In the dead heat of Arizona, there is a soccer sanctuary. It is a residential academy where teenagers have migrated in hopes of realizing a dream of becoming a professional soccer player.
The sanctuary is Grande Sports World in Casa Grande, Arizona, where MLS club Real Salt Lake bases its youth academy.
Real Salt Lake-Arizona began play in the USSF Development Academy three seasons ago with former U.S. international Greg Vanney at the helm. Vanney has since moved onto a coaching position with Chivas USA, but the idea of RSL-AZ remains the same.
Current U.S. Men’s National Team assistant coach Martin Vazquez is the Technical Director now. Tony Bruce, John Galas, Michael Kraus, Tim Seketa, and Freddy Juarez are the coaches.
Juarez is the only one left over from the previous regime (goalkeeper coach Galas was there for part of the inaugural season). He has been there from the beginning and seen the idea turn into a successful adventure that helped Nico Muniz and Lalo Fernandez land Home Grown deals with Real Salt Lake plus a couple of other players sign professional contracts overseas.
“There is proof that players have moved on from here now,” Juarez said about the ability to recruit after a couple of seasons with results. “We have players like Mikey [Orrellana] and Jordan [Allen] who won Development Academy Conference Player of the Year honors here last year and a number of other players who made it onto the team of the year. We have examples of the success [for RSL-AZ].”
This season’s team includes a number of new players who joined RSL-AZ for the training and competition.
“I am hoping to play with them next year to get me prepared for Virginia,” new RSL-AZ player and Arizona local Riggs Lennon told TopDrawerSoccer.com earlier this year. “I am very excited to play in the Academy.”
Lennon, who Juarez said “should have been playing in the Academy a long time ago,” scored two goals in his debut in the Development Academy over the weekend in a 4-2 win for RSL-AZ U18 over San Juan Soccer Club. Marquette commit Jose Navarro notched the other two goals.
This result came with RSL-AZ missing arguably its two best players, Jordan Allen and Benji Lopez, who were with the U.S. U18 Men’s National Team in Europe, but are returning this week.
“We are expecting big things from the U18s,” Juarez continued. “There is a good core of players there who helped the U16s get to Finals Week two years ago.”
The core, which includes Isaias Juarez, Rodrigo Uriarte, Jon Zabasajja, and others, has been around since the start of the residential program.
The coach went on to cite Allen, Lennon, Lopez, Ive Burnett, and others joining that core to create an added level of depth to the roster to handle the callups to the Real Salt Lake’s reserve team, deal with injuries, and other obstacles over a ten-month season.
For the younger group, it is mainly all new faces to the team and the Academy system.
“We have one player with Academy experience and the rest are starting from scratch,” Juarez said.
That lone player is Jason Eng who was one of the youngest players on RSL-AZ U16 last year and only had two starts.
Some players do enter with some familiarity with each other though. Sebastian Saucedo and Adolfo Ovalle played for the same club team in Utah prior to RSL-AZ. Juarez said there were a few from one Arizona club also on the team.
“We have a unique situation with the residency and that there are no clubs here feeding into our U16 squad, so the players come in with no experience in our style of play.”
RSL-AZ wants to possess the ball and build out of the back, which can be a big difference from the system that many of the players are used to from their previous clubs.
“Players remark, ‘my practices were never like that back home,’” Juarez said. “We are teaching them our identity.”
It is easier now to make the players believe in that identity because of the previous four teams that have passed through the system, Juarez said. Tangible evidence was always going to make it so, but Juarez, along with Vanney and Mike Munoz, the first three to buy into this approach, deserve the credit for the groundwork.
“It was a gamble,” Juarez said about putting to place this style from day one.
Three years later, it still looks like the risk paid off.