By Clemente Lisi via– NEW YORK, NY (Dec 21, 2011) US Soccer Players – Arizona will be the epicenter of American soccer over the next two months. The United States will play at University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale on January 21st against Venezuela to open their 2012 schedule. A month later, on February 22nd,four MLS teams – the Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution and Real Salt Lake – will begin play in the preseason Desert Diamond Cup at Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium in Tucson.

The Copper State isn’t just a place for the traveling soccer circus to temporarily setup shop.  It’s also home to the Grande Sports World facility in Casa Grande, located 50 miles south of Phoenix.  While baseball teams have traditionally used Arizona for spring training with its aptly-named Cactus League, soccer has also gravitated there because of the cold weather that sweeps the nation during the first few months of the year. Real Salt Lake was the first to set down roots in Arizona, using Grande Sports to establish a world-class residency academy, the first of its kind in this country.

The mission statement of the RSL-AZ Academy is straightforward: “Teach the next generation of potential Real Salt Lake players how to train and play ‘the RSL way’  while providing them with a quality education both on and off the field.”

“The ability to direct and control the development of the young players who come through our new RSL-Arizona Academy is critical to our future success,” RSL General Manager Garth Lagerwey said in the press release announcing the academy.  “The progression of the academy system in the United States helps us identify and develop the talent that can succeed at domestic and international levels for club and country.”

Modeled after Barcelona’s La Masia and the Ajax youth academy in Holland, the goal is the produce a new generation of American players who can play in Major League Soccer.  Last week, RSL hosted an open-invitation combine in Casa Grande.  Last year’s gathering led to the signing of the team’s first Home Grown Player in midfielder Nico Muniz this past September.

Muniz, 18, likened the academy to the talent factories of Europe.  “This is the best place in the States to be if you want to play like a European system,” he said.

Located on the sprawling, 45-acre campus of Grande Sports World, RSL-AZ is the only residential academy in the country affiliated with an MLS club.  The players train, live in dorms, and attend school while being fully immersed in an environment where high school-age players can fully develop into pro athletes.  The players can use six soccer fields while taking advantage of a full-time staff nutritionist.  The plan is already bearing fruit.  Eleven high school seniors received scholarships to play NCAA Division I soccer this past fall, ranking RSL-AZ second overall (out of 78 US Soccer Development Academies) in scholarship offers.

The academy, which has a U-16 and U-18 program, is run by former Chivas USA coach Martin Vazquez, who was named director of soccer operations this past summer.

“It is a great honor and a dream come true to be able to make a positive impact on the young men at the Real Salt Lake-Arizona Academy, who we hope to develop into great players,” he said after taking the job.  “I am looking forward to achieving great things both on and off the field with the academy players.”

Some great things have already taken place under Vazquez.  In its latest academy club evaluations released this fall, US Soccer gave RSL-AZ high marks.  The residential academy got three stars (out of five) for its overall end of year club rating.  It also received 3½ stars for its training environment and five stars out of five for its facilities.  Since 2010, RSL-AZ has also participated in US Soccer’s Development Academy, which offers youth players a competitive League to showcase their talents.

At last week’s four-day combine, Vazquez was joined by RSL assistant coaches Jeff Cassar, Miles Joseph, and C.J. Brown to assess talent. Joseph, who earned three caps with the National Team and ended his MLS career with the Dallas Burn in 2001, said the academy has created an “ultra-competitive environment,” particularly for those on the U-16 level.

Whether or not RSL-AZ can churn out talent on a regular basis at Major League Soccer level and beyond  remains to be seen.  With that in mind, there’s still plenty for RSL’s commitment to the academy model to prove.  What can’t be questioned is the ambition Real Salt Lake is showing with their project in the Arizona desert.

Clemente Lisi is a New York-based writer. Contact him at: Follow him on Twitter at:


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