San Antonio FC will take an important step in the life cycle of a professional soccer club this fall when it launches its Pro Academy. The free academy for kids aged 12 and older starts this fall and will run throughout the year, calling on local children that made the cut during previous tryouts.
“(San Antonio FC) looked at the big picture and decided (to opt for) an organic process, starting at the youngest age group and building that club spirit and bringing family to it,” SAFC Pro Academy Director Nick Evans told the Rivard Report. This “organic process” is used instead of the more common approach for soccer clubs across the U.S., which is to build teams at various age levels and then mix those players in with established teams.
“The goal is to develop homegrown players … and to have those homegrown players play for San Antonio FC in Major League Soccer (MLS),” Evans said.
A key step toward that goal lies in becoming affiliated with the United States Soccer Federation Development Academy (USSF-DA), the highest level of youth soccer.
“It will not happen in the 2016-17 season but we are being very aggressive in our efforts to ensure that in the 2017-18 season we are a part of the USSF-DA program with our Under-12s, Under-13s, and Under-14s next year,” he said, referring to the age-based teams. “As we organically grow this program, the current Under-12s will transition to Under-14s given the new changes made by U.S. Soccer for that season. So with that we will bring in two age groups next year.”
Despite the Academy potentially taking away their best players, San Antonio’s local youth soccer clubs – such as Lonestar, SA United, Deer Premier, and Texans, who all feature players in the inaugural roster – support the academy.
“I can’t speak highly enough about the clubs here,” says Evans, “the response to the program has been nothing short of supportive. It’s been superb.”
That and more support is what San Antonio FC is hoping for with this team. “We want to be a community club,” Evans said. “We don’t just want to provide our services for those in the academy but we also want to be a program that helps other clubs, in any capacity whatsoever.”
Formation of the Academy comes at a time when youth soccer in the U.S. is in a state of flux as the USSF recently changed how age groups are defined. Instead grouping players based on their school grade, placements are now based on age. This complicates matters because established clubs are forced to restructure their teams to fit the new age group definitions.
Evans sees the timing as perfect for San Antonio FC.
“You don’t want to be a part of a process – starting in year two or three – and have to (play) catch up. We’re here when there’s significant change going on in the soccer landscape across the nation and I feel like this is a great moment to start from the beginning,” he said. “I haven’t felt in any way that this has been a hindrance.”
Heading up this academy touches on the very thing that Evans is passionate about: growing soccer in San Antonio. Originally from Wales, Evans played for the University of the Incarnate Word – notably as their captain for two seasons – before moving into youth coaching in San Antonio. His success as a youth coach did not go unnoticed, and he was brought on as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Scorpions, forming part of the championship winning staff in 2014.
“I’m very passionate about player development,” Evans said. “I’m very passionate about the process of watching a player start at point A, and having a potential impact on the growth of that player, whether it’s developing or facilitating talent and watching the growth of that player over a period of time – That motivates me.
“Most of all, I believe that there is significant talent here in San Antonio and I’ve been fortunate (enough) in my previous roles to have worked with seven or eight players that have been given U.S. Youth National Team call-ups,” Evans said, beaming with pride. “San Antonio has a great opportunity to produce players that can play on the national stage and consistently produce those players. The platform here at San Antonio FC allows for that to happen.”
San Antonio FC’s leadership also is serious about the development of local talent for professional soccer, he said. That is why he’s on board.
“When I spoke to the organization about their goals for the program they aligned closely with mine, and that’s players from the local community playing for their local club. The big picture here is trying to push for MLS, and I don’t think there’s anything greater than a local player from San Antonio playing for his club in MLS on the national stage week in, week out. For me, this is a market that can produce that kind of player.”
The San Antonio Scorpions also had an academy, but it was dissolved last year when the club no longer wanted to fund the program. Evans said he hasn’t run into any skepticism about establishing another academy under San Antonio FC.
“This is a new beginning and a new start. Previously there was a lot of disappointment. There was a lot of unfortunate loss for a lot of people, but now we are in a new moment.”
San Antonio FC Head Coach Darren Powell came to the club after serving as the director of the academy at MLS team Orlando City SC and Evans is pleased to have that experience by his side. Powell will be a useful mentor for him to turn to for advice, Evans said. “That level of experience is invaluable.”
Top image: Two young boys chase the ball during a soccer match. Photo by Joel Agee via Flickr.