Utah soccer academy offers a new template for youth sports development

By John Coon
Photos Courtesy of RSL digital team

Soccer is life, literally, for teenagers who reside on the grounds of the Zions Bank Real Academy, a sprawling soccer complex going up on the outskirts of Herriman.

Their daily schedule resembles, in some ways, what you may expect to see at a military academy. Rise for early morning training sessions. Eat breakfast. Go to class. More training after school ends. Dinner. Then impromptu soccer games on the fields adjacent to their dorms until lights out.

Each one of these teen-age boys journeyed from their home and families and gathered here for a singular purpose of pursuing a pro soccer career. They eat, drink and breathe soccer starting when the sun rises until it dips below the horizon again.

“It’s fun,” Ben Olson, an Orem resident who plays for the RSL U-16 team, said. “It’s hard sometimes because we train so hard that we don’t get to have that much of a social life as we’d want to have going to high school.

“We all are trying to go for the same dream,” he said, “and we have to be able to sacrifice and be willing to do what we’re doing right now to make it and catch our dreams.”

Dell Loy Hansen has a grand vision behind his mammoth soccer complex. The Real Salt Lake owner hopes to make Utah synonymous with soccer the way that Texas is connected with football and the way that Indiana is with basketball.

The Harvard of Soccer

In Hansen’s view, RSL, the Real Monarchs and the academylevel teams are at the center of it all. Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy and the Zions Bank Real Academy are the virtual cathedrals of soccer in Utah. Hansen wants the Beehive State to be a destination for soccer talent from across the nation. “We want to be at the front,” Hansen said.

“We want to become the Harvard. We want to be the one that, if you’re really serious, you have to come look at us.”

One look at the layout for the 132-acre academy complex underscores how much Hansen wants soccer to take root at every level in Utah. It features a 5,000-seat stadium where the Monarchs, the RSL academy teams and Salt Lake Community College will play home matches. A 208,000-square foot training center—the largest preengineered free-span building in North America—houses two artificial fields and will be used full time for the daily training activities of RSL, the Monarchs and the U-18, U-16 and U-14 academy teams, starting in February.

The complex also includes a 300-student charter school and housing facilities for students as well as visiting teams and coaches. Once completely finished, it will comprise a total of 10 soccer fields, seven of which will be regulationsize fields, measuring 80 yards wide by 120 yards long.

Such infrastructure serves a purpose of immersing young players directly in soccer in a way that no club team could ever do. RSL academy players will get an opportunity to observe and train with first- and second-team pro players and absorb the Real soccer curriculum designed to develop them to move onto the pro level.

“Being away from home,” said Real Academy technical director Martín Vásquez, “these boys have one thing in mind: their education and their soccer development. They have goals, they have dreams, and they see their way to get there. It takes a lot of commitment. It takes a lot of sacrifice. It takes a lot of hard work.”

Park City school came first

What RSL is doing in soccer development is modeled after concepts used by top-level pro teams in Europe to South America to create talent pipelines for their clubs and national teams. It’s also not an entirely new thing to Utah.

For the past two decades, many winter-sports athletes have gotten their high school education at the Winter Sports School in Park City while training in their chosen sport. Since competition schedules typically run from December through April, going to a traditional school with an August to May class schedule isn’t a feasible option.

The Winter Sports School opened its doors in 1994 and transitioned from a private independent school to a public charter school in 2014. Enrollment expanded to include 120 students from Summit, Wasatch and Salt Lake counties.

Becoming a charter school opened the Winter Sports School to a broader range of athletes and their families. Athletes who are Utah residents do not pay tuition. The only costs for them are school fees typical with other public charter schools. Admission is done through a lottery.

“These sports are already pretty expensive,” Tess Miner-Farra, director of the Winter Sports School, said. “The annual cost of participation in club training, equipment, competition fees and travel fees is already a huge commitment on the part of our families to compete at a high level in the sport. Adding tuition on top of that was impossible. Now it’s far more accessible.”

The students participate in clubs that serve as feeder programs to the U.S. national team in their respective sports. They train and compete through local clubs and the school schedule is designed to fit around their training and competition schedule.

Classes run from April to November. The school further adapts to their students’ schedules by using Google Platform, allowing students to remotely check on homework assignments, for example, if they are away at a required camp.

Dozens of alumni have gone on to win Olympic medals and world-championship medals in various winter sports. Posters celebrating some of these elite athletes adorn the walls of the school’s foyer.

Real Salt Lake Owner, Dell Loy Hansen


Soccer’s Bright Future

That’s a trajectory the Zions Bank Real Academy hopes to mirror with its own youth development efforts. The goal Hansen has with his academy is to develop a pipeline of homegrown soccer talent that can go toe-to-toe with the best from Europe, South America and elsewhere on the world’s stage and come out winners.

“They have a natural soccer culture and a love of it on the street, but we’re better trainers,” Hansen said. “You will see America in the next 10 years be a contender in the top four positions in the World Cup and in the Olympics. I already see it in Major League Soccer with the players we’re training.”