There has been some frustration expressed by fans regarding the lack of recent additions during the summer transfer window. The frustration stems from the apparent need of a striker and the recent failings of our past two signings at that position.
However, something that we did not hear much of during this transfer window was how we had one of the most prolific scorers in the United States under our very own roof. Sebastian Soto scored 42 goals in 27 games for the RSL Academy U-18/19 team last season. Granted, academy goals don’t necessarily translate into MLS goals, but one has to think that a talented goal scorer is an asset, and an asset worth signing. Especially since he is an RSL academy product.
Rather than sign a professional contract at Real Salt Lake, it was announced this week that Sebastian Soto is now playing for German club Hannover 96’s U19 team. Soto is one of RSL’s most promising strikers to come out of the Real Salt Lake Academy. News broke with little fanfare and begs the question that if Soto was going to play professionally, why not at RSL?
There are a lot of questions surrounding academy players turning professional elsewhere. The questions range from child labor law issues to college eligibility to international opportunity. It’s impossible to speak to each of these issues on an individual player basis. But to keep the questions in house, and something the front office can control, we have to ask, “What is the role of the Monarchs in this organization if it is not to bring academy players through the professional ranks?” Why is RSL losing homegrown players to other teams rather than signing them to professional contracts right here in Utah?
Let’s start with the good. RSL deserves a lot of credit for bringing up and consistently giving playing time to the likes of Justen Glad, Brooks Lennon, Bofo Saucedo, Aaron Herrera, Danny Acosta, and Corey Baird. RSL is consistently touted as a team that plays their kids. These are quality players getting quality minutes with a professional first league domestic team.
On the other hand, something that goes overlooked is that RSL has not signed an academy product after the 2015 class. That’s a problem. In recent history, RSL relied on the collegiate program to develop its most recent homegrown signings: Aaron Herrera and Corey Baird. These two players have proven themselves more than adequate to play on RSL. However, would they have been more up to speed with the club’s formations and tactics had they played for the Monarchs rather than the abbreviated collegiate season?
To this point, who have the Monarchs groomed to become a first team player? There is really only an argument for two players: Nick Besler and Ricardo Velazco. Both went through the college ranks. Besler was drafted by the Portland Timbers and had a first team contract prior to signing with the Monarchs. Velazco graduated from the academy, played three years in college and then signed with the Monarchs in 2015 and RSL in 2016. His signing was touted as “the first player that has followed the complete progression from the Academy through the USL team and now to the first team.” He was signed at 23 and played in 9 total matches for RSL. He was ultimately let go for non-soccer related reasons.
The Monarchs began in 2015. In their third season, the Monarchs won a Regular Season championship in the USL. Now in their fourth season, they are poised to accomplish the same feat and possibly progress farther in the playoffs. But what good is that for RSL? Ultimately, a lower division championship to an MLS affiliated team doesn’t mean anything if young players aren’t developing and progressing to the first team.
If the Monarchs were the only team in town, building a top notch, championship-competing team would make sense. But when it’s stated by the team that the Monarchs are part of the progression of the Academy to the first team, it makes little to no sense to have a roster that is composed the way it is currently composed. There is a glut of young players that do not see minutes because other players are filling those roster spots. Jose Hernandez should be developed as a player, but a very skilled 27-year-old Sebastian Velazquez is in his position.
Real Monarchs is not being used correctly because it is not being used as a development team. In fact, it is used more as a rehabilitation team than a development team. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for players like Bofo Saucedo that gained form and then came back up to the first team. But that is not a pipeline.
Whether it’s players that had first team opportunities trying to get those opportunities again, or RSL players rehabilitating from the numerous injuries the team has had this season, there appears to be very little room for development. Granted, academy players Ledezma, Mendoza and Ochoa all got minutes on the Monarchs, but that is an exception. As a whole the Monarchs are much too old to be considered a developmental team.
To emphasize our point, let’s look at two examples of successful academies: Bayern Munich and FC Dallas. They are two very different teams in different leagues. RSL doesn’t have the pedigree of Bayern. But when you look at Bayern’s second division team, Bayern Munich II, it has a roster composed of teenagers and young twenty-somethings. They have one 28-year-old and one 31-year-old. Conversely, the Monarchs are composed of players 22-27 years old. The Monarchs are not a “development” team.
FC Dallas does not have a USL team. That has not prevented them from signing homegrown players. In fact, they just announced their 23rd homegrown player last month. 23! Since Weston McKennie rejected their homegrown offer in 2016 to leave for FC Schalke 04, FC Dallas signed multiple players to homegrown contracts, while their academy continues to churn out top-level talent. The FC Dallas academy is what the RSL academy aspires to be in MLS. Bayern Munich II should be the model for how to use the Monarchs.
Soto did not get a single minute with Real Monarchs. At its worst, that seems like a huge miss to us. At its best, it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. How are the coaching staff, training staff and yes, even fans, supposed to know how an academy kid can play amongst men in a professional match?
RSL is a small market team that has to be creative and invest differently than other clubs in order to compete. RSL is absolutely doing the right thing by investing big money in the academy system and their USL team, the Monarchs. But if RSL insists on signing players to play for the Monarchs that rarely make their way to seeing regular first team minutes, then the system is flawed.
It’s been a crazy few years with the addition of the Monarchs, the Royals and the opening of the Academy. The team undoubtedly increased its influence throughout the state. Youth teams are growing in numbers and talent. If RSL really wants to develop professionals it is imperative the Monarchs reassess their purpose, vision and philosophy and most importantly — play the academy kids!