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LAFC academy’s “slow build” is ready to deliver big results

bob bradley
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When LAFC were announced as Major League Soccer’s latest expansion team in 2014, the club came ready-made with big names and even loftier ambitions. The goal was to make LAFC a truly global club from the heart of Los Angeles.

Off the pitch, a plan was swiftly put into action to build a stadium that has since become one of the best and most atmospheric in MLS. On the pitch, meanwhile, the club assembled a frighteningly talented roster featuring the likes of Mexican great Carlos Vela that under the leadership of Bob Bradley recorded the best regular season in MLS history in just the team’s second year in the league in 2019.

But as well as importing stars, the plan from the start at LAFC has been to create them, too. Now, more than five years later, the newcomers’ vision is coming into much clearer focus.

It launched with just one team – an Under-12 side which immediately, and famously, drew the support of the ultras who would later pack the 3252 section at Banc of California Stadium when they faced their Galaxy counterparts – in 2016, long before Vela and his squad made their MLS debut.

Today the Black & Gold’s academy now fields four youth teams, most of them dominant in their age groups in U.S. Soccer Development Academy action. They’ve won a clutch of hardware and awards, including the USSDA’s U-15 Golden Ball, Golden Boot and Fair Play honors and the DA’s Coaching Staff of the Year (West) nod last season as well as the 2019 Concacaf U-13 Champions League trophy. They sent six players up to spend two weeks with the first team during preseason, and earned a healthy list of US youth national team call-ups across the program.

“I think it’s always been a slow build. That’s always been the play,” explained LAFC Academy Manager Tony Vigil to last month.

The product on the field has vindicated that approach thus far, moving the project forward quickly enough that the matter of LAFC’s first-ever Homegrown Player signing is no longer a distant, hypothetical proposition. Another symbolic milestone was passed in February, when Christian Torres became the first academy player to score a goal at “The Banc,” in a preseason friendly vs. Toronto FC:

“Without sounding like I’m boasting, I think we’re ahead of schedule,” said Academy Director Todd Saldana. “The oldest players we have are U-17 and basically we’re playing them up a year; it’s primarily players that are U-16.

“The first team is now very serious about six of them, and even more serious about probably three, which means they feel they can contribute at the first-team level, knowing that it may take some time, but through training and being involved in some matches as U-16 players primarily, they’re already interested in using them, potentially signing them. We don’t have U-19 [yet], we don’t have USL, for that matter – that feels to me like we’re ahead of schedule.”

Stay small, stay local
That “slow build” term can be applied literally, too. With the club adopting a defiantly downtown identity, both the first team and the academy work on a startlingly small physical footprint at Cal State LA, a stone’s throw from the tangled concrete junction where the Santa Monica and Long Beach freeways (I-10 and the 710) meet.

While many MLS clubs have sought out sprawling suburban complexes for their training grounds, LAFC elected to set up shop in a central area of their enormous metropolis where land is scarce and difficult to obtain. They presently have primary access to just two fields: The first team’s lush grass pitch in front of their Performance Center, and the turf field inside the track oval across campus at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium, home to the academy teams.

A look at LAFC’s Performance Center | Courtesy of LAFC

It’s a dramatically different picture from the Galaxy’s roomy environs at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson. And that’s just how LAFC like it.

“Obviously we would love to have some of the space that some of the other academies do have access to, but I think we do a good job of making the most of it, and we really do our best to keep everybody connected at training time,” said Vigil.

“Everything we do is centered around being LA’s team, being in the heart of LA. That was something that we started very early on,” he added.

“We have a map of where everybody’s from; in terms of Cal State LA or the stadium being the epicenter, I want to say it’s over 85% of kids that are playing for our academy are less than 15 miles from that. So, we’ve really tried to stay true to our mission from the very get-go, and having that LA kid grow up in our academy and [eventually] be a part of the first team … An extra hour in one direction eliminates a lot of talent that we may have access to.”

In a freeway-laced megalopolis with world-famous traffic and sprawl, LAFC’s academy has placed accessibility before scale, even though it’s cost them a few top players in the keen competition for Southern California’s top youth talent.

“We’re lucky because we also have a very strong pool within close distance of where we train, but the interest goes way beyond that,” said Saldana, a veteran of the SoCal scene who does not hesitate to shoot straight when players and families from as far afield as Santa Barbara and San Diego express interest in joining his program.

“Plenty of players that have approached us and we’ve identified that want to come,” he said. “But I’ve even discussed it with them and almost recommend that they not come, at least at the younger ages. Those that have a longer distance to travel, I’ve asked them to do the commute for a few weeks first and see how it is in terms of managing the time, schoolwork, the rest and energy of the player.”

Close connections

Bob Bradley talks with Diego Rosales during preseason training in January | Courtesy of LAFC

The setup at Cal State LA also provides the advantage of close partnership between Saldana’s group and the one led by LAFC head coach Bob Bradley, with the former keenly focused on molding players who will fit the aggressive, possession-heavy philosophy of the latter. They share the same open-concept office space at the Performance Center and interact constantly, even trotting out to the pitch for occasional staff pickup games.

“All of our soccer ops are in the same building,” said Vigil. “In terms of first team and academy staff interaction, it’s pretty seamless. We all know each other, we all bounce ideas off each other, there’s stuff written on the walls that we can walk around. When they’re having meetings out in the space, we’re able to hear that stuff, guys will come by and ask questions here and there.”

First-team players often stop by youth events as well. In April fullback Jordan Harvey – who was recruited to UCLA by Saldana nearly 20 years ago – spent nearly an hour on a video call with the entire academy, answering questions and recounting his career path with more than 100 kids.

“Be a student. Listen to your coaches. Treat your craft and your job like it’s your profession,” advised Harvey.

Might one of those young ones someday be chosen to become that inaugural LAFC Homegrown? Whoever it is, you can be sure the choice won’t be taken lightly.

“It was very strategic how they brought Bob, and they could’ve signed any superstar to get their roster started but they strategically signed Carlos [Vela],” said Vigil. “So that first Homegrown player, I think, will go under that same strategic analysis. It’s not just going to be a player that’s good, he’s going to have to be a very talented player, but also the right fit for everything that we’re doing … it’s about much more than just being talented at our club.

“We’re just now at a point where the kids have aged enough to at least start getting sniffs,” he noted. “It’s been the goal since day one to have those kids walk out under the lights. It’s just now coming of age a little bit to where you’re starting to have those conversations, or at least kids are starting to be noticed. And it’s a great feeling for us.”

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