The Real Salt Lake Academy traveled both its U15 and U17 teams to Major League Soccer’s MLS NEXT Fest this past weekend in Norco, California, to compete in the Generation adidas (GA) Cup Qualifiers with hopes of qualifying for the final stage of the tournament in spring 2022.
Both teams finished the weekend undefeated, each securing nine points across three matches in four days to top their respective groups. And, out of the 305 teams that participated in this weekend’s event, it was the U15’s that earned MLS NEXT Squad of the Day honors for the opening day of games on Friday, December 3.
Aside from all the Real Salt Lake Academy’s collective success this weekend, MLS NEXT Fest provided an incredible opportunity for the players themselves. adidas, one of Major League Soccer’s longest standing partners, helped sponsor the event and believes that MLS NEXT Fest is a great way to continue the growth of youth soccer in America.
“Sponsoring MLS NEXT Fest allows us to support the premier grassroots events in the country as a part of our partnership with MLS,” said Jason Davis of adidas America. “In an ideal world, players will aspire to go from youth clubs to academies to MLS NEXT to MLS NEXT Pro and then to their first teams. So, seeing the league take ownership of this space and seeing them carve out a platform for the top male players in the country to play in is exciting for us.”
From an organizational point of view, events like this are perfect for identifying talent both currently in the Academy and out. An MLS NEXT event from last season is where RSL Academy forward Axel Kei showcased his growth as a player before becoming the youngest individual, male or female, to ever appear for an American professional sports team when he made his debut appearance with the Real Monarchs in October.
“The most important thing this weekend is the development of the players,” explained Real Salt Lake Academy Coach Jamie MacGregor. “This event provides higher-level opponents, better competition and a chance for us to progress. Winning here can get us to the international tournament to play even higher-level European teams, so that is our main goal.”
While the RSL Academy was in California, the first team was in Portland, Oregon for the Western Conference Final. This gave the boys the chance to show their support and watch the match together from the hotel, all the while witnessing first-hand what their continued hard work could bring.
“That’s what we try and envision for our boys is to see where they can actually be,” said MacGregor about watching the Western Conference Final. “Our players can now look at our homegrown guys like Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera, Andrew Brody and David Ochoa all playing in the final and know ‘hey, that can be me.’ And as coaches, we see the
similarities in those first team guys and our players. Especially from our centerbacks, and also through our style of play. The boys look up to those guys and watching the game as a group, they can now envision that for themselves. The number of homegrown players at our Club is incredible and it’s great for our boys to aspire to that level.”
Aspiring to that level is the first piece of the puzzle, but what MLS NEXT truly provides is an opportunity to turn that dream into a reality through hard work and the proper exposure to coaches and scouts from around the world.
“NEXT Fest is a way for us to fulfill a high-level of competition in a very friendly, community-based environment,” explained Fred Lipka, Major League Soccer Vice President and Technical Director of Player Development and MLS NEXT. “It allows all of our clubs to offer players games to fulfill their objective, whether that is to become a pro or a college player. We have a lot of college coaches here and it’s a way to compete in the best way possible.”
The Real Salt Lake Academy checked off every goal that it set out to accomplish at this weekend’s five-day event and has now returned home to enjoy the holidays before continuing its season next year. But for Major League Soccer, the inaugural MLS NEXT Fest was just the tip of the iceberg.
And according to Lipka, MLS NEXT has a lot more than palm trees on the horizon. “Seeing the energy not only on the field from this talent pool, but also off the field was exciting. Our clubs and communities are excited as well and we’re going to keep moving this forward. The future is exciting for soccer and this program.”