All it took was a momentary flick of the wrist for 16-year old Erik Dueñas to make history – signing his name to an official MLS contract on July 8 that made him, along with teammates Tony Leone and Christian Torres, the first players from the LAFC Academy to sign with the first team.
But it was over four years of planning, hard work and strategizing from the LAFC Academy that led up to that moment.
“This is a huge moment for us as a Club.” LAFC EVP of Soccer Operations and General Manager John Thorrington said.
While LAFC played its first MLS game in Seattle on March 4, 2018 – that was not actually the first time a team decked out in Black & Gold took the field. That would be in early 2016, when Thorrington and the LAFC soccer operations department had made the decision to launch the LAFC Academy with just one team – a U-12 squad on which Erik Dueñas was a founding member.
Erik Dueñas - bottom row, third from the left - at the LAFC Academy player acceptance event in March 2016
“We were just starting to get off the ground then,” Thorrington said. “We started with a group of 12 year olds, and I remember meeting with them and telling them that they were our very first group, they were the initial group that we wanted to celebrate one day.”
That day is finally here – as LAFC celebrates the graduation of a player like Dueñas, who has moved through all the ranks of the LAFC Academy, as well as the infusion of young 16-year old talent that Leone and Torres bring to the table.
Torres, a Fontana, CA native who became the first Academy player to score a goal with the first team when he found the back of the net in a pre-season game earlier this year, is currently training with the team in Orlando and eligible to appear in the on-going MLS Is Back Tournament.
Unlike some MLS expansion teams, who essentially take over and re-brand a top academy club in their area, therefore inheriting all of the players, the Club and LAFC Academy Director Todd Saldana took another route. They started with that U-12 team and exhaustively and extensively scouted throughout the Los Angeles area, adding a new age group every year, while taking particular attention to focus on recruiting in areas of the City that don’t always get attention from coaches in order to build an Academy that truly represents L.A.
“We have to give special recognition to Todd Saldana, Enrique Duran and the entire academy staff and all the coaches for all the work they have done,” Thorrington said.
It was strategy that paid dividends from the start, as LAFC found success at almost every level, recruiting talented players from all over Los Angeles, and molding them into winning teams.
Despite securing trophies, the primary goal of Saldana and his coaches has always been to prepare Academy players to move seamlessly into Bob Bradley’s first team. To make this a reality, Academy coaches work every day in the same room as first team coaches. Collaboration and the sharing of ideas is encouraged and frequent.
“We want to establish the connection between the first team, our ideas and how we want to play with what the Academy is doing,” Bradley said. “This shows that the work that is going on in the Academy is going really well.”
Torres, Leone and Dueñas were part of a group of Academy players that trained extensively with the LAFC first team during the first few weeks of the 2020 preseason, and the ability of all three to fit in and pick-up first team ideas and concepts while moving the ball quickly was duly noted.
Tony Leone & Christian Torres after LAFC their first team debut against Peñarol in January 2020
“As we brought them in to the first team environment in January and February, they handled themselves really well and showed good progress.” Thorrington said. “We pride ourselves on connecting our operation from top to bottom. I credit our Academy staff as well as the players for their development.”
While the trio have been teammates for several years, they bring different skills and personalities to LAFC.
“Christian is a really good all-around attacker, in particular, the way he moves,” Bradley said. “That kind of movement is very similar to what you see with Carlos Vela, so his understanding of the kind of movements we like from outside in are really impressive.”
High praise indeed for a young attacker who could see his first MLS minutes in Orlando with an LAFC squad working its way back into shape with several forwards still recovering from injuries. If Torres appears in a match this season, he will become the youngest player in LAFC history.
“With Christian you have a wide attacker that fits very well with how we play and with some of his attacking ideas,” Thorrington said. “He impressed the coaching staff from the get-go and has played different positions with the academy.”
Leone is perhaps the most decorated member of the LAFC Academy, a defender from Long Beach who was the 2018-19 USSDA Golden Ball winner and has appeared various times for the U.S. and Mexican youth national teams as a dual citizen.
“Tony is a very good young defender,” Bradley said. “He has been around us enough for us to be familiar with his quality and abilities.”
An El Monte, CA native, Dueñas is already known as a fearless competitor.
“Erik Dueñas is a good footballer,” Bradley said. “He has a big heart, works really hard and picks up ideas. He is smart on the field and is a player I think is going to be a lot of fun to watch.”
Now Saldana, Duran and the rest of the LAFC Academy will have fun watching this first Homegrown trio in LAFC history and continue the work to make sure this is only the beginning of a pipeline of young talent.
“This isn’t the final step for them,” Thorrington said of the newest members of the LAFC first team. “This is just the first step in what we hope will be a long and successful journey with LAFC.”