RSL officials lobbying for Herriman soccer academy to be included in team sale, calling it a franchise linchpin

Team executives share how they would sell the academy’s importance to a potential buyer.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) RSL Academy in Herriman is integral to the organization and what people involved in it say would be the impact of losing it in an ownership change.

Jeff Dewsnup sat at a table inside the Zions Bank Training Center, adjacent to the sprawling turf fields used by Real Salt Lake, the Real Monarchs, local youth soccer clubs and even the Utah Girls Tackle Football League.

It was there where Dewsnup made a bold declaration.

“If I could sign a homegrown [player] right now, I would,” Dewsnup told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Dewsnup, a goalkeeper, was referring to the type of contract RSL gives to players who go through the organization’s development academy in Herriman. The type of contract signed by the likes of Aaron Herrera, Justen Glad, David Ochoa and so many others going back to the years when the academy was located in Arizona.

Dewsnup made that statement more than a year ago, in October of 2019, as a 15-year-old who had spent his entire first year at the academy adjusting to the rigors of life as a high-level teenage soccer player, and fighting homesickness as he lived in the dorms despite his parents living just 10 minutes away.

But the initial struggle was worth it. RSL signed Dewsnup, 16, to a homegrown contract on Jan. 12. He not only became the youngest player the organization has ever signed, but a microcosm of the franchise’s vision moving forward.

With RSL now in the middle of an ownership transition, the organization has been public about its desire to reset the culture within it. One indication of that was the release of “The RSL Way” document, penned by assistant general manager Tony Beltran in an attempt to outline RSL’s core values and ideas as it enters a new era. In addition to publicizing the document, the club also distributed it internally to every department.

And the academy, which moved to Utah from Arizona in 2018, is an integral piece to the RSL culture and vision, team officials say. So much so that losing it with an arrival of new ownership could be catastrophic.

“We would lose an immense tool in developing homegrown talent and, quite frankly, we’d lose a big part of our identity,” RSL general manager Elliot Fall told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this month.

Soccer academies have long been a lifeline for professional clubs overseas, and have begun to take more of a foothold in North America. Aside from RSL, Major League Soccer teams like FC Dallas and New York Red Bulls in recent years have been among the league leaders in total homegrown minutes played.

With Salt Lake City one of the league’s smallest markets, the club has always focused more on developing its own players as opposed to spending millions of dollars on talent from overseas. But what’s been lacking over the years is a connection between RSL and the myriad youth soccer clubs in the state, RSL director of academy coaching Arnold Rijsenburg told The Tribune.

“When I arrived here, I was amazed by the fact that there was no relationship between local clubs and RSL,” said Rijsenburg, who joined the organization in November of 2019.

But Rijsenburg wants to change that. He said one of the main initiatives he wanted to get off the ground after he arrived to RSL was to partner with local youth clubs. The academy is finalizing partnerships with five such clubs, he said.

Dewsnup played his youth soccer at a club in Herriman before joining La Roca, one of Utah’s premier soccer clubs. He was recruited from there, he said, and invited to a trial with the RSL Academy.

That pipeline is one of the ways Rijsenburg would sell the academy to a potential buyer. He said the academy creates a deep connection with the soccer community in Utah at large by people seeing players from their own neighborhoods make the first-team roster.

The other advantageous aspect of the academy Rijsenburg would convey to a new owner has to do with economics.

“Instead of investing in and buying players for how many millions [of dollars], I think the value of an academy — developing your own players, first of all — it will cost you less money,” Rijsenburg said.

RSL started a basketball academy last year and brought in David Evans, who used to coach Wasatch Academy and Lone Peak High School. And while he came in before the allegations against team owner Dell Loy Hansen surfaced, he understands the impact the change in ownership could have on the program, which is in its first season of existence.

“Somebody could come in and shut it all down,” Evans told The Tribune. “I’m just grateful that I have this time. Maybe it’ll be one year, maybe it’ll be 15 years. We don’t know.”

But Evans would stress to a new owner that having the basketball academy under the RSL umbrella doesn’t cost any money. Instead, it’s a profitable venture because the players pay to be in the program and live in the dorms.

The RSL Academy High School is included in the sale of Utah Soccer Holdings — the company that also contains RSL, the Monarchs, Rio Tinto Stadium and the training facility in Herriman. It’s a charter school with a STEM program academically, but it’s also where players on the soccer and basketball academy teams can gain respite from their high level athletic lives.

“Having the high school here allows us to provide an aspect of development off of the field that is of equal importance to that on the field,” Fall said. “We’re molding young men into people as well as into athletes. And they will not be successful at the next level if they don’t develop as human beings and they don’t develop off the field as well.”

Dewsnup said he feels honored to be the youngest player signed by RSL, and that the academy was critical to his development as a soccer player because he got to learn from older goalkeepers like Nick Rimando and Andrew Putna. RSL invited him to preseason camp before the 2020 season, a further indication at the time of how highly the team valued him as a prospect.

Dewsnup said his signing is indicative of how valuable the academy can be to players like him.

“I just think RSL is really good with trusting young players and taking chances on young players,” Dewsnup said. “I think that’s really important especially for younger kids to be able to look up to the academy. They look up to guys like Justen [Glad] and me and all the homegrowns and they can think, ‘Oh maybe one day I can get up to that level.’”