LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – UCLA’s Intramural Fields across from the historic Pauley Pavillion set the stage for LAFC’s Youth Academy preseason friendly showcase last weekend in the Westwood district of Los Angeles, California.
The event featured the U.S. Soccer Development Academy teams from LAFC, San Jose Earthquakes, Pateadores, Galaxy-San Diego, Chula Vista Futbol Club and international Academy Tijuana Xolos (Liga MX) in three different age groups: U-12, U-13 and U-14.
On Saturday evening, From the Touchline Editor Matthew Santangelo stopped by the event and sat down to speak with LAFC’s Academy Director Todd Saldaña.
Q: What’s been the focus for you in scouting talent into the LAFC organization?
“We put together a scouting program where we hired five scouts, basically by region: Inland Empire, South LA, South Bay and Orange County among them. So we have guys out scouting in those areas on a regular basis every week. We have once a week meetings and conference calls to go over the targets. That was one of the first things we set out to do once we got started last June.”
Q: Many clubs are investing their efforts into the South American market for talent. Do you have a network abroad or is that something currently being discussed by management?
“That’s more the focus for our first team. John Thorrington (General Manager), Bob Bradley have a scouting network looking for young, professional talent; that is really their world. That is the model that is really being successful in Major League Soccer now; a younger, up and coming player. The big part from what we’ve done from the beginning with Thorrington is working on what team we want to be. Our academy teams will look very much like what we want our first team to be: a very dynamic, attacking-minded team, very diverse.
We are hitting every part of LA. We have Argentine and Nigerian kids, an all-American boy. That is a lot of what John envisions our first team to look like.”
Q: Does LAFC have an established goalkeeping sector of the academy?
“We hired a goalkeeper coach who handles all three of our age groups now. Neil Thompson, who was originally working for a top academy in Chicago called Chicago Soccers, has been involved with U.S. Soccer as a scout and goalkeeping coach for the Youth National Teams. We brought him in because we feel he will attract great goalkeepers. He also has a network because of his scouting, and because of his academy work. One of the first things we did with him is introduce him to all of the goalkeeper trainers by region in South California. So he would go out every week and meet with a different coach from a different region who sees the local goalkeepers. They would feed those top talents to us and we would do a clinic; that is Neil’s focus. Obviously talent identification but also with development. He is a guy with a ton of experience and knows what goalkeepers at the top level are supposed to look like.”
Q: The youth teams and first team are around each other often, and that seems to be a part of the philosophy here at LAFC. What is the thought behind that?
“We hired Enrique Duran, our Director of Coaching, who has put together an integrated curriculum. All three age groups will have similar principles of play, and that are age appropriate. We are training in the same locations. Every week, we have four or five players from an age group play up so that they are being challenged, but also so they can apply those same principles into the next level and move seamlessly between each group, which we hope will be our playing identity that matches USL and MLS.”
Q: Members from each of the five groups in the Supporters’ Union (The 3252) show up to the youth matches each weekend. From a kids perspective, what do you think that feels like to be treated like the stars?
“To see them getting that experience, and having supporters cheering and pushing you on so early that they see in the stadiums on television, it gives them that extra motivation and responsibility to play their hardest. You see how much they care.
In our first game, we had a full supporters’ group out there, and the kids played one of their best matches of the season. We were curious as to how they’d take it, but in a way, it kind of took away the nerves. They were excited and just played. They couldn’t feel the pressure from their parents; it was just about the soccer. It was a great boost for the boys who rose to the occasion and gave the supporters even more.”
Q: Which players on the U-14 side stand out for you?
“We have a center-back named Tony Leone who we feel has a lot of great characteristics like size, good feet on the ball, great passing ability and intelligence. He’s very competitive and has a confident aura. Next, we have a central midfielder named Dylan Presto, a very solid all-around player with strong passing ability. He really dictates the tempo of the game for us. Our left-back Bo Yance has a very good left foot with a great engine who can get up and down the line and cross balls in. Those three make up the building blocks of our U-14 team. Defending is your number one priority, but it’s also very important to play out the back. It gives us extra numbers going forward, and those three in particular allow us to do that.
Kevin Gimenez, a left winger we found in an unaffiliated league, came into our team last year and scored eleven goals in a very short period of time. Very unlikely short, stocky yet powerful player who takes people on and score goals. We’ve got a few players for sure, but we are also being careful not to get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Q: We are still months away, and the team structure is still being worked on, but what are LAFC’s expectations for the inaugural campaign?
“I don’t want to speak for Bob or John in that sense, but the first signing speaks for how we want to play the game; an attacking brand of soccer. Bob has so much experience worldwide that I think you will see a diverse team with a really solid structure.
We are expecting to hit the ground running. We already got a top attacking player in Carlos Vela, and I believe Bob will surround him with other talented attackers, while also building a solid foundation.
The support is going to be a big driving force. I think a player is going to want to play for LAFC and give everything they have for the supporters. There has been such a build-up that there will be a great amount of excitement behind it that the team will ride in the first year.”