The Kids Are All Right
Zions Bank Real Academy Mixing Soccer and STEM
At the Zions Bank Real Academy, Real Salt Lake is developing a generation of athletes that will put Utah — and the United States — on the soccer map. As soon as they finish their homework.
On a fateful night last October, after a bizarre series of upsets, the United States Men’s National Team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. For the first time since 1986, U.S. soccer players and their disappointed fans will be watching the tournament from home.
American soccer fans want reconstruction, but don’t know where to look for hope. Real Salt Lake Owner Dell Loy Hansen does.
“If you’re going to find great soccer players, you’re going to come to Utah,” he says. Specifically, they’ll be emerging from the new Zions Bank Real Academy in Herriman, Utah, a youth soccer development facility that opened around the time the U.S. crashed out of qualifying for the World Cup. “Our goal is to be the Harvard of soccer in America,” Hansen says.
Soccer is a young person’s game. Players often begin their professional careers as teenagers after coming up through a club’s academy system. Until now, the best players in the world have been developed overseas, but Hansen has a vision for American soccer, beginning with Real Salt Lake.
“We think we can be like the major European clubs, like Barcelona or Ajax,” he says. Even if you don’t follow soccer, you’ve probably heard of Leo Messi. The (only lightly disputed) greatest player of all time began at Barcelona’s academy at age 13.
With the Zions Bank Real Academy, Hansen says Real Salt Lake and its sponsors have created the perfect environment to cultivate the next Messi. The facility combines academic education with soccer education. There’s a STEM-focused (science, technology, engineering and math) charter school on campus where academy players mix with other students from the community, and Hansen believes the quality of the school will help draw promising players.
“The kids don’t care,” he says. “They just want to play soccer. But the parents absolutely care, and I’m recruiting the parents every bit as much as I’m recruiting a top soccer player. We needed the parents to realize their child will have a first-class education.”
Working Alongside the Pros
There are 20 academy players each on three squads: the U-19s (under 19 years old), U-17s and U-15s. Students live on campus and train two and a half hours a day on professional-grade indoor and outdoor fields. The fields have to be professional grade, because RSL and its development team, Real Monarchs, train on them too. That proximity to the first and second team is another benefit for academy kids: Not only do they get to watch the pros, but they also practice alongside them and work with the same coaching staff, creating a seamless soccer education as they graduate through the academy teams to the Monarchs and, hopefully, to Real Salt Lake.
Many roads lead to Major League Soccer. While NBA and NFL teams mainly sign prospects out of college and MLB teams promote from their farm system, MLS club rosters are a mix of players brought in from foreign leagues, college teams, local club systems, the Monarchs’ United Soccer League, and other lower pro and semipro leagues. But despite all these talent pools they can draw from, Hansen and Real Salt Lake are looking hardest at the high school — and even junior high school — aged kids in their academy for their next superstars. And they’re not just looking; they’re finding them.
For instance, when the United States won the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship for the first time last year, five of the 20 players on the team were products of Real Salt Lake’s academy. “Now there are 24 MLS teams, 61 Division 1 colleges, 36 USL teams,” Hansen says. “That’s where (the U.S. U-20 coaches) can pick all these young players from, and they picked 25 percent from that one class (of RSL’s academy).”
Four of the five RSL academy players who lifted the CONCACAF U-20 trophy now feature regularly for Real Salt Lake, and none have celebrated their 21st birthday. The group went through the academy before the move to Herriman, when it was located in Casa Grande, Arizona.
Danny Acosta, who scored the penalty that won USA the U-20 title and is now a first-choice defender for RSL, is one of that group of four. He was 14 years old playing in a tournament with his club team when RSL assistant coach Freddy Juarez invited him to try out. A week later they invited him to join the academy.
“Everyone’s competitive,” Acosta says. “Everyone’s trying to be in the starting group. No one wants to be on the bench. That’s how the team becomes better. The guy in front of you makes you want to work 10 times harder.”
The talent in Acosta’s group wasn’t a fluke either, according to Hansen. “We have others coming. We actually think the group that’s U-16 now is better than that group, and that group was amazing,” he says.
You’ve got to think Hansen is wondering how far in advance he can buy his plane ticket to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.