By Mike Anderson, special contributor to USYouthSoccer.org
In an attempt to develop future players for the league, Major League Soccer has enacted a mandate which requires all clubs to field youth teams or academy teams. For teams such as DC United, LA Galaxy and the New York Red Bulls, huge markets make developing youth academies much easier than other teams in the league. For Utah's Real Salt Lake, a smaller market and isolated location provided a challenge for developing a youth academy.
Former RSL coach John Ellinger decided the best approach to developing their youth academy was to utilize and expand on a system already in place, the Utah US Youth Soccer Olympic Development Program (US Youth Soccer ODP). Last week, the Under-17 Real Salt Lake academy team defeated defending champions DC United to win the MLS SUM U-17 championship, and they did so utilizing the US Youth Soccer ODP system to select the members of the team.
Utah Youth Soccer Association Technical Director Greg Maas took over the Utah US Youth Soccer ODP seven years ago. Maas' mission was to create an inclusive system in which players and coaches from every club in every part of the state supported and participated in for the sake of representing their state. The result has been more than positive as players involved in Utah US Youth Soccer ODP have found opportunities not previously available. Utah had five players named to the US Youth Soccer ODP Region IV player pool when Maas arrived. Today there are 36 players representing the state on regional pools as opportunities for those players continue their development.
When Ellinger approached Maas a few years ago about incorporating Utah US Youth Soccer ODP and the Real Salt Lake youth academy, Ellinger saw a program that was aggressive in its approach to finding and developing not just the best players at that time, but players with future potential as well. As a result, Maas was asked to take charge of the Under-17 RSL academy team. As an expansion team, funding such programs can be tough, and Maas was asked to take on the position as a volunteer. Satellite clubs were created in Arizona and Florida to supplement the youth pool derived from Utah US Youth Soccer ODP, and a player pool was created with a revolving door to allow many players to showcase their abilities.
Preceding the MLS SUM Cup, Maas looked for the right group of players to mix from Utah and the RSL affiliates. He chose 11 players from Utah, and wanted to utilize the affiliate clubs to top off the roster. Current Real Salt Lake head coach Jason Kreis and his staff would often stick around after the full team training to watch the Under-17s. Kreis identified three Arizona players who he believed should be a part of the SUM Cup squad, players Maas had originally become aware of from their involvement in the US Youth Soccer ODP Region IV player pool. Meanwhile, RSL Florida director Adrian Bush along with Kreis and his Real Salt Lake staff identified the players to be involved from Florida.
The Under-17 Real Salt Lake team took the tournament by surprise winning their group, and ultimately the championship to earn placement in next year's Dallas Cup Super Group, as well as the Trofeo Quixote tournament held in Spain, the unofficial world youth club championship.
During their run to the top of Under-17 MLS ladder, Real Salt Lake fielded at least seven starters from Utah US Youth Soccer ODP in each game. However, the news of the tournament was the emergence of Utah forward James Rogers. A refugee from Sierra Leone, Rogers is the youngest member of the team as he just turned 15 years old. Rogers scored in every game as he led the tournament with seven goals, and was named the Most Valuable Player.
Unlike most MLS academy teams, the players of Real Salt Lake will return to their club and US Youth Soccer ODP teams as normal. Maas has been able to create a balance in the state of Utah where clubs, US Youth Soccer ODP and Real Salt Lake share players for the good of development.
Maas sees this as the best way to keep as many players as possible involved in the US Youth Soccer ODP system, and increase the opportunities available to the participants. He believes the task of identifying and developing players is a process, and never wants players to feel like they are shut out of any opportunity.
The team prepares to face international competition next year in front of professional scouts from all over the world at the Trofeo Quixote in Madrid, Spain. The players of Real Salt Lake will see the likes of Boca Juniors from Argentina and Sao Paulo of Brazil listed on the winner's trophy. In such a competition, players such as Rogers might find an opportunity to move to the next level, be it in college or a professional contract.