FOXBOROUGH — Most American sports fans have grown used to watching their teams replenish their squads via a draft or free agency over the years. When it comes to drafts, the Big Four, which the exception of baseball’s minor leagues, don’t generally have development programs outside of college or high school, per se.
But while soccer teams in Major League Soccer use those two methods — MLS SuperDraft is held in January, plus two transfer periods which are used to sign new players — there is another avenue that separates soccer from gridiron football, hockey, basketball, and baseball, one which can take many years to see fruit blossom, so to speak.
That other avenue is an in-house youth development program, known colloquially as the Academy. Football clubs around the world have their own academies, which allows clubs to discover and develop footballing talent before other clubs find them.
Development academies have become a rather important part of the soccer landscape in this country over the course of the last decade-plus and are expected to grow even larger in the future.
“Any players who play in our academy system — and there are rules about the number of minutes and number of years,” Revolution president Brian Bilello said in a 20-minute interview prior to Saturday’s match with Columbus Crew, “we are allowed to sign them to our first team; they don’t have to go to the draft.
“We can sign them when they’re coming out of high school; they can go to college if they want, and we can sign them while they’re in college or when they’re coming out of college. Even if they go to college, you still retain your rights to the player, but it’s really a way to encourage MLS teams to invest — quite heavily, frankly — in youth development, to develop that next generation of player for our league. By doing so, we’re making the league better. We’re actually investing in the product quality, but starting at a young age so that we’re developing players that’ll make our league better as a whole.”
MLS Academy programs started in 2007 under the umbrella of US Soccer, and the Revolution would follow suit and form their own; it is currently under the direction of Bryan Scales as well as a dozen other coaches.
Since its inception, the Revs have made four Homegrown signings from this program, with all players coming from the Boston area: Diego Fagundez (Leominster, 2011), Scott Caldwell (Weymouth, 2012), Zach Herivaux (Brookline, 2015), and Isaac Angking (Providence, 2018).
“What you really start to end up with is a team that reflects the community you’re in, and you can create these really strong connections with your local community and your club,” Bilello said. “Of all the professional teams in Boston, we’re going to be the most New England, the most Boston, of those teams. The players we’re going to have are local players — and that’s not by chance, that’s by design. I think it can really raise the quality of soccer in MLS over time, but it can really raise the connectivity between the club and the local fan groups.”
Players may enter the Academy at age 12 and begin training with players their own age — or may even find themselves bumped up to compete with older players. Academy sessions are traditionally held after the school day is complete, with sessions held in the evening: for the Revolution, Academy players train inside Gillette Stadium.
“It’s a little more intense and a little more regular,” Bilello said of the training aspects of the Academy program. “(In youth soccer) they’re training once or twice a week, but with the Academy, they’re training four times a week. The games on the weekend, instead of playing against a local club team, they might be playing the New York Red Bulls or the Montreal Impact (Academy teams). It’s a higher level of training, a high level of commitment, but they’re not missing school for training or anything like that.”
He did note that on occasion, some players, who are accelerating in their development, will get the opportunity to play with the senior squad.
“We try to take advantage of school breaks/vacations … we try to get some of those players integrated in our first team,” he said. “In Arizona this year, we brought a number of our Academy kids because they had Winter Break. We brought them out and they got to train with the first team. Over the summer, we’ll have players training with the first team. Imagine being a 15-, 16-year-old kid, and you get to practice with Diego, practice with (Cristian) Penilla, practice with those guys.
“It’s an amazing experience for the kids who have the potential to make it to the pros.”
There has been some criticism pointed at the Revolution in regards to developing talent: while the club has made those four signings, other MLS clubs have made numerous Homegrown signings and have integrated them into the first team selection. For example, New York Red Bulls — which many in American soccer circles consider the standard bearer for developing talent — have nine Homegrowns on their current roster; Revs striker Juan Agudelo is a product of the Red Bulls Academy. Toronto and Dallas also have nine.
Atlanta United FC, a second-year club, have five Homegrowns.
Bilello doesn’t see the need to rush to sign more players.