Integration and Collaboration. That’s the name of the game for the SAFC Pro Academy as the program develops the future generations of professional soccer players in San Antonio. As the soccer landscape gets more competitive every day, SAFC Pro Academy Director Nick Evans and the coaching staff are tasked with developing players who will be able to compete anytime and anywhere. So how do they do that?
Their answer is, by providing players with experiences. We’re talking about experiences that go above and beyond training three times a week at STAR Soccer Complex and playing weekend games in the Development Academy, which is incredibly competitive and demanding in its own right as the top tier of youth soccer in the country. The thing is, there’s a whole lot of soccer world outside the DA, and a lot of young talent in it.
“It’s very important for us to be able to give these kids the opportunity to experience different things all the time,” Evans said. “Whether it’s a new experience in playing a Liga MX team for the first time or staying away from home for an extended period of time.”
Earlier this month, the U15, U14, and U13 squads participated in the Copa Rayados Internacional tournament, a competition hosted by Liga MX club C.F. Monterrey that features participants from Liga MX and MLS academies, as well as other top DA teams in the nation. Across the different age groups, the SAFC boys faced fierce competition in Chivas, Queretaro, Santos Laguna, and Rayados de Monterrey from Liga MX; Sporting KC, Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas from MLS; and Weston FC, which is one of the most historically successful clubs in the DA.
The teams represented our city well. The U14 squad won their bracket after going unbeaten in their group, including a 4-1 win over Queretaro, and beating Sporting KC 3-1 win the final. The U15 group also did well, reaching the final of their supergroup after a run that included wins against Santos Laguna, Houston Dynamo, and Rayados before falling in a close 2-3 match against FC Dallas.
Results aside, however, a massive takeaway of the five-day tournament was the experience. Each team played multiple matches in the span of a few days, and the tournament marked the longest domestic trip that the SAFC boys have ever taken. These experiences, says Evans, are key to get players used to the life of a professional player. Copa Rayados, for example, was comparable to the SAFC first team’s Cascadia trip, in which they face two or three teams away from home in the span of seven days in the USL Championship.
“These experiences set our players up to have exposure to the types of things that will be expected of them when they become a professional player,” Evans said. “The level of competitive programming is obviously the most important piece for us because that’s how we measure our players in terms of international and domestic competition and see really where we’re at.
“But the big takeaway for us was being able to participate and compete against the level of competition that was there. We faced Liga MX and MLS academies, as well as other top DA teams. It was a very valuable and positive experience for our players. They got to see a different style of competition with different style of play, behaviors, intentions on the field and mentality towards the game.”
Exposing young players to international opposition is crucial to prepare them to face different styles of play. For instance, according to Evans, facing Liga MX teams was a different experience than facing American teams because of their intentions on the pitch. Whereas American teams typically build out of the back starting with the goalkeeper, the teams from Mexico were more direct and intense in the attack, which forced the SAFC squads to adapt to transition play and ball movements that they typically don’t see.
Earlier this year, the U15 team participated in the Cayman Cup, marking the Academy’s first-ever international tournament. The boys stayed on Cayman Brac -- the smallest island in the Caymans -- for a week. While there, they played against club teams from Jamaica as well as the Cuba National Team and the Grand Cayman U17 National Team, which center their game around strength and speed. Despite playing against bigger, stronger teams, the SAFC boys were up to the task and competed well, most notably earning a win against the Grand Cayman U17 National Team, who were three years older than the Alamo City boys. Furthermore, they learned what it was like to be very far from home for an extended period with their team.
“We have to ultimately try and expose them to new opportunities and players,” Evans said. “It’s about constantly being exposed to playing against different types of players and teams that pose different problems on the field, and then knowing how to solve them. That also shows our boys that there really are good players out there.
“We’re very fortunate to have a consistent program in the Development Academy every week, but when you get the opportunity to play against top teams from different countries, you get a different element of unpredictability to the game. That’s the true development piece for us. When our boys see the mentality of all these players from different countries, they start seeing that this is a competitive game, and if they want to be at the top, they have to do a lot.”
As the 2018 SAFC Pro Academy fall season comes to an end, the players will look back on a year that provided a plethora of experience, both domestically and internationally. Through their immersion in competitive environments within the DA and experiencing new challenges against opposition from different parts of the world, the future of soccer in San Antonio remains bright as young players continue to walk the Path to Pro in the Alamo City.