The LA Galaxy are often cast as a team that buys championships, and as they continue to bring in players like David Beckham, Robbie Keane, and Steven Gerrard, that monicker probably won't go away any time soon. But let me tell you why that monicker is unfair. While the Galaxy unquestionably sink more money into players that can help them hoist trophies in the present than most MLS sides, they are also unquestionably the MLS side that has done the most to build a player development framework that allows them to cultivate grass-roots talent.
The LA Galaxy have always been at the forefront of player development in this country. They started one of the first MLS Academies and structured it in a way that players don't have to pay to play. They were also the first MLS side to have a USL second team, which gives the likes of Bradford Jamieson IV and Raul Mendiola a place to hone their talent as they shoot for first team minutes.
This week, the Galaxy took yet another bold step on the front of player development when they announced the signing of Ryo Fujii, an 18-year-old Galaxy Academy alumni, to a USL contract. What made the signing unique was that Fujii had spent the previous year playing and studying as UC Santa Barbara and the Galaxy would be providing Fujii with the financial resources to enroll at Cal State Dominguez Hills to continue his education.
As soon as I heard about this, I knew it had the potential to be a game changer when it came to the way players are developed in this country, and I immediately set about on a quest to learn more. I talked to Galaxy technical director Jovan Kirovski about the details of the signing. According to him, there is no official partnership between the Galaxy and Cal State Dominguez Hills, but due to the Stub Hub Center's proximity to campus, the Galaxy do have a relationship with them.
Another unknown has been how the contract will work. A part time in-state student at Cal State Dominguez Hills pays $3,836 yearly tuition and the average USL player makes $1,000-$3,000 a month. While Kirovski wouldn't discuss the full financial details of the contract, as per club policy, he did illuminate some the mechanisms at work.
The Galaxy will provide what he described as a stipend for Ryo to pay tuition. This stipend will be provided on top of his USL salary. Far more intriguingly, however, he described how the Galaxy are building the framework to allow players from the Galaxy Academy to smoothly transition to Cal State Dominguez Hills if offered such a contract, in addition to making sure the players are successful in the classroom and off the field.
"We have a counselor, who is basically a guidance counselor, who we've hired," he explained, "He's a professor at the university and he will guide these young players through their education... If we're paying for these kids' school, we want to see these kids succeed in school and make sure they are on top of their classes."
By setting up such a system, the Galaxy are clearly signaling that they intend to offer similar contracts to prospects in the future as a part of their ambitious plan to fully integrate the Galaxy II with the Galaxy Academy in the years to come. "At the moment, I can see five years from now, we will have a full USL team full of our youth academy players. That's the goal," Jovan told me.
It's a lofty objective, however the leap from the academy level to the Galaxy II is not without its complexity, especially when you are dealing with 18-year-old prospects that are being offered full-ride scholarships to come play soccer for top tier universities around the country, as is the case with a large number of Galaxy Academy players.
Now the soccer pyramid in this country has undergone a radical evolution over the past few years. One of the biggest initial stumbling blocks to player development was the pay-to-play nature of most private soccer academies around the country. With MLS academies now populating the landscape, many of which, including the Galaxy Academy, are completely free, this stumbling block may soon be the a thing of the past.
The other major stumbling block, however, is college soccer, and until now, no one has really been able to tackle this problem in a meaningful way. American athletes value a college education far more than many of their international counterparts who are of similar age in professional academies. In other countries, 18-year-old players continue their development within the club, and in some cases, are pushing for fist team minutes, however, in America, similar players are slowed down by the college game within a crucial four year developmental window.
A full ride scholarship to schools like UCLA and Cal is a pretty tough thing to compete with; however, with the infrastructure the Galaxy are putting in place, they look to be setting up to do exactly that.
This is all new to everybody with the Galaxy II and these professional deals signing young players, so to make [the parents and players] feel comfortable, it also helps to know that we are also providing an education....They get provided a salary, we provide them with an education-- we stipend them. We provide housing to some kids, and they are in it to become young professionals, and they have something to fall back on. They have an education. We want to provide these kids the opportunity to play in a full time professional environment and also, get an education.
And according to Jovan, it's the full time and professional nature of the Galaxy II which makes it a better environment for a player like Ryo to grow in.
No disrespect to the college coaches and the college playing level, because we've had so many different players come through the college level, but [playing for Galaxy II is] just a little bit different in that our young players are playing 10 months of the year...There are more quality games. They are playing against men. There are opportunities for them to train with the first team. We feel [playing for the Galaxy II] helps them accelerate their development
So what does this mean for other Galaxy Academy graduates who are currently playing college soccer? Jovan was clear that the Galaxy aren't looking to sign someone just to sign someone, and that ultimately these contracts come down to a case by case basis.
Obviously we are looking at every player that is coming through our academy. We monitor, we track them. We watch a lot of the college games. For instance, there is Drew Murphy, Axel Mendez, and Brian Iloski at UCLA. We look at the players and we look at what makes sense for them. For some players it makes sense to go to school for a year or two. We signed a 15 year old, [Eric Lopez], because we thought it was better for him to come to us earlier. With Ryo Fujii, we felt it was the right time for him to come to us and that he would really benefit from it. But then there's the likes of Iloski. Maybe physically he can't handle it yet, and we think that college will suit him better. It's a case by case situation, and we're monitoring all of them.
Ultimately, it is unclear how successful the Galaxy will be in their endeavor. With absolutely no disrespect to Cal State Dominguez Hills, some of these Galaxy Academy players are receiving offers to some of the top academic schools in the country, and depending on their situation and priorities, a stipend and a USL contract still might not be enough to lure them away. The vision, however, and willingness to try this out-- to once again break ground in the way that player development is occurring throughout the country, is admirable, and in many ways, flat out ballsy. It's one thing to talk the talk when it comes to transforming the way we develop players in this country, but how many teams in the league are out there actually walking the walk? One-- the LA Galaxy.