Matt Bersano is a promising goalkeeper who will be heading off to Oregon State next year. He is also part of the inaugural class in the Real Salt Lake – Arizona residency program headquartered at the Francisco Grande hotel in Casa Grande, Ariz.
The unique program has 22 youth players living fulltime on the premises, receiving top-notch training in high-quality facilities and opportunities that 15 to 18-year-old soccer studs around the country can only dream about.
Bersano is a well-spoken kid who realizes that he’s fortunate to participate in this new program.Though he hails from a town just 45 minutes away, he opted to live on-campus and is very happy with his decision.
“When you live here, everything is just more focused,” he said. “You see your goals in mind, you live around your goals all the time, so I guess it just puts the game in a lot closer perspective.”
The participants in the program live in shared dormitories and do pretty much everything on the grounds, except go to school and occasionally venture out for entertainment. They currently attend local public schools, but the facility has 16 classrooms that may be utilized in the future for an on-site charter that could provide for better, more personalized education as well as provide flexibility around their training.
Eduardo “Lalo” Fernandez – also a promising goalie – recently joined the US U-20 national team. In addition, he spent time with Mexican giant Chivas de Guadalajara and has represented the Mexico U-17s.
When the El Paso, Texas, resident first heard about the RSL-Arizona program just prior to the SUM Cup this past summer, he was anxious to join.
“Everything is about soccer, and so I think it’s the perfect environment for me to develop,” said Fernandez. “We have a lot of fields, we have a lot of equipment, and it’s just as close to being a professional team as you can get.”
Although he misses his family, he considers the group around him to be his surrogate family, even the coaches.
“They’re not only your coaches – they teach you, they’re your friends, and they help you in many problems in soccer, and other things. They’re like your second parents,” he said. “Everyone is very close to each other.”
Unlike most kids their age, the RSL-Ariz. academy members have a surprising focus on accomplishing their goals. Of course, they like music, video games and Facebook just like the average person their age, but they also have a driving goal that guides their actions.
“If you want to achieve something in life, you have to put your priorities first, and soccer is my first priority,” Fernandez said. “My dream since I was born was to be a professional soccer player.”
On the other end of the pitch stands Maikon “Mikey” Orellana, a talented forward from El Salvador who has lived in Provo, Utah, and first tried out for RSL’s youth program when he was just 13 years old.
The youngster – a finalist in the Sueño MLS 2009 – has drawn attention from the US and El Salvador national teams, and former Real Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini once invited him to join Los Merengues’ academy. However, due to visa issues, he has been unable to participate in those opportunities.
Orellana recently raised eyebrows when he scored four goals against the prestigious IMG Academy at the Winter Showcase in Phoenix. Ironically, for him, the match nearly didn’t happen.
“As soon as I got to the showcase, there were a lot of good soccer players and I was sick at the time,” he recounted. “I didn’t know if I was going to play.”
But he did play, and his performance capped off a whirlwind few months of activity that included a participation in the SUM Cup, where he first heard of the RSL-Arizona academy.
“The next week [after SUM Cup], they called me and they are like, ‘Do you want to be in it,’ and I was like, ‘Wow, yeah,” Orellana said. “I just made up my mind right there and said ‘Yes, I’m going to go.’”
Making the move wasn’t easy, but he knows that it’s been worthwhile. Aside from getting closer to fulfilling his dream, the academy has helped the young striker both improve in school mature as a person.
“It’s hard being away from my family, but this is my dream – it’s what I want to do. I can’t be sad about it.”
Though these youngsters learn to become much more self-reliant while attending the residency program, they do have a strong support system.
The director of coaching is Greg Vanney, who is the head coach for the U-18 team. Michael Muñoz is a staff coach and is at the helm of the U-16 team. Michael Rabasca, an assistant of Muñoz’s, is the academy general manager. And Freddy Juarez, another assistant coach for the U-16s, is the resident assistant.
“They are kids like every other kid – they love the Xbox and Playstation, and stuff like that,” Juarez said. “But when you are put in this situation, those become second, and soccer becomes the focus.”
Juarez gives the approval for certain activities, comes up with fun activities to keep them engaged, monitors their homework, and even takes them to the doctor when they are sick.
“I’m somewhat like their parent,” he said. “I’m the guy that pretty much does everything with them.”
Like any parent, Juarez is proud of their accomplishments to this point and hopes that they will succeed further in the future.
“They all have aspirations to play pro, and so I’m crossing my fingers,” he said.