In the buildup to the inaugural USL Academy Cup – for which qualifying begins this fall – USL-Academy.com will shine a light on academies within the USL Championship, League One and League Two that go above and beyond in helping young players succeed. Starting our new series, we head to San Antonio, Texas, where young players are regularly earning a chance to shine at Toyota Field.
San Antonio FC’s Pro Academy currently stands as one of the standard bearers in youth development in the United States, so much so that the club was selected to host the first USL Academy event when Western Conference regional qualifying for the inaugural Academy Cup takes place this October.
Since its foundation in 2016, the SAFC Pro Academy and its Elite Training Program have provided a well-structured path from the youth level to the First Team for elite full-time players from the greater San Antonio area. The club will bring multiple players who have featured for U.S. youth national teams to USL Academy Cup qualifying.
“Leo Torres, who has been with us since literal day one and is part of U15 U.S. [Boys’ National Team], signed with us as a professional earlier this year and 17-year-old Jose Gallegos has appeared in over 10 games with our first team this season,” said SAFC Managing Director Tim Holt. “In our exhibition match last month against Cardiff City FC, we fielded eight teenagers, including six academy players, who all acquitted themselves very well. The future is bright.”
Just this week, 18-year-old SAFC Pro Academy product Ethan Bryant signed with Belgian Second Division side K.S.V. Roeselare. Bryant joined the club as an Elite Training Program player in early 2017, and went on to make 16 USL Championship appearances, tallying two goals and three assists while highlighting his high-level potential.
“We are tremendously proud of Ethan, grateful for his contributions to SAFC, and excited for his new challenge in Europe,” said Holt. “Ethan is a local player who was provided the opportunity in 2017 to train full-time with our professional team and worked tirelessly every day to improve. His attitude reflects the ‘humble & hungry’ ethos that we value and his consistent performances in our training environment led to game opportunities where he was ultimately quite impactful on the field at the USL Championship level.”
“We as a club have a commitment to our youth players to provide them integration and pathway opportunities for them to play within our first team set-up,” said SAFC Pro Academy Director Nick Evans. “Ethan is a great example of someone being provided an opportunity to train and then taking that opportunity through training performance to be awarded the opportunity to play on a game day.”
San Antonio FC's Ethan Bryant came through the club's academy, making 16 appearances in the Championship before joining Belgian Second Division club K.S.V. Roeselare this week. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
A key to the program’s success at promoting its academy players to the First Team has been the consistency of organizational values taught across all age groups, from the Championship down to the youngest age levels. The SAFC academy philosophy is centered on integration, with the goal of creating a professional environment to help foster development for all its players.
“Each member of our club’s technical staff is actively involved at every level of San Antonio FC,” said Holt. “It is normal for our Technical Director & Head Coach Darren Powell to observe or run academy sessions several nights a week. [First Team Assistant Coach] Alen Marcina works with identified top academy talent of all ages in the evenings, and our academy age group head coaches are regularly involved with first team training every morning. Thus, there is a uniformity of club principles, playing style, and expectations applied at every level within the club that enables players to quickly assimilate as they progress through the system.”
The organization addresses the pay-to-play barrier by fully funding each academy team for every player selected. Each SAFC Pro Academy has coaches’ fees, uniforms, competition fees and travel/hotel/meal costs covered by the club and pays for none of those expenses themselves.
“It is critically important to eliminate pay-to-play obstacles in ensuring that the players with the greatest talent potential are able to participate in professional team academies based on merit rather than socio-economic factors,” said Holt. “We are very fortunate that the ownership and executive leadership of Spurs Sports & Entertainment have provided us with the support necessary to implement this model for our Academy, which beyond being the optimal sporting model also represents a positive investment in the San Antonio community.”
SAFC Pro Academy Director Nick Evans (center) leads a staff that in July was named the U.S. Soccer Development Academy's Central Conference’s Coaching Staff of the Year. | Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
The academy also relies on a coaching staff that has become highly regarded among its peers to spearhead the growth of its young players. Led by Evans, the group was recognized as the 2018-2019 U.S. Soccer Development Academy Coaching Staff of the Year for the Central Conference and has played a critical role in executing the organization’s strategy and unique academy approach.
Evans believes the staff’s togetherness has been key to the individual development that has not only been seen by the club’s academy players, but also among the coaches themselves.
“Every one of our staff is committed to being open, being challenged daily and to creating a competitive and demanding environment where we want players to be stimulated and experience success and failure,” said Evans. “Our staff is very committed to focusing on each player’s specific needs and we spend a great deal of time reflecting, analyzing, and reviewing this for each player.”
San Antonio FC will take on on Orange County SC in a matchup of two teams featuring numerous highly-touted prospects in the opening game of the qualifying tournament this October. As SAFC prepares to host the inaugural USL Academy Cup qualifiers, both Holt and Evans are excited for the opportunity to play in a new and challenging competition.
“Being this is a cup competition there is something to play for and that is significant for everyone involved, said Evans. “We talk a lot about firsts in our program - first time you fly, or travel to a new place - and this is a great opportunity for our players to be part of something that is historic.”
“The time is right for USL to take a leading role in providing this type of competition platform for its member clubs, many of which are in the formative stages of getting into the youth development space either organically or through collaboration with their local youth clubs,” added Holt. “This will create new high-level opportunities for players and clubs in many markets across the country that may have been historically underserved or overlooked by top competitions and programs.”