Real Salt Lake knew it would take some time for their strategy to pay off. That’s still true. But the hope remains that eventually the club’s academy program in Casa Grande, Ariz., will pay massive dividends soon.
RSL’s Arizona operation is unique in MLS — a residential program in the middle of the desert about 50 miles from Phoenix – the idea is to develop talent that fits in at the parent club. This is crucial for a small-market team that has seen tremendous success without splashy Designated Player signings. The future at Rio Tinto is going to come from homegrown talent, such as Nico Muñiz, the first academy graduate to join the first team.
Muñiz, a native of Albuquerque, N.M., exemplifies the possibilities of the residential program, one of only two in MLS (Vancouver also have one). The residency allows the team to draw from a wide geographic region, snagging players from underserved areas.
“There were a lot of kids that came from smaller markets, like the four corner region – Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado or the western Texas area,” RSL- AZ assistant coach Freddy Juarez explained recently to MLSsoccer.com. “They don’t really get the recognition because it’s not big clubs. So I think we caught a lot of people by surprise last year.”
The RSL-AZ setup is at the Grande Sports World resort. It features a hotel at its epicenter, and has all the amenities that a sports program could want, including workout facilities, equipment and indoor training space. There are nine soccer fields for training and games.
There are ancillary benefits, too. For the last couple of seasons, RSL have hosted a winter “combine” at the facility – a chance to bring in trialists, and get an early look at draft eligible players. The facility makes the logistics of such an event much easier. And come February, this former baseball spring training site will become a home away from home for the first team to begin their preseason training in anticipation of the MLS season.
But the focus of the program is and always will be on preparing talented kids to come into the professional ranks. The program is still in its infancy, but growing.
“We doubled the residency [now at 43 kids], so as far as recruitment it became easier with last year’s success,” Juarez said.
And the program is growing in stature, as well. Recently, RSL brought in US national team assistant coach Martin Vasquez as its director, a role he will hold concurrent with his USMNT duties.
Now, the real work begins: producing the next generation of RSL stars.