A Grande Experiment: RSL-AZ Academy shines on and off the field

Claret-and-Cobalt's Casa Grande academy one of the best in MLS

CASA GRANDE, Ariz. – There was a moment, midway through the second half of the Real Salt Lake-Arizona Academy U-18’s 5-1 win over Nomads SC on Sunday, when everything seemed to click for the Claret-and-Cobalt.

Midfielder Andrew Brody, who terrorized the Nomads all game, collected a ball on the right sideline near midfield. He immediately picked his head up and dribbled toward goal, weaving past several Nomads players before playing overlapping defender Jon Zabasajja through down the line. The speedy right back rounded his marker and cut in on the end line, taking a few touches before finding midfielder Coco Navarro at the spot for a cool finish into the top left corner to give RSL-AZ a 3-0 lead.  

The goal was a fitting end to a beautiful attacking move. It was creative, clean and clinical all the way through, a near perfect realization of Real Salt Lake’s style of soccer. Moments like that show the on-field quality of RSL-AZ, the only residential academy in the U.S. and one of the best academies in the entire league.

“We’re out in the middle of nowhere doing something no one else is doing,” said Grande Sports Academy General Manager Tim Alai. “But we’re doing things better out here.”

Opened in August 2010, the RSL-Arizona Academy is one of 80 academies in the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy system. The academy has been incredibly successful thus far, with the U-18’s and the U-16’s both making the USSDA playoffs in their first two seasons and the U-16’s finishing third in the nation in the 2010-11 campaign.

Most impressively, every single RSL-AZ graduate has either turned pro or gone on to play in college upon leaving the academy.

“Every year we’ve gotten better, every year we’ve developed a larger number of good players,” Real Salt Lake General Manager Garth Lagerwey said of the RSL-AZ Academy. “I believe that we’re getting close to the day where we’ll see our first academy player play and contribute in our first team.”

Indeed, that day doesn’t seem very far away at all. Former RSL-AZ goalkeeper Lalo Fernandez and defender Carlos Salcedo are currently signed to the first team while RSL-AZ graduate midfielder Nico Muñiz is currently looking for a club after spending the 2012 season with RSL.

Better yet, Brody, Navarro, Zabasajja, U-18’s Benji Lopez and Ive Burnett, U-16’s Sebastian Saucedo and Jose Hernandez and former RSL-AZ Academy U-18 Jordan Allen all spent at least part of this week training with the first team, with all eight players showing well while playing with their first team counterparts.

“The guys have done very, very well,” said RSL Head Coach Jason Kreis. “It’s a tremendous credit to the staff down here at the RSL-Arizona Academy. I think they’re doing a fantastic job because all the players that have come into our sessions have done very well and have competed very well. That says a lot for the coaches and for the program down here.”

But for every RSL-AZ grad that turns pro immediately after (or before) graduation like Fernandez, Salcedo, Muñiz and Danish side Brondby midfielder Mikey Orellano, there are many more who don’t. It’s for those players that RSL-AZ’s off-the-field excellence and emphasis on developing well-rounded young men is so important.

“Before we started here, I looked at [the academies of Dutch teams] Ajax and Feyenoord Rotterdam,” Alai said. “I saw Feyenoord cutting kids at age 14 that had been playing with them since the age of 5. They had goals of playing professionally, had only been doing school for three hours a day and these kids now have to figure out what to do. They sacrifice education for their dream, their goal and they kind of get burned.

“Here, it’s different. We don’t sacrifice education for the athletics. You have to be well-rounded and if you don’t show that you want to be then there’s another place for you.”

Every RSL-AZ player has a stringent schedule which sees them attend a local high school Monday-Friday; attend a minimum of two – and up to four – mandatory study hall sessions per week with the academy’s five on-site tutors; train nightly at the on-site facilities; stick to tough nutrition and workout plans; and play in USSDA matches on the weekends.

Of course, all of the players are sticking to the above schedule on their own. Mom and Dad aren’t with them to help plan their day, get them off to school or do their laundry after training. All of that is on the individual players themselves, something Alai thinks helps give them a leg up on their peers at other academies.

“I always ask visiting coaches what they think about our facilities, our program, our staff, etc. and the head coach from Marquette [University] made a really good point,” Alai said. “He said, ‘These kids have been on their own for three years, they won’t have that homesick issue, they won’t have that crazy freshman issue, they’re good time managers, they know how to balance their lives, they know their goals and ambitions. It’s not just somebody that has been playing at a different academy and living in their own home.’

“And when he finished he said, ‘If I was deciding between a L.A. Galaxy Academy player and your player I would pick your player, assuming the talent was equal.’”

That, quite obviously, is a huge testament to the RSL-AZ Academy. But it’s not as important to Alai or the staff – which includes four live-in residential advisors – as helping the boys that arrive to Casa Grande at 14, 15 and 16 turn into men by the time they leave the academy at age 17 or 18.

“I would say 95 percent of the players come here as kids,” Alai said. “But when they leave they leave as men. They know how to balance things and they know what their objectives are.”

“Seeing that transformation is really rewarding.”