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State Of The Academy: Q&A With LAFC Academy Director Todd Saldaña

In three short years, the LAFC Academy has left its mark on the youth soccer landscape in SoCal and beyond.

It's almost hard to believe the original group, a U12 team back in 2016, now has players in high school. As that group of U15 players prepares to travel to Texas for the Generation adidas Cup finals April 17-20, LAFC Academy Director Todd Saldaña took a moment to talk about what the players and staff have been up to this season and what to expect as they embark on the biggest season to come in 2019-2020:

We're Nearly Three-Quarters Of The Way Into This Development Academy Season, What Have Been Your General Thoughts On The Academy's Performances In 2018-2019? 

Saldaña: I go back to the preseason. Having one of our teams start in international competition is a huge highlight for the Club. Even though we’re fairly new in the Development Academy world, the face that we’re already getting to play against international teams is huge. Our tournament during the summer, bringing in two top Mexican teams to play against our U15s. Also getting to play other teams from outside like Atlanta United and Sporting KC this summer. We’re kind of advancing the competition level, which I think was necessary. We felt like we made a lot of progress pretty quick and people were giving us a lot of credit, but we know it’s up to us to keep raising the bar for ourselves.

I’d say if we did something well, before the season even started, it was that. Raise that level, play top international teams, play other top MLS teams, and our teams fared well. So it gave us even more reason to continue to look for more matches playing up. Our U15s have had a lot of success. But we’ve also played ’03 and ’02 teams almost every week as well. We just keep challenging ourselves.

In Your Mind, Is The Academy Where It Wants To Be?

Saldaña: Maybe it’s sort of a natural progression in some cases because our players are getting older. We have U15s. Next year, we’ll have U17s. They’re getting closer to being looked at by our first team. We feel that we need to accelerate things a bit because if we want to have them ready and capable to go into a first team training session or get more guys into national teams. I would say, we’re ahead of schedule in our teams because we’ve had so much success and our teams are winning. But individually, it’s now time to push them harder.

In building our reputation, it’s great for our teams to do well. It kind of opened all the eyes of the other clubs in SoCal. Players that we’re trying to recruit are going, ‘Oh, wow. I want to play for that team.’ Because we’re successful and the coaching is so strong. But I feel like now, our true job is to develop players for our first team. Now we need to really start ramping that up. And probably, going into next year, put results a little bit on the back burner and really just be about challenging the individuals to make sure they are where they need to be to get looked at by the first team.

What's Been The Greatest Accomplishment/Challenge Of This Season?

Saldaña: Easily, the first thing that comes to mind as the biggest accomplishment is having Tony Leone train with the first team. As much as, again we talk about team success, we’re first in our GA Cup bracket for U15s. That was a marker for us. Especially, as a first-year opportunity. Winning a championship with our U14 group was a huge accomplishment against international competition. But our job being developing players, it’s got to be Tony Leone training with the first team. The amount of players we’ve had in U.S. Soccer’s Player ID program and national team call-ups. Player development has got to be first.

And The Biggest Challenge?

Saldaña: I would say finding creative ways to challenge ourselves. Some of that is we don’t have an older team above our U15s. So to find ways to challenge our players that are at the oldest level. We play older teams. Our ‘04s play ‘03s and ‘02s in friendlies. I actually send three to four players every week to train with an academy that has older teams just to get them challenged in a training environment too. Not to underplay what the academy program or even MLS provides but our biggest challenge is how to find more ways to put our players in tough situations. So, trying to get as many players in training centers and also U.S. Soccer because that puts them with all the best players.

If I look at the biggest challenge, that’s it. We need to be creative. We’re in a great market to do it. You’ll see as we grow our teams older, we’ll be playing semi-professional teams, USL teams with U19s, or there’s UPSL, that has older and ex-college players. Just trying to find more challenging situations.

There's Been An Emphasis On Integration With The First Team This Season, From Players To Staff, How Has That Worked Out?

Saldaña: From Day 1, even when we were back at the other office and Bob was just hired, he sat in some of our meetings and shared some of his insights with us. He kind of watched how we do what we do and he asked us questions to start to get us to test ourselves more and want to do the kind of work that he would recognize. It started from the beginning but that progression with the first team, with their first season under their belt, it won’t be such a distraction to have us around more. So, John [Thorrington] was for it. We as a staff, I asked for it. They came up with the plan of having Enrique and myself in the meetings in the mornings to listen to the evaluations of their games, preparation going into games, what they are going to do at training, and even to the point of watching the video sessions they do. Just listening to the language they use helps us to develop even more in trying to develop a common coaching and soccer language. So when our players go to train and play with them, they’ll have heard it before. Some of the exercises that we see them do when we’re watching first hand, we’ll use in our training. For me, that’s so our players will perform well when they get that chance.

It’s always been good. If you look out at any day in this office, you’ll Cristiano sitting with Carlo trying to get our video as good as we can. You’ll see Enrique with Mike Sorber talking about soccer and players. I think everyone in our staff spends some time with their staff. Ante Razov shares attacking minded stuff. Kenny Arena with his back four, I’m peaking in watching some of the videos he’s putting together for his back four. And we get to watch them train. But it’s been almost an ideal situation.

Going in, we were wondering, would our first team including us so much? I think it’s exceeded expectations because of the way the office is set up. But also, it trickles down from Bob because he’s been so approachable and open to us, so the rest of the staff has been the same way. On the daily, you see professional staff working with Academy staff, even if it’s just talking soccer.

What's In Store For The Academy Next Season?

Saldaña: [The U15s] will be U17s next year. Technically, we don’t have 2003s. Which is what that true age group would be next year. But our plan is, because we’ve invested so much in that group, we will use predominately that team in U17 next year. So the Tony Leones, the Dylan Prestos, the guys that have been in the national team camps a little bit, and guys that need a challenge will be playing against a year older all the time. It jumps an age group. But we’re going to use the players that we’ve invested in and worked with over the last couple of years that are 2004s. They’ll be playing a year up next year. We’re still looking to find some special 2003s that we can add to the team. Guys that we think have a chance of being first team, that have professional potential.

Is The Jump In Competition The Thing Your Most Excited About For Next Season?

Saldaña: It’s going to be huge. As we got a little way into the Development Academy, we realized that we are going to need to be playing up. In each age group, probably close to 50 percent of the players will be playing up an age group. For it to be the kind of challenge we want every week, our roster is going to have to be young. There have been some people, and even some MLS clubs, saying the competition in DA isn’t enough. But we can use the league anyway that we see fit. It’s good competition and its within range of Southern California. We don’t have to travel as much as we might, especially with these young players. We can use the league the way with think is best by playing up. So, this is natural for us. It is jumping an age group and automatically there will be a challenge every week with our players playing up. And it’s that group we’ve had for a few years. It’s nice to step up with a group we feel very confident can compete at that level.

But again, I will still say, we’re getting ready to play Generation adidas Cup against Mexican clubs and we have plans to bring in clubs from outside the area, MLS and international teams, this summer again to play against our players to try to keep challenging them that way. And then, the fact that we will have a lot of our rosters playing up next year, it will change the dynamic of every week’s game. We’ve gone into every week this year feeling it’s pretty likely we are going to score goals and have a lot of success. We’ll start going into games with our players being challenged, having to solve more problems, figuring out how to get out of situations, dealing with a more physical player, and maybe a more mature player at times.

Having that every week is definitely the next step for our players.

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