Most players that make it in the North American soccer leagues earn their spot by impressing during their college years. However, Major League Soccer has started to adopt a European approach to youth development in recent years, following a change of rules in 2006 which granted clubs the right to retain players that had trained in their youth systems.
Rather than plucking up amateurly trained players and throwing them straight into the first-team mix, many youngsters are now moulded into professional soccer stars from an early age, in order to prepare them not only for life on the pitch but life off of it too.
Real Salt Lake are the latest club to pump money into the academy method, after announcing their plans to build a new $50 million training complex, which they believe will allow them to grow their own elite players. It sounds like a ridiculous amount of money, but you only have to look at the success of other sides to know that they will reap the rewards in years to come.
Just look at LA Galaxy, for example, who already have six players on their books who have graduated from their own academy system – Jack McBean, Oscar Sorto, Jose Villarreal, Raúl Mendiola, Bradford Jamieson IV and the hugely talented Gyasi Zardes. The Galaxy Academy, modelled on the brilliant system in place at Barcelona’s La Masia, has quickly made a name for itself as one of the biggest and best set-ups in North America, with more than 150 youngsters training at their facilities each week.
Despite the success that the Galaxy Academy has already achieved, the club is continuing to step up their attempts to build a youth system that can compete with the best academies in the world, such as La Masia, or Ajax’s De Toekomst, with approximately $4 million spent on player development annually.
Last year saw the club become MLS pioneers of the full-time schooling program that has begun to dominate academy systems in Europe, opening a new school catering to 50 students, which ensures that they receive a high school education alongside the first class training that the club already offered.
Those awarded a place on the program, a number of which are likely to star for the first-team in the future, are deemed to be the most talented players available to the club. In order to give them the best chance of progressing, these players are put on the same training schedule as the senior sides, using the same locker rooms, equipment, and dining areas, in order to fully integrate them into club life. In total, youth prospects spend approximately nine hours a day at the club, training, learning and eating.
The Galaxy Academy has clearly taken inspiration from some of the more successful systems, but they are beginning to tweak the set-up to suit their own needs. While some academies tend to allow younger players to operate in a number of positions, the LA Galaxy academy chooses to offer position-specific training. For example, goalkeepers are required to attend two extra keeper-only sessions a month, where they work through a tailored program with a host of top coaching talent.
Of course, the academy approach in North America is still in the early stages and still has a long way to go before MLS can rival the academies operating in the Spain, England, and The Netherlands. However, it is a system that has proven to work, and it’s only so long before North American soccer starts to see results.