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Galaxy's youth program a win-win for team and young players

Five players in last month's preseason camp came from the team's academy, which has become the gold standard for MLS youth programs.

March 09, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • Galaxy forward Jose Villareal takes a shot against the Puerto Rico Islanders during a CONCACAF Champions League game last year.
Galaxy forward Jose Villareal takes a shot against the Puerto Rico Islanders… (Victor Decolongon / Getty…)

Someday Jack McBean may look back on his high school experience and realize he didn't have one.

No prom. No Friday night football games. No homecoming dance. Just once-a-week tutoring sessions and a lot of independent study toward a GED.

But perhaps he'll be able to comfort himself knowing he gave all that up for something no other high schooler has ever received: two Major League Soccer championship rings, both won before his 18th birthday.

And he's not the only teenager who has played with the Galaxy the last couple of years. Lost amid the attention the team gets for recruiting experienced internationalists such as David Beckham, Robbie Keane and Carlo Cudicini is the fact that the Galaxy boasts one of Major League Soccer's top youth academies, one that has sent McBean, Jose Villarreal, Oscar Sorto and Gyasi Zardes on to the Galaxy's first-team roster in the last two years.

MLS has been late to adopt the academy model, which began to take shape in the late 1950s at the famed Ajax Academy in the Netherlands before being perfected by FC Barcelona, whose storied La Masia has produced Lionel Messi and 15 other players on Barca's current first-team roster.

In Germany, professional clubs, together with the national soccer federation, have spent more than $1 billion on youth programs over the last decade and been rewarded with homegrown stars such as Thomas Mueller, Marco Reus and Andre Schurrle, all of whom made it to the semifinal of a European Championship or World Cup by age 22.

MLS, meanwhile, didn't begin its league-wide youth development program until 2007, the same year the Galaxy opened its academy.

"It's the way of the future," says Galaxy President Chris Klein, who helps oversee a program in which 138 kids are enrolled in six age groups, ranging from U-12 to U-18. And in its short life span, the Galaxy academy has become the gold standard for MLS youth programs.

"We have a unique setup because we have the resources, we have the culture and we have the weather," Klein says. "That is perfect for developing players. And we need to now take that and continue to build on top of it.

"You're going to get guys like Jose and Jack and Oscar … [who] have come from our backyard. Now we're taking them [and] instead of scouting and recruiting them, now we're getting them at a younger age so we're able to impact their development from the time that they're 11, 12, 13 years old up until they're 18, 19 like these guys."

McBean, of Newport Beach, signed with the Galaxy at 16, making him the youngest player in franchise history. But he was just one of five players in last month's preseason camp who played on a Galaxy academy team as a teenager. That experience will probably come in handy this month thanks to a punishing schedule that has the Galaxy playing four games in two countries in the first two weeks of the MLS season.

"I've got to step up if my number's called. I just have to be ready," says McBean, a forward who came off the bench late in the Galaxy's MLS-opening win over the Chicago Fire last week. "We all want to make the best of the opportunity. If we get one."

Villarreal, a 19-year-old forward from Inglewood, already has — though not all of those opportunities came with the Galaxy. Subbed into his second MLS game last July, he scored with three minutes left in regulation to give the Galaxy a draw with Vancouver. And he had three goals in five matches with the U-20 U.S. national team, which finished second in last week's CONCACAF championship.

Zardes, meanwhile, signed as a homegrown player out of Hawthorne, remains sidelined with a broken bone in his left foot. But that, in turn, has meant additional touches — at least in practice — for Paul Arriola, an 18-year-old forward from Fontana. And so the Galaxy youth movement is now perpetuating itself.

"It's the way that a lot of players in the world get better," says Arriola, who should be in high school but instead is training alongside Keane, Omar Gonzalez and Mike Magee. "It's just an honor to be able to play with players that have been on national teams, been to a bunch of World Cups, ones that are currently with the national team. You try to learn as much as you can from all of them.

"Not only on the field but off the field, in the locker room, the way they prepare themselves and they treat their bodies and all that stuff."

Last year Coach Bruce Arena said the academy graduates gave the Galaxy depth, which played a huge part in getting the team its second consecutive MLS championship. Given the MLS schedule, the CONCACAF Champions League, the U.S. Open Cup and two international friendlies, the team played 49 games in less than 39 weeks. But because Arena was able to call on 33 players to get that done, the Galaxy's first team was fresher than it might otherwise have been for the Dec. 1 MLS Cup final.

And as if that weren't enough, the Galaxy also won the MLS Reserve League title behind five goals in eight games from McBean.

"We want our guys to play Reserve games and be competitive. And they were," Arena says. "If they continue it this year, we'll be pleased. But more so the value of the Reserve League is to try to move along players. And hopefully that will help prepare them for minutes with the first team."

Even if it means they have to miss the prom.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

twitter.com/kbaxter11

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