Soccer continues to rise in USA with a growing influence from Barcelona and the club’s ancient La Masia traditions.
9,000 kilometres west of La Masia, Barcelona are cultivating another crop of young talent.
In the blistering sun of Casa Grande Arizona, the Barça Residency Academy, provides some of the United States’ best young players a tangible chance of a professional contract.
Whilst they’re all hoping to become the next Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta or Ansu Fati, they are also hoping to follow in the footsteps of Julian Araujo, Mathew Hoppe and Caden Clark
So far, the fledgling academy has enjoyed great success. Their website boasts that “every graduate has earned a college scholarship or signed a professional contract”.
By their latest count, 55 players have signed a professional contract, 208 players have received college deals and 77 players have been called up to their respective national teams.
FTF sat down with Miha Kline, Director of recruitment and soccer operations at the academy to understand the secrets behind the club’s success.
Prior to the formation of the Barca Residency Academy, Casa Grande Sport hosted Real Salt Lakes Academy. In 2015, the owners wanted to take things to the next level.
“I’ve been here since 2012,” Kline tells FTF. “When I joined it was the RSL Academy. It was a similar setup but as we went through the years we wanted to get to a higher level. We wanted to do things a little bit differently and bring the European flavour to the States.”
“We started having conversations with major European clubs to find what would align best with our core values and our mission.”
“Once we started discussing in greater detail with FC Barcelona what we both wanted to do in terms of youth development, education, our shared values and our mission, it all aligned perfectly. What they are doing at La Masia was very similar to what we were trying to do here.”
In 2017, the formation of the Barça residency academy was announced, a collaboration between Barcelona and Casa Grande Sport.
It’s clear to see why Barcelona wanted to sign an agreement with Casa Grande Sport. Their facility boasts eight training fields, a 58,000-square-foot indoor training centre and on-site residence facilities.
At first, it was just Kline, the General Manager Tim Alai, first academy director Sean McCafferty and the current academy director Ged Quinn.
Together they assembled a strong coaching staff who fit the culture and could best pass on the FC Barcelona methodology and added two full time Technical Directors from FC Barcelona.
“We started from scratch back in 2017 and we brought some really great people into the team.
“The personality, character and culture of the guys we now have on our staff are crucial because it’s the coaches that make this place special.”
“Every club has their own methodology, but FC Barcelona has proven to have their identity that is well known and has been very successful and effective at developing outstanding young players and outstanding young men.”
FC Barcelona provides the coaching education, training methodology and curriculum and the club’s official kits, whilst Grande Sports World provides coaches and supporting staff and operates the academy, school, facilities and other day-to-day tasks.
It’s not just the elite-level training ground on offer, as the name Barça Residency Academy suggests, they work on a residency-based system. All the academy players live on campus, which is a rarity in the US.
In addition to the dorms and the football-specific resources, players have access to nutritionists, sports psychologists, educational support and various sources of entertainment.
Players living on site is a big difference-maker, the environment and support systems in place enforce a 360 development which Kline explains as: “Becoming the best possible player, you can become an outstanding, respectful young man who has a good set of core values.
“We emphasize the importance of respect, integrity, humility, teamwork, etc. to our boys every single day.”
Because players live on campus, they have extra time to spend on video analysis sessions, additional strength and conditioning sessions, nutrition and most importantly personal development.
Players are also given the opportunities to be the teenagers that they are. They are provided with excursions like going to NBA games, hiking, pool parties, going to museums, movies, to the mall. All things which Kline believes helps the players form a strong bond.
“I’ve worked in many different environments but here you can tell the difference between what a brother is and what a teammate is. You can see it, when we have a game tied at 1-1 in the last minute, in most cases the boys put in that extra effort.
“With the U17’s this season they’ve had three 94th minute goals in a row to either help them win a game or tie, which confirms our beliefs.
That brotherhood continues when the players leave too. “You see them having friendly banter on social media and maybe down the line they’ll be best men at each other’s weddings.”
In addition to providing the players with FC Barcelona style coaching, they also receive a great education. All players are enrolled at the Arizona State University college-prep high school (grades 7-12) located on campus.
The education helps prepare players for all possible outcomes when they reach the end of their time at the academy. Some players sign a pro contract straight away, for others college is the next step.
“Many of our players are doing great in their first years in college. They might end up finishing their college career after four years and then try out for a team or get drafted to the MLS.
“But they’ll always have that degree in their back pocket as a backup plan, which is priceless.
“We try to prepare them for all those outcomes so that when the time comes to make a decision, they have all those options on the table.”
Education is Key
“It’s obviously difficult for a teenager who is so passionate about the game to think about anything else,” Kline admits.
“They all come here, and they want to be pros but when you come here, we try to nail it into them why education is important.
Kline knows first-hand how quickly a career can end. After a successful career playing as a winger in his native Slovenia, Russia and Greece, he was on the verge of signing for a club in the Netherlands.
But, during a physical examination, they found a heart defect that required immediate surgery. “I had open-heart surgery and never played again. Within two months I went from 90 minutes on the field to never playing again.”
The players within the programme are provided with off-field support staff that help them keep up to date with their academic work. By the time training comes the players have compilated their schoolwork for the day.
In order to keep players on track they have created a so-called red card list. Kline explains that “if you fall below a certain Grade Point Average (GPA) you can’t train for two days so that you can catch up and make up for the missed assignments.
“If the players are consistently there then we have serious discussions, with their parents as well.
“We want to make sure they get back on track and if necessary, they don’t travel. We help them set priorities and to understand the whys. It’s not just because we said so but it’s because of their future and keeping those options open.”
All these amazing facilities come at a price. It costs over $70,000 a year to put a player through the programme. Fortunately, the player’s families have access to financial aid.
Every year Barcelona Residency Academy have spent $2.5million in scholarships across all ten of their teams, with an emphasis on the top four academy sides. Players are recruited from all kinds of backgrounds and the financial aid helps those players who otherwise wouldn’t be able to attend.
“Fortunately, we have a great ownership that truly believes in helping the families and players into an environment that can change their lives in many ways.
Some players who come into the pre-academy level might not qualify for much financial aid, but with good performances and hard work they can earn more funding in subsequent years.
“We had a player who came into the first year and was at the starting point in terms of tuition. By the second year, he was on a full ride.
“I’ve been doing this for a really long time and no really good, high quality player has ever paid anything.”
With the United States being a country of 328 million it’s always going to be difficult to scout the entire country for the best young talent.
Barça Residency Academy sends their scouts to many tournaments and events across the country, whilst also tracking players they play against and taking recommendations from other trusted sources.
Another method used to view as many possible players as possible is open tryouts. Around 1,200 players a year come to Casa Grande to showcase their ability. With limited spaces available for new players, 50 to 70 depending on the year, there is a lot of competition.
In most cases, players who are selected from open tryouts are initially placed in one of the six pre-academies, from U14 up to U19.
“It’s to increase the pool of talented players in our system that might not be quite ready yet for the highest level but can certainly reach that by developing in the right environment.
It could be because we have two top level players in his position already or maybe he’s a late developer physically. Players need playing time, it’s crucial for their development.
“It also takes time sometimes to acclimate to a new culture, American players are used to playing a different way, but when they come here a lot of those habits need to be broken down, and then built back up in our system.
They also utilise the pool of talent training at the nine Barça academies across the States to source players.
With no team below the U14 level on the programme, the age group is always in a rebuilding stage. But thanks to the other Barça academies in the country they always have a strong set of players to start with.
“We host specific tryouts for the younger players at all of the other Barça academies across the country each year.”
“We are also planning on starting a Barca Academy for younger age groups in our own backyard here in Phoenix later down the line.
The European Dream
Each year the best players at the Residency Academy get the opportunity to travel to Catalonia and train at Barcelona’s famous La Masia.
Prior to making his move to Schalke, Hoppe spent some time with Barcelona Juvenil A where he played alongside Ansu Fati. He impressed the coaches but as Kline points out “they’re not just going to sign someone on the spot.”
The partnership provides a bridge for players into Europe. FIFA international player minors transfer regulations mean that until the age of 18, a player cannot sign a professional contract somewhere overseas.
To date, no player has moved directly to La Masia straight out of the programme.
That doesn’t mean no players have moved to Europe. Hoppe cancelled his full ride at San Diego University to sign for Schalke. Whilst it’s not yet been confirmed, New York Red Bull’s Caden Clark is believed to have a move to RB Leipzig in his near future.
“We know how high of a level is required at FC Barcelona. Add to that the international transfer laws with FIFA it’s always tough. If you’re really good and have not turned 18 yet, there will be many clubs after you.
“We have a couple of players who have been at La Masia a few times and will go again. We try and do everything we can to challenge them each day.
“We’ve had 15-year-olds playing against USL Championship teams multiple times, these are invaluable experiences for these young men that are on that level.
“But of course, the pinnacle for us is to have our first player sign for Barcelona directly out of the programme.”