Los Angeles Football Club may be the most-hyped M.L.S. expansion franchise ever. Playing in a stunning stadium in the heart of the City of Angels, led by former U.S. Soccer Men's National Team head coach Bob Bradley and making bold personnel moves, Hollywood can hardly wait for the team's 2018 M.L.S. debut.
But LAFC has already taken the field in the Development Academy, the nation's highest level of youth soccer. When the club's academy launched last year, the U-12s squared off against established M.L.S. sides for the first time. This weekend's U-13 and U-14 West Regional Showcase isn't only a major step in the development of LAFC's players, but also in the development of the club itself. Academy Regional Showcases are the first events for the the nation's elite youth players and LA's presence for the first time is key to its development of a world-class club environment.
This weekend is giving LA its first chance to compete with top clubs outside its division and see where they stack up. Its players are facing off against new opponents and have the chance to shine in their first major exposure to U.S. Soccer Talent Identification. While the M.L.S. expansion side will debut this March, the Academy is already actively working towards the club's lofty expectations.
"We are a new club, but we're also an M.L.S. franchise. We're also in a market that has lots of talent," said Todd Saldana, LAFC Academy Director. "There's been a lot of energy put into making sure people know we're a downtown LA club. The image I think will hold true from the first team to our youth… We talk a lot about setting our own standard, knowing that expectations are high. It's good to see that we're on the right track."
Captain Diego Rosales, one of the first to wear the club's winged crest, understands the importance of representing the club at its first Regional Showcase.
"It's a good experience to be a part of the first generation," Rosales said. "(To wear the crest) gives me confidence. It takes a lot of respect."
As a brand-new club, LAFC has the unique opportunity to construct an academy and a culture from the ground up. The academy began at the U-12 level last year. This year, the inaugural class of LAFC has transitioned and expanded into the U-13 and U-14 squads. Enrique Duran coaches the U-13s. After developing youth players in Europe at clubs like FC Barcelona, he has had a key hand in shaping LAFC as the Player Development and MethodologyAdvisor.
"This is the first time I'm building from scratch. All the stuff that I was doing there (in Europe), is the stuff that they were doing for the last 100 years," Duran said. "Here, we have an opportunity to build the team the way that we would like to build it. We can play the style that we think is going to fit better with the kids that we are starting to identify."
The West Regional Showcase is LAFC's first chance at an Academy event, and it's the only event exclusively for the U-13 and U-14 age group. It's an important part of the pathway to prepare players for the bigger Showcases and Academy Playoffs that they'll participate in down the road.
"It's a first step for these guys," said Saldana. "It's exactly what they've needed. They've already felt a good challenge, a little bit of atmosphere. This event can really challenge the players and get them experience that hopefully will help them get to our first team one day."
Saldana came to LAFC after working as a Technical Advisor for the Southwest Region in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy and as a senior National Team scout. As a TA, Saldana understands the importance of the event for exposing his players to U.S. Soccer talent identification and getting accustomed to playing with Youth National Team coaches and scouts on the sidelines. All games at Showcase events are scouted, and the West Regional has been attended by legions of scouts and YNT staff.
"One of their goals is to get to our National Team," Saldana said. "It can make them a little anxious, but it's also excitement. We felt that a little bit in our first game, but by the time we got into the second half, they had loosened up and realized they're still the same players they were before, but now you have important people watching you from U.S. Soccer."
In addition to National Team aspirations, for a group of players that started at the ground level with LAFC, there's a unique opportunity as they progress on their development pathways.
"They can be, in three, four, five years, the first player to play in the M.L.S. for LAFC from the Academy," Duran said. "That's something that's never going to happen again…. We know that we have a long way to go, but this is the beginning for us."
The Academy's goal isn't limited to producing first-team players. LAFC has seized the opportunity to instill a culture from the bottom-up. As the first team and Academy continue to work in the same direction, there's hope that they can produce more than just quality professionals and victories on the pitch.
"We are going to be creating players for our first team, but the most important thing is that we need to create players that will love soccer," Duran said. "If we want to engage people to watch soccer, we need to create something that will be different. We are going to be trying to make an effort to help these kids love soccer and have in their minds to be professional soccer players."