RSL-AZ’s Academy player Ricardo Velasco’s feature in the Casa Grande Dispatch

Homecoming a win-win for teen soccer standout

Staff Writer

Published: Wednesday, August 18, 2010 10:39 AM MST

Ricardo Velasco has spent most of his life training to be a soccer player, traveling wherever necessary to play against the best competition available. Little did he know that one of his best opportunities would come in his own backyard.

Velasco, a 17-year-old originally from Casa Grande who relocated to Tucson with his family three years ago in order to play at Tucson Soccer Academy, has returned to the area after being selected as a member of the Real Salt Lake-AZ U-18 Academy Team, which trains at Grande Sports World at the Francisco Grande Hotel & Golf Resort.

“I moved to Tucson because there was no soccer I could play here,” Velasco said. “I needed competition, so I moved there.

“But I had a coach who I played for, he told me they were trying to (start) this academy, so I should come try out, and I made it.”

Real Salt Lake is a Major League Soccer team that opened one of its three development academies in Arizona this year and held tryouts to select players. The Arizona academy is run by Greg Vanney, a former MLS defender, U.S. national team player and a Tempe Marcos de Niza star from 1990-92 who led the Padres to three consecutive state titles.

“Ricardo is a very hard-working and skillful player,” Vanney said. “He does an outstanding job working in tight spaces and penetrating defenses to create opportunities for himself and others. Players like Ricardo are difficult to find, which is why he is receiving a lot of attention from college coaches from around the country.”

Velasco says his goal is to play professional soccer immediately following his high school graduation, but he is also interested in playing collegiately at UNLV or Louisville, both of which have coaches he’s familiar with.

Regardless of which route he pursues, playing at a high-profile MLS team’s academy will provide a significant boost to his career prospects.

“Playing in the academy is probably the best thing to do right now,” Velasco said. “… I think it’s a good opportunity.”

Velasco won’t be the only Casa Grande-area player drawing attention from college coaches, because 19 other members of the RSL-AZ Academy Team have moved into residency at the Francisco Grande Hotel and enrolled at either Casa Grande Union High School (seniors) or Vista Grande High School (juniors, sophomores and freshmen). Velasco is attending CGUHS.

The Arizona academy is the only MLS development program that offers on-site residency for the players — and it doesn’t hurt that Grande Sports World has 58,000 square feet of state-of-the-art facilities for player development and training.

“You have everything a soccer player wants here,” Velasco said. “You have a weight room, a good field — probably the best in Arizona — good locker rooms. It’s a good facility overall.”

Velasco recognizes a good facility when he sees one, as he’s traveled extensively as part of the U.S. Soccer Region IV Olympic Development Team, representing the West region of the United States.

He also recognizes the value of being close to home. With elite competition, professional-level coaching and a top training center just minutes from where he grew up, Velasco is excited to be back in Casa Grande.

“My mom, my dad and my sisters moved (to Tucson) with me, so now we’re moving back,” he said.

He added, “I’m happy because all my family is here and everything, so it worked out that I can play soccer here and see my family.”