Thursday, April 9, 2009

More on James Rogers and the Youth Academy System

Many of you probably read the recent article by Dan Rasmussen from the Deseret News on Highland High's James Rogers. The 15-year old sensation is one of a few players within RSL's Youth Academy system that the organization has it's eyes on. Because of his performances in the U-15 system, and especially last year on the U-17 team that won the SUM Cup, he has become the most well known of the group.

So how does James Rogers potentially fit into RSL's future? How does the Youth Academy system work and what is the so-called "home grown talent" designation? Also, what about the upcoming Trofeo Quixote tournament in Spain?

About three years ago MLS announced plans for each team to potentially create Youth Academies that would allow them to pluck talent from after a 2-year period of certifying their programs. RSL developed programs in Arizona, Florida and of course Utah. I believe that now most, if not all, MLS clubs have a program in place that now allows them to add one player to their roster that has been designated as "home grown talent". To this point, I believe that the New York Red Bulls may have been the only team to use this designation.

The other advantage of the program is that it also can be used to keep other teams "hands off" the players within these academies. This may become an important aspect of the league over the next several years barring major changes to the rules as a result of the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement after the current one is set to expire in January.

These "home grown talent" players become a special designation of developmental players similar to Generation Adidas players and do not count against the roster.

So how does all of this fit with Rogers? First of all keep in mind that there are other quality players. The Sum Cup championship team consisted of 11 RSL-Utah players, 4 RSL-Florida players, and 3 RSL-Arizona players. One of the RSL-Arizona players, Adrian Saldana, saw action against Real Salt Lake reserves for a couple of weeks last season. Despite being superior to most of his competition at the youth level, by all accounts he struggled against the MLS competition. This wasn't a sign of his talent level, but he just didn't have the experience and the exposure against that level of competition. Thanks to this video, we also know about 18-year old Gaby Okito currently playing for Yavapai College (a soccer powerhouse in the junior college ranks).

Saldana's experience shows why RSL has a vision of bringing along youth players more slowly. As Lagerway described it, their vision is essentially a pyramid:

  • The base of the pyramid being youth clubs, such as the RSL Youth Academy.
  • The middle tier being a PDL club (Ogden Outlaws) where the players would play against older players in a more structured program. This is the reason that RSL is investing time, energy and money in the Outlaws program. Appointing RSL assistant coach Jeff Cassar to oversee this, and bringing in former Dallas Burn player Ted Eck to coach the team are signs that they view this as an important step.
  • The final tier is still being developed by RSL, as they are looking to partner with a USL-1 team to help continue this development. While there is no arrangement in place, RSL recently hosting the Austin Aztex may be a first step that could lead to a future partnership between the two sides.
So where does that leave Rogers? Well according to RSL GM Garth Lagerway he is going to have a very busy year this year. He has the Highland High soccer season to finish up. He'll be playing in the Trofeo Quixote in Spain in June. He's also eligible to compete in another year of the U-17 SUM Cup tournament taking place this year, and he'll be seeing time with the PDL's Ogden Outlaws. This is all a step in his development, and it's by design. As Lagerway pointed out, "the idea of going from a Youth Team directly into the first team is just not realistic."

The Trofeo Quixote tournament in Spain will be a good test for Rogers as he may compete against the future stars of professional soccer around the world. The tournament is setup to unofficial determine the world's best U-17 club team, of which RSL's team will be the representative from the US. There were some concerns that he may have travel restrictions because of his political asylum status, but those have been worked out.

The team will be coached by Utah Youth Soccer Association Technical Director Greg Maas who is a key figure in RSL's Youth Academy in Utah. In addition, RSL assistant coach Brian Johnson will make the trip to Spain.

While we may not expect Rogers in a an RSL-MLS kit right away, he is definitely a player to keep your eye on.