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Los Angeles FC's measured approach to player development -- and to those appointed to guide it -- is starting to pay off concretely, with the initial signings this summer of three Academy players and a huge swath of talent clamoring to follow in their footsteps. It's testament to many things, not least geography and perhaps most of all a unique vision of how an academy should be structured and aligned with the team it's meant to serve.
LAFC's innovative and largely organic culture has prodded success in so many ways, most visibly in the club's gorgeous and often dominant brand of attacking soccer and the rollicking atmosphere found in its beautiful stadium just south of downtown. Its Academy, too, has impressed -- the club's first two trophies were won at the youth level -- while slowly building from the U-12 side that kicked things off in 2016.
Teams have been added, one at a time, and LAFC heads into the coming season -- the first for MLS Next, the league's new development platform -- with six teams, adding a U-19 group to the U-12s, U-13s, U-14s, U-15s and U-17s, with players pushed to compete above their age group. This patient growth has provided great upside in a number of ways, especially in the capacity to craft players and in relationships within Southern California's powerful club landscape.
It's a rather unique approach -- the preference usually is to start with a full complement of youth sides -- that has framed how LAFC is going about the business of creating professional players.
“It didn't just happen overnight,” LAFC Academy director Todd Saldaña said. “We started slowly with just one team and being able to build it up and evolve and grow to the point of having our first team get to know the academy to the point where they wanted to sign three players. Starting with just one team. ... To be able to build something from from scratch, you know, it makes sense to take some time. ...
“It gave us time to build a culture with a group and time before our first team came on board to get a little bit ahead in identifying all the talent and putting together a coaching staff. It gave us a head start and [the ability to] build the academy without feeling like we have to have a first-team player ready within six months to a year. We had time, knowing these were young players, so we could really put a lot of the details into the coaching and into the development of them and the academy without having that pressure of the first game knocking, or the pressure of having four or five other teams that we need to address all at the same time. It basically told us that the club was going to have patience and allow us to build a culture, build the academy.”
The academy debuted two years before the first team took the field and a year before Bob Bradley came on board. LAFC's head coach, embracing this direction, from the onset included Saldaña and Academy director of coaching Enrique Duranin the decision-making process. They and their coaches were used to help scout players in Latin America.
John Thorrington -- LAFC's general manager, executive vice president and now, following Tom Penn's departure, co-interim president -- in 2018 told the Los Angeles Times that utilizing the academy in scouting was “incredibly valuable, [forcing] them to have conversations about what we're looking for in the first team.”
That, in turn, informed the kind of players Saldaña and Co., were building. It all led to the July 8 announcement that 16-year-old forward Christian Torres and defenders Erik Dueñas, 15, and Antonio Leone, 16, had been signed to Homegrown Players contracts, which Saldaña calls “the number one accomplishment” the academy has achieved. Thorrington said it was “a huge moment for us as a club.”