The Real Salt Lake Academy kicks off the 2019-2020 season on Sunday with the first matches of the DA Cup against the Portland Timbers at the Zions Bank Real Academy.
With Academy Director Tom Spall at the helm and a new coaching staff ready for the task of developing the next up-and-coming talents for Real Salt Lake, the new season comes with high expectations and promise. RSL Assistant General Manager Elliot Fall offered perspective on what’s to come as the season commences on Sunday.
Q: How has the Academy evolved with the new structure in place?
Elliot Fall: I think we have all the tools at our disposal to become a world class youth development program. With the facility and the investment from the club and ownership in youth development, we have everything we need. So it was important to get a staff in place that could facilitate that development. We believe wholeheartedly that Tom is the right man for the job as an Academy Director to build a system that’s integrated from top-to-bottom and can identify elite talent but also develop and nurture that talent. The staff around him, we feel, is second to none in this country. We’ve got a staff that will both create an environment for development on the field and development as young men off the field as well and that’s equally important to us.
Q: You guys conducted a worldwide search for an Academy Director. How important was that and how eye-opening was that considering the vast depth of the candidate pool to select from?
Elliot Fall: It was huge. Certainly no disrespect to candidates in the United States, but we are at a point in our development as a club where we are trying to do something that’s never been done in this country before. So it was important to us to have candidates and applicants who have experience developing soccer players on the scale and at the level at which we believe that we should be. We did get some very good domestic applicants, but we also got a large number of fantastic international applicants. There were a lot of candidates who could have done a very good job and we felt fortunate to have the choice of so many quality applicants. We feel like we made a really good choice in Tom. He has been on the ground for several weeks now and the changes have been dramatic and positive across the board.
Q: Do any of those changes stand out?
Elliot Fall: There is no one specific thing. I think it’s important to note that our previous staff had done a fantastic job. Our academy was not broken. Martin Vasquez over the years did a phenomenal job and we’ve developed dozens of high-level professional players … and coaches. Freddy Juarez came through our Academy. So did Greg Vanney. So it’s not that anything was broken. It’s a combination of the fresh ideas and the new staff and the environment that have made a noticeable change. We believe that it’s a positive change and only the results will truly bear that out. I think the most important thing, for me, has been the buy-in top-to-bottom and the positive environment amongst the players, the coaching staff and the support staff. Everybody’s rowing in the same direction and on the same page and that’s been great.
Q: Was there a sense of confirmation that what Real Salt Lake is doing is heading in the right direction because there were so many applicants and such a wide swath of candidates?
Elliot Fall: When we opened the job up for applications, we didn’t know what was going to come through. So to see the level of interest and once we got people on site, that’s when it really blew people away to see all the tools at their disposal. It’s no question that the whole process felt like it affirmed that we were making the right decisions and investing in the right places and philosophically we were heading in the right direction.
Q: What has you most excited about where the Real Salt Lake Academy is heading into the new season?
Elliot Fall: How bright the future is. We have dozens of incredibly talented young players. What’s exciting is to watch those kids develop and become young men and fantastic soccer players and hopefully they are productive for our professional teams down the line.
Q: Five Academy players are at the U-23 camp. One is with the U-20 camp. One is with the full national team. How much is Real Salt Lake still able to use that carrot that not only are you going to get development, but also you are going to have opportunities to be able to showcase yourself on such a big scale?
Elliot Fall: I think it’s huge for incoming players to be able to look to the successes we’ve had and the continued successes we have. In addition to the players we have in camps, there are another handful of guys that could be there for various reasons. It’s fantastic to see those continued successes and it’s something that we point to when we are looking to bring top talent here. It’s affirmation that we are doing the right things and if we continue to tweak the model we can have more success.
Q: Along with that, players are getting opportunities with the first team and the Monarchs. What’s a pitch like now to a prospective academy player vs. what it was three years ago?
Elliot Fall: There’s no question that pointing to our successes is helpful in a pitch like that, but truthfully showing them the facility with their parents is the best tool we have. When we’re recruiting players from around the country, we’re recruiting kids, but we’re also recruiting parents and it’s important for the parents to believe that we are providing an environment that is both beneficial to the development for their child that is also safe for their child. That’s a lot of the stuff that we focus on – to show all the systems and structures and the people we have in place to support the kids both on and off the field.
Q: On the coaching side, you have guys with collegiate experience and youth experience. How important were those factors in putting together the coaching staff?
Elliot Fall: It’s extraordinarily important. We were able to put together a staff that a really diverse staff with different backgrounds. We’re here to develop professional players, but not every player is going to become a pro and we want every player that doesn’t sign a pro deal straight out of the academy to go play in college because that might be a part of their development to the professional level as well. As we all know, we have a handful of guys on the national team and U-23 level that played in college. It’s still an important piece and it’s a piece for the personal development of each of the players. So having staff members who have been intimately involved in the college game is huge. Also having staff members who have been deeply involved in the club game is huge – to understand how to navigate the club soccer world and how to work with a bigger organization and how to work with parents and family members and friends and all of that is critical. Then on top of that, all of them are very well-educated coaches. They are all U.S. Soccer A-Licensed coaches – in Rob Rogers case, he is finishing up the A License and will be in the coming weeks. Cody Warden has taken the Academy Directors course, which is huge. He’s the first person in our organization who has ever taken and completed that course. I think that diversity of background and knowledge and skillsets is instrumental to the success of our Academy.
Q: RSL added a U-15 team this year. What was the decision behind adding that now?
Elliot Fall: The decision to bring on the U-15 group was one that we thought about for a long time and was one that we wanted to execute properly. That age group is one of the most important developmental age groups. We didn’t think we could do a complete job developing players if we didn’t have them in those key formative years.