The 2017 Major League Soccer season brings Real Salt Lake into its 13th year of competition, and towards the end of the year the team will open the doors on what is undoubtedly the biggest and most ambitious piece of its highly regarded youth development system. With that historic occasion looming on the horizon, we’re going to take a brief look back at how it got started, and how things have grown over the last decade of development.
The roots of RSL’s system go back to 2007, when the RSL-Arizona Academy was founded. Under MLS regulations, RSL is the only club allowed to recruit youth players from Arizona. Prior to the arrival of the Claret-and-Cobalt, many players from the Grand Canyon State were drawn to clubs in Mexico, with RSL aiming to stem the tide by establishing a connection to the youth clubs in Phoenix and the surrounding areas. Players who competed with the RSL crest on their kits had the potential to be offered a chance to be offered a tryout with the club.
Despite being essentially a loose association with established club teams, the academy found fast success when the U-17 team earned a surprising victory in the U.S. Club Soccer National Cup VII in 2008. That team went 5-0 in their California regional without allowing a goal, earning the right to move to the national finals. Many of the players hadn’t expected to make it that far, and had made other commitments, so several reserve list players were called in for the finals, and they came through with an impressive victory.
In 2008, Grande Sports Academy founder and CEO Ron Burks hired Arizona native Greg Vanney to lead his program. Vanney helped the program gain acceptance to the U.S. Youth Development Academy in 2010, and also oversaw the addition of the RSL-AZ Academy to the newly-built Grande Sports World. Once the impressive facility that stands on the former spring training site for the San Francisco Giants was built, it became the home of the first full-time residential academy associated with a MLS team, in addition to housing GSA’s own academy.
The inaugural academy teams both performed very well, making the postseason in both the U-16 and U-18 age groups. It would be Vanney’s last year with the academy after being offered an assistant coaching position at Chivas USA under former RSL assistant Robin Fraser. Fraser, interestingly enough, became head coach after the Goats had dismissed Martin Vasquez at the end of 2010, and Vasquez would then take Vanney’s spot as the technical director of the RSL Academy.
Vasquez and his team of coaches, including inaugural Monarchs head coach and current RSL assistant Freddy Juarez, have maintained RSL’s development system as one of the top programs in the U.S., routinely competing for and winning youth championships, and securing RSL as a club known for its Homegrown talent.
Now the future of youth development in America takes another major step forward, as RSL is nearing the aforementioned completion of its own residential academy complex in Herriman, Utah, just a few miles away from Rio Tinto Stadium. Combined with the regional satellite complexes, the first of which has begun construction in Logan, Utah, this new facility will provide a new level of player development similar to what is seen among the top clubs in other parts of the world. Players all across Utah will be able to train locally in their early youth careers, and make the transition to full-time residents in Herriman as their talent progresses, all while being able to work near and occasionally with coaches from the top team as part of the process.
There’s a proud and successful history at the heart of the RSL Academy, and it’s on the verge of beginning an even more successful future. It’s an exciting new level of integration that should reap huge benefits for the whole organization as players can literally grow up with an RSL kit on, the way that children in Spain, Germany, England, and many other nations do with their most famous clubs.