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Academy helps Real Salt Lake's young talent emerge quickly

Published April 24, 2014 1:50 pm

Major League Soccer • RSL's youth program already producing players for big club; more are on way
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Sandy • Dell Loy Hansen volunteered to gas up the jet and fly to Dallas. Real Salt Lake's owner decided to visit a group of kids, soccer players under his umbrella, who hope to one day make that jump — from youngsters identified with unique skill sets to professionals walking from the locker room, through the double doors into the tunnel and onto the field at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Along with general manager Garth Lagerwey and team president Bill Manning, the RSL front office trio spoke to the RSL youth academy's U-17 team participating in the Generation adidas Cup last week. The group, comprised of athletes from Utah, Arizona and various places around the country, had just thrashed an L.A. Galaxy team 6-1, and the executives were on hand to see it.

"Mr. Hansen's made a massive financial commitment and he wanted to see in person how we're doing," Lagerwey said. "He met the coaching staff, the kids … this is one of his great strengths as an owner. It's him who's willing to go down."

The investment and development of youth players is the way RSL has chosen to build for the future. The club's academy in Casa Grande, Ariz., is considered one of the top soccer academies in the country. As players have began to transition from the residential area in the desert south of Phoenix to the first team in Sandy, the level of talent originally identified is being noticed by more than just the coaching staff and front office.

Since the 2014 Major League Soccer season began in early March, several of RSL's youngest first-team players — many of them academy graduates — are being called into respective national team camps and games.

Jordan Allen, Benji Lopez and newest academy signee, 17-year-old Justen Glad, were showcased in tournaments in Texas the last two weeks. Allen, 18, and Lopez, 19, helped the U.S. U-20's advance to the Dallas Cup final before losing 2-0 to Argentina's River Plate.

Glad, who recently participated in a U.S. U-18 national team camp, guided the RSL U-17's advance to the GA Cup final in Frisco, Texas, where the squad lost to English Premier League's Stoke City 3-2 in a penalty kick shootout.

Defender Carlos Salcedo, another academy player, was recently called into the Mexican U-21 camp.

"We're just fortunate to have those players on our team," said 20-year-old midfielder Luis Gil, who has had his share of recent call-ups to the national team. "Not many teams have that.

"It's interesting to see how our academy is doing so well, how we're producing players, so it's always a good thing to have."

Arguably more than any other club in MLS, having young players gaining consistent national-team experience and recognition is crucial to the RSL's evolution in a smaller MLS market., according to Lagerwey.

Having the eventual luxury of a USL semi-pro team would hasten the development of the club's up-and-coming players, the GM added, providing an avenue of play between the academy and the eventual — yet hopeful — move to the first team. RSL remains in the process of exploring options in the Salt Lake Valley as well as the greater San Diego area.

Allen said the extensiveness of development through RSL's academy in Arizona has brought along the younger players quicker than most anticipated. Joining the first team and earning call-ups only makes the 18-year-old's smile widen.

"I don't know if you can expect it, but it's obviously what you're working toward," he said. "It's just been a progression. For us, the biggest transition is more just making the first team — that's been the biggest step up for us. It's just a step in the next direction."

First-year RSL coach Jeff Cassar credits Martin Vasquez, Freddy Juarez and the various Casa Grande-based coaches for preparing the players to become integrated in the first-team environment. The transition was aided by Cassar, who was part of the coaching staff under Jason Kreis since 2007.

"Before I became coach, the assistant coaches and Jason did a fantastic job in bringing the players along at the right rate and not giving them too much responsibility, but kind of feeding them a little bit," Cassar said. "Now, players are starting to step into their own and be recognized."

Allen and Lopez helped topple Brazilian club team Flumienese 3-2 in the Dallas Cup semifinal, with Allen earning the eventual game-winning penalty kick. Lopez scored a goal in a 3-0 win over German club Eintracht Frankfurt. The RSL U-17's also showcased a Park City product in Sebastian Saucedo, who won the GA Cup's Golden Ball (Tournament's best player) and Golden Boot (five goals in the tournament).

"I think we can have guys starting for our first team within three to five years," Lagerwey said. "It's going to take time. It'll be impacted by how much this league improves — even better players means an even wider gap between academy and first team."

ckamrani@sltrib.com

Twitter: @chriskamrani Fountain of youth • RSL pools young talent

Luis Gil (pictured), 20 • Entering his fifth year with RSL's first team, earned first U.S. men's national team senior cap Feb. 1 against South Korea after month-long training camp.

Jordan Allen, 18 • Signed Homegrown contract Dec. 31 after a year at the University of Virginia and two years at RSL's Arizona-based Academy; helped lead U.S. U-20's to Dallas Cup final, earned game-winning penalty kick in 3-2 semifinal win over Brazil's Fluminese; Earned several caps for U.S. U-18's and U.S. U-17's.

Benji Lopez, 19 • Signed a Homegrown contract July 17 after playing at RSL's Arizona Academy from Nov. 2011 to June 2013; Scored a goal in U.S. U-20's 3-0 win over German side Eintracht Frankfurt at Dallas Cup; Received two U-20 call-ups in 2013 and was called to U-18's for 18-month span.

Carlos Salcedo, 20 • Signed with RSL in January 2013; spent seven months at RSL's Arizona Academy and was part of Mexican club Tigers UANL's youth system; made 12 starts his rookie MLS season in 2013; Called into Mexico's U-21 Olympic preparation camp in Mexico City.

Lalo Fernandez, 21 • Signed a Homegrown contract on Feb. 24, 2012; Trained with Mexican club Atlas before signing with Uruguayan club C.A. Penarol in August 2011; has represented both the U.S. and Mexico on youth level, playing for the Mexican U-17's and U.S. U-20's.

Justen Glad, 17 • Signed a Homegrown contract April 4; turned down an offer from Stanford to sign with RSL's first team after two years at RSL's Arizona Academy; called into U.S. U-18's, U.S. U-17's and helped U.S. qualify for U-17 World Cup. —

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