.” Martin Vasquez is the executive director of the academy and is an assistant coach on Jurgen Klinsmann’s U.S. men’s national team and academy coaches like Freddy Juarez and Kline and others ensure the students are prepared for whatever comes next.
“Like anyone else, we want to win,” Juarez said, “but can we develop and push one or two guys every year to the first team? That’s the goal.”
RSL continues to broaden the funnel, and in doing so, bringing in more quality players will provide the opportunity for the club to build a platform in which it one day could have a player waiting in the wings and prepping at every position down in the desert
RSL’s academy pipeline
Grande Sports Academy in Casa Grande, Ariz.:
• More than 50 RSL-AZ seniors signed Letter of Intent to play college soccer.
• Nine have signed professional contracts out of the academy.
• In 2013, 45 academy graduates played Division I or Division II soccer, with 19 graduates participating in the 2013 NCAA College Cup.
• Six RSL-AZ Academy products have graduated to the RSL first team since 2010 as five others have signed pro contracts with other clubs in the U.S. and abroad.
• Seven RSL-AZ products have been called up to U.S. youth national teams in 2014.