MLS academies may be blueprint for developing talent in pro sports

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Julian Araujo moved out of his childhood home after his sophomore year of high school. At 15, he wasn’t just another high school kid chasing the professional sports dream.

He moved to Arizona and began training with the FC Barcelona Academy, before eventually finding his way into the LA Galaxy Academy during his senior year. He took courses in the school run by the academy inside a classroom at the facility and graduated with fellow players.

“I felt like it was what I needed,” the Galaxy defender said. “Just moving away from my family and knowing that for me to be a professional soccer player I'm going to have to be away from my family.”

With his 18th birthday coming up in August, Araujo has started seven of the nine games he has played for the Galaxy. He had a plan B in the University of California at Santa Barbara, but the primary route was always academy soccer followed by the pros. That’s what U.S. soccer has become.

Several MLS coaches and officials interviewed for this story said the SuperDraft is a secondary option for young talent. Clubs want to develop their own players and the academies are also fulfilling the needs of a younger generation that wants to be at the top level faster.

“I'm glad that you don't have to do your high school years or college to be able to be a pro,” Araujo said. “I just wanted to play soccer. I just wanted to be a pro and that's all I wanted to be.”

Fast-tracking the fast track

Araujo’s feelings are common among rising athletes.

As more basketball players are skipping college for professional opportunities with hopes of later reaching the NBA, discussions have heightened about eliminating the NCAA’s “one-and-done” rule. Even baseball, the most traditional of the four major sports, has a younger generation itching for an immediate outlet to the big leagues, exemplified by top prospect Carter Stewart darting for Japan.

So if allowing younger professionals feels inevitable, how can leagues ensure the athletes are ready?

PALO ALTO, CA - JUNE 29: Los Angeles Galaxy defender Julian Araujo (22) crosses the ball into the box during the MLS game between the Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes on June 29, 2019 at Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto, CA (Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Galaxy defender Julian Araujo is an example of the benefits of the MLS academy system. (Getty)

Major League Soccer may have the answer. In 2007, MLS instituted the Homegrown Player Rule, which allows clubs exclusive signing rights to players groomed in a club’s academy. This draws inspiration from the European club model, which has been around for decades. The clubs are split into geographical zones, and players in such zones must play for the corresponding club.

For example, a 12-year-old seeking a professional soccer environment in Southern California can find it at the LA Galaxy Academy, just as Araujo did. For the six years leading up to what would normally mark the end of high school, players train for roughly 10 months a year. It’s an aggressive training model that feeds into the specialization trend in youth sports, but also provides a proper avenue for players that want a head start. If all goes well, the player is in MLS by 15 or 16, maybe even Europe by 18. If not, the player has a high school diploma and a top-level recruiting resume for Division I coaches.

The academy system has already produced two of the U.S. men’s national team’s brightest stars, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams. McKennie spent seven years in FC Dallas’ youth system before graduating from Schalke 04’s academy in Germany, while Adams came up through the New York Red Bulls’ system and moved to RB Leipzig this past January. Both are regulars in the German Bundesliga.

“The environments we are now creating for these players are emphasizing development,” said Todd Durbin, the CEO of MLS. “They are emphasizing, ‘How do I make the player better? How do I get player to get to the place that I think he needs to get to?’”

Life in an academy

In the past year, Betsy Maxfield has bought 14 cars. They aren’t all for her, of course. They’re purchased by soccer players; she just helps facilitate.

It’s part of her position as the director of player care at Sporting Kansas City. Other requirements not listed in her job title include cooking classes, finances and acquiring driver’s licenses. Maxfield scouts out host families for Sporting KC prospects as part of the more traditional aspect of her job, but when a player’s ticketed for expired license plates, she may leave a meeting to play team mom.

As Sporting KC’s Academy has developed, Maxfield has slid into a maternal role for the younger players transitioning to the first team. Sometimes that’s driving the boys for haircuts or grocery runs before they’ve acquired a license, let alone a vehicle. Other times, it’s unexpected life advice, like what a baby shower is, what gift to bring and how to wrap it.

“I deal with everything off the field,” Maxfield said. “And the hope is I take away any disturbances or distractions, and assist in anything to make a player at U12, or the guys who play under the lights on Saturday, play to the best of their ability.”

Some of Maxfield’s player's take online classes while others attend traditional schools. But that often leads to conflicts and a player attending first or second period, cutting class for training and then returning for the end of the day.

The Galaxy have eliminated the conflict between training and school by combining it all into their academy. Players arrive around 8 a.m. for training, then eat lunch and shower before attending school from 12-4:30 p.m. in a room inside the Galaxy complex in Carson, California. That’s about an eight-hour day under Galaxy supervision, allowing the club to have control over what the boys eat and do for a large portion of their development.

The teenagers at the Galaxy Academy are treated like the professionals they are supposed to become. Their schedule is reminiscent of the Galaxy’s first team, all the way down to the meals they eat and drills they practice. They are purposely on the same campus and constantly in the first team’s locker room. The example is right there in front of them, they just need to follow the leader.

“Once I signed with the first team it was all just about on the field,” said Gianluca Bucio, who signed as a homegrown player with Sporting KC at 15 years old. “I had nothing to worry about outside of, you know, soccer, because the academy prepared me for [the transition].”

SEEFELD, AUSTRIA - JULY 16: Tyler Adams of RB Leipzig looks on during the RB Leipzig Training Camp on July 16, 2019 in Seefeld, Austria. (Photo by TF-Images/Getty Images)
Tyler Adams rose through the ranks of New York Red Bulls before making a big move to RB Leipzig in the German Bundesliga. (Getty)

The next steps

Sporting KC manager Peter Vermes says he can’t even compare the academy system now to when it started in 2007. It’s too different.

Back then coaches had multiple academy teams. Now, they won’t hire a coach whose resume doesn’t include a slew of certifications. Teams are investing more now in the academy systems, the schools and the team mom-type roles like Maxfield’s.

Since 2013, American soccer coaches have been taking trips to Clairefontaine, France, the home facility for the reigning men’s World Cup champion French national team, for what former Galaxy academy director Mike Muñoz calls a “masters course in soccer.” The MLS coaches observe teenage players at the training center, and spend another week observing an academy in Europe while also receiving instruction in the United States. The 14-month course teaches coaches how to rethink the American style of soccer.

“We're not just a random parent trying to teach them the game like the old days,” Muñoz said.

Some of the academies cost money for players, while others don’t. Regardless, it’s an investment of time and resources by both the clubs and the players. While the boys find time to do some typical teenage things like beach trips and bowling, training is paramount.

That lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and the academies often weed out players who aren’t ready for the intense environment. It’s part of the process. Demand from players what will be required when they transition to the pros, and they’ll be ready.

“That's the best way you can learn is being in it,” Bucio said. “That's how I learned.”

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