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Why playing your kids matters for RSL and American soccer

Why is youth development so crucial to professional soccer and Real Salt Lake?

MLS: Real Salt Lake at Orlando City SC Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

If you’ve watched Real Salt Lake or Major League Soccer for long enough, you’ve probably heard someone tell you about the importance of “playing your kids.”

What is typically understated is just how truly important youth development programs are.

Whether it’s a US Soccer ODP program, a team’s academy level, or even just your everyday club soccer, this is crucial. Youth development is massive for the growth of your favorite club team and even national team.

If you look at Real Salt Lake’s current roster, there are currently five homegrown players. In addition there are three players — Bofo Saucedo, Justen Glad, and Taylor Peay — who came up in Utah’s youth systems, and in Saucedo and Glad’s case, were previously on the roster as homegrown players.

Now, what is a homegrown player? It’s one of those words you hear about throughout the league, but what actually defines a homegrown player is sometimes a little fuzzy. A homegrown player is an athlete who lived in the territory and played for an academy or other youth development system for a MLS club.

A prime example of this is RSL defender Justen Glad. At the time when he signed with Real Salt Lake, the prime RSL youth development program, or RSL Academy, was in Arizona. Glad played for and lived at the RSL Arizona Academy from 2012-2014 where he then qualified to sign with Real Salt Lake to a homegrown contract. An athlete only qualifies as a “homegrown” for the duration of their first contract, which is why Glad is no longer considered a homegrown because he has since signed a new contract.

Homegrown contracts do not necessarily count toward a team’s budget, should a team use what MLS calls the “Homegrown Player Subsidy” in a manner similar to allocation money. It’s a perk MLS adds to give an extra incentive to teams to develop their youth programs. This is one of the most prevalent ways you see youth players breaking into MLS teams.

These programs are crucial for developing young players. If you look at Real Salt Lake specifically, more than half their minutes throughout this season have been played by players under the age of 24. The amount of money, time, and resources that have been put into Real Salt Lake’s youth and discovery programs are a large reason for this success.

Whether it’s an MLS academy, or another form of youth development, we need to be paying attention to these teams that are giving young players time to play meaningful minutes.

A prime example of a huge tournament for youth players is the Generation Adidas Cup. This tournament has a set of qualifiers that will be played in Salt Lake on October 5th, 6th, and 8th. This tournament gives coaches and fans alike a chance to see the future of Major League Soccer play meaningful minutes.

We are fortunate enough to have our region’s U-17 qualifying games for this tournament being played at Zions Bank Stadium this year. This cup is one of the most elite youth tournaments. The full schedule has 9 games in Utah. The games this weekend in Utah are just the qualifying for the tournament, and the teams who qualify will play the championships of it in Frisco, Texas.

You’ve read all this information about all these various different ways that youth players can get into first teams, but why does it all matter? Why does playing your kids matter?

There are two aspects to playing your kids you have to look at here.

The one side is that we need to be investing in our youth development programs. Playing your kids in recreational soccer is awesome and definitely don’t stop doing that, but the more we can increase the level of competition for our promising athletes, the better.

The more opportunities we give athletes to play for their high schools or other competitive teams, the better our professional team will be in the long run. The teams that win championships in this league are the teams that have a lot of money or have a good academy. Real Salt Lake will never have the money that the LAs of the league have. It’s just the reality of being a small market team, but what we can have is an incredible youth system.

If you truly want to see Real Salt Lake be successful in the long run, that all starts with your youth.

The other side of the whole “play your kids” thing is the part once they become professionals. For the longest time the biggest concern Real Salt Lake fans had was that we were aging. In 2014, we were barely able to stay afloat in the league after what was one of our best seasons in team history.

This was a huge worry for Real Salt Lake fans. We suddenly took a look at ourselves and said, “we’re getting old.” From there, we signed and gave minutes to players like Justen Glad, Danilo Acosta, Brooks Lennon, and Sebastian Saucedo. Now, if you take a look at RSL’s roster, you realize our roster is probably the youngest it’s been in the history of the club.

This is because in the last 5 years Real Salt Lake, and more importantly, Dell Loy Hansen, have invested in our youth programs. These players that we’re giving all our minutes to didn’t just show up one day. They, for the most part, grew up in the academy.

Giving the players we develop meaningful minutes is crucial.

You can have the best academy in the world but if you’re still only giving minutes to the players you sign from other pro teams, what was the point? Giving kids ages 16 to 24 meaningful minutes in the big games is the quickest way to grow not only their technical ability but their confidence. You aren’t going to improve your team by putting your youth on the bench. So when you hear someone say, “play your kids” it doesn’t necessarily only mean play your own children, but it also can mean give the 22-year-old who won three national titles in college more first team minutes too.

Youth development inside the academies as well as on the professional level is the smartest investment you can make in your team. We all wish we could sign the Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s to our teams, but in Salt Lake that’s probably just not going to happen. Investing in and supporting our academy and other youth development ventures, is crucial. Watch the academy teams play, go to your high school’s games, donate where you can. The thing that will set Real Salt Lake apart from other teams is the amount of time and money that we can invest into our academies.

In this league, you aren’t going to win a championship with one star. You’re going to win a championship with a complete team. Making that complete team starts in the academy.