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En Route: Real Salt Lake – Arizona “The Jewel Of The Youth Development System”

En Route: Real Salt Lake – Arizona “The Jewel Of The Youth Development System”

A look at the progress of RSL's residency academy in the desert.

Real Salt Lake embarked on a unique, innovative setup for their youth academy in August 2010 with a residential program in Arizona. Six months later, the two Development Academy teams only have two losses combined in fourteen games.

Better yet, Real Salt Lake - Arizona are now getting the chance to show what they really want to accomplish, player development. Last week, RSL head coach Jason Kreis invited eight academy players to train with the full team while they were in Casa Grande, the home of RSL-AZ.

Real Salt Lake - Arizona Academy Director Michael Munoz told Goal.com in a phone interview on Thursday that a handful of his players made a good impression on the full team coach.

“I think Jason (Kreis) will tell you right away he was pleased with those players,” Munoz said. “I do think we have done a good job of preparing them to jump in and succeed at that level.”

Asked if any player left a lasting impression that could lead to a professional contract, he replied, “I think Jason (Kreis) is very close to signing a Home Grown Player.”

Munoz went on to explain that RSL will return to Arizona on Monday and Kreis has invited four of the academy players who the staff are “heavily considering for a professional contract” back to training with the full team.

RSL GM Garth Lagerway told Goal.com in a telephone interview on Thursday, “We have not made any decisions yet. We have had a half dozen in camp with us this week. And we intend to have a couple in camp when we return.” Adding that the evaluation of youth players was an on-going process.

He did offer effusive praise of the work going on at the residency academy. He called it “the jewel of the youth development system.”

He also explained how the unique setup could help RSL compete against other MLS academies. “(It is) a massive opportunity for us to compete with the large markets. The fact is we can’t spend like they can. Through the efforts of good coaching and identifying the best players; hopefully, we can get on level terms or something close to that.”

Identifying the best players for RSL-AZ is a bit trickier than for other MLS Development Academies. The residency staff has courted players from 10 states to their program.

Literally, no area goes untouched for RSL-AZ. Munoz said, “We have definitely tested those boundaries with MLS. We do have some players who are from other territory rights of MLS clubs so that is where it gets a little bit tricky.”

He went on to explain that these players from other states would drive hours each away for Academy training if they remained where they were living. RSL-AZ gave them an opportunity to be walking distance from high-quality training, which happens up to seven days a week for the players who live on campus.

For the players from MLS territories, it is not as easy as just moving to Arizona to be eligible for Home Grown status with RSL. Munoz stated, “The rule, as I understand it right now, is unless the entire family moves to Arizona or Utah we cannot tag those players if they are from another MLS territory. If they are from territories that are not MLS territory (for example: Idaho, New Mexico, or Nevada), those players are free game.”

Even though this residency setup may appear to be distinctive to the U.S. youth soccer system, Munoz bluntly retorted. “We are not reinventing the wheel.”

Munoz believes the residency system is the way of the future for MLS clubs. “Every MLS club needs to eventually have a residency program. That is the only way we are going to push each other and get better.”

He thinks there will be a day when MLS clubs pull their youth programs away from the Development Academy, but that will only happen “once the MLS academies get it right and set the standard for how it should be.”

He did note the positives of many non-MLS Development Academies though. He mentioned how tough the games have been against the non-MLS clubs so far.

RSL-AZ will get a chance to face off against both MLS and non-MLS Development Academy clubs this weekend when they take their first flight as a club to the Pacific Northwest to play Crossfire Premier and Seattle Sounders.

The games should be a good measuring stick for both the U16 and U18 team after a month lay-off from their last Development Academy game. And only two months before both ages head to Dallas Cup and face off against some of the top youth clubs from around the world.

With the U18s playing in Dallas Cup’s Super Group this year and potentially facing against world-renowned clubs like Barcelona and Arsenal, expectations are probably tempered for the rookie club on the big stage. But as Munoz pointed out, “So far, we have exceeded everybody’s expectations.”

As for RSL’s own expectations, player development is how they will judge their success. The first player to make the jump directly from residency to the pros is to be determined, but between the capability and pedigree of the coaches at the youth and full team level, the players are in good hands.

J.R. Eskilson is the Youth Soccer editor at Goal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NCAAsoccer

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