RSL-AZ teens get their shot as MLS team visits for camp at Grande Sports World

Casa Grande senior Velasco training with Real Salt Lake pros

Staff Writer

Published: Wednesday, January 26, 2011 8:56 AM MST

The Real Salt Lake-AZ Academy team, which trains at Grande Sports World, is hosting some special guests this week while moving forward with an interim director.

The big club — Real Salt Lake, the Major League Soccer team that sponsors the development program at Francisco Grande Resort in Casa Grande — is hosting its training camp at GSW through Feb. 1. And while this would be exciting in its own right for the teenage academy members, there’s a bonus: Eight select academy players, including Casa Grande’s Ricardo Velasco, will have the opportunity to participate in camp and potentially earn a spot on the MLS team’s roster.

Velasco, a senior at Casa Grande High School, is one of six field players (along with two goalkeepers) who could earn a spot with Real Salt Lake as a “homegrown player,” a designation that allows a player to bypass the MLS draft and allows the team a chance to develop a young player for a lower salary than what would normally be allotted for an international player or draft pick. Real Salt Lake has not yet filled its “homegrown player” spot.

Velasco said his nerves have settled a bit since Sunday, the first day of camp.

“At first I was nervous, because I would see those guys (playing) on TV,” Velasco said. “But afterward, I realize they just play like us. They’re soccer players, too, and they’re human. So after (the first day), it wasn’t too bad.”

Velasco hasn’t yet received any feedback about his play or his chances of earning a spot on the team, but regardless of what happens, the experience is something he’ll remember.

“It’s incredible. It’s so fun and so real,” Velasco said. “For me, it was like I got that love of soccer once again, because I was playing with professional players, people everybody knows. It was great.”

The academy itself is also in the midst of an exciting change, as Mike Munoz has taken over as academy director following the departure of Greg Vanney, who left earlier this month to become assistant coach of Chivas USA, an MLS team. Vanney had served as head coach of the under-18 team, while Munoz had been his assistant coach and the head coach of the U-16 team.

Munoz said it has not yet been decided whether that role will be permanent — he said there has been “a lot of interest from around the country” regarding the position — but with 24 boys living and training at the resort, there’s more to be considered than just finding the best soccer coach.

“We have 24 kids living here in residency full-time,” Munoz said. “It’s a very close group, essentially like a family, a bunch of teenage brothers living together. We’ve created a very good family environment …

“Not only do you have to be well-qualified as a coach, but it has to be somebody who cares about the boys.”

The academy’s competitive season begins in February, when RSL-AZ travels to Washington to play the Washington Crossfire (a club team) and the Seattle Sounders (another MLS academy program under the team of the same name).

Munoz said that with the season approaching and the schedule set, much of the planning and administrative work for this season had already been handled before Vanney’s departure. And managing two teams is made easier by the fact that the academy’s U-16 and U-18 teams travel together and play in the same locations, with the younger team playing immediately after the older one.

“Greg and I had pretty much planned everything out for the entire year,” Munoz said. “So we stick to our plan, continue to stick to our curriculum. … It’s more about just managing the players now and just continue to develop them.”

As for his players who have a shot at an MLS roster spot, Munoz said they’re “very excited, probably a little nervous.” But the fact that there are numerous players deemed worthy of a tryout is a good sign for the program’s future.

“It’s only going to build our academy,” Munoz said, “to provide that experience and that exposure for the players.”