LAFC's innovative and largely organic culture has prodded success in so many ways, most visibly in the club's gorgeous and often dominant brand of attacking soccer and the rollicking atmosphere found in its beautiful stadium just south of downtown. Its Academy, too, has impressed -- the club's first two trophies were won at the youth level -- while slowly building from the U-12 side that kicked things off in 2016.
Teams have been added, one at a time, and LAFC heads into the coming season -- the first for MLS Next, the league's new development platform -- with six teams, adding a U-19 group to the U-12s, U-13s, U-14s, U-15s and U-17s, with players pushed to compete above their age group. This patient growth has provided great upside in a number of ways, especially in the capacity to craft players and in relationships within Southern California's powerful club landscape.
It's a rather unique approach -- the preference usually is to start with a full complement of youth sides -- that has framed how LAFC is going about the business of creating professional players.
“It didn't just happen overnight,” LAFC Academy director Todd Saldaña said. “We started slowly with just one team and being able to build it up and evolve and grow to the point of having our first team get to know the academy to the point where they wanted to sign three players. Starting with just one team. ... To be able to build something from from scratch, you know, it makes sense to take some time. ...
“It gave us time to build a culture with a group and time before our first team came on board to get a little bit ahead in identifying all the talent and putting together a coaching staff. It gave us a head start and [the ability to] build the academy without feeling like we have to have a first-team player ready within six months to a year. We had time, knowing these were young players, so we could really put a lot of the details into the coaching and into the development of them and the academy without having that pressure of the first game knocking, or the pressure of having four or five other teams that we need to address all at the same time. It basically told us that the club was going to have patience and allow us to build a culture, build the academy.”
The academy debuted two years before the first team took the field and a year before Bob Bradley came on board. LAFC's head coach, embracing this direction, from the onset included Saldaña and Academy director of coaching Enrique Duran in the decision-making process. They and their coaches were used to help scout players in Latin America.
John Thorrington -- LAFC's general manager, executive vice president and now, following Tom Penn's departure, co-interim president -- in 2018 told the Los Angeles Times that utilizing the academy in scouting was “incredibly valuable, [forcing] them to have conversations about what we're looking for in the first team.”
That, in turn, informed the kind of players Saldaña and Co., were building. It all led to the July 8 announcement that 16-year-old forward Christian Torres and defenders Erik Dueñas, 15, and Antonio Leone, 16, had been signed to Homegrown Players contracts, which Saldaña calls “the number one accomplishment” the academy has achieved. Thorrington said it was “a huge moment for us as a club.”
Tony Leone and Christian Torres made their LAFC first team debuts in a January 2020 friendly against Penarol.
LAFC has emphasized youth all along and has brought in several talented young players from South America -- Uruguay's Diego Rossi, 22, Brian Rodriguez, 20, Francisco Ginella, 21, and Jose Cifuentes, 21; Colombia's Eduard Atuesta and Eddie Segura, both 23; and Ecuador's Diego Palacios, 21 -- playing key roles among 14 under-23s on the roster.
Dueñas, a diminutive fullback from El Monte who was part of that first U-12 team, “has a big heart, works really hard and picks up ideas,” Bradley said when he was signed. Leone, a “quality” center back from Long Beach who has been in camp with U.S. and Mexican youth national teams, was Golden Ball winner when LAFC's U-15 team reached last year's U.S. Soccer Development Academy final. Torres, a striker from Fontana, won the Golden Boot with that team, and in a preseason win over Toronto FC became the first LAFC Academy player to score a first-team goal. He netted 30 goals in 44 academy matches.
Torres made his MLS debut off the bench in an Aug. 30 loss at Seattle and played again in a 5-1 home romp over San Jose three days later.
It's just a start.
Academy defenders Armando Avila and Diego Rosales and midfielder Mauricio Gutierrez joined Dueñas, Leone and Torres in Bradley's preseason camp, and several others -- including forward Steven Ramirez, the brother for former LAFC (and current Houston) forward Christian Ramirez, and Mexican youth national team goalkeeper Donovan Palomares -- are deep in the pipeline.
“We want to establish the connection between the first team, our ideas and how we want to play with what the Academy is doing,” Bradley said in July. “This shows that the work that is going on in the Academy is going really well.”
The beginnings of the philosophy governing the Academy were in place before Thorrington brought Saldaña to the club. Both were South Bay-bred -- Saldaña emerged from soccer-rich Torrance in the late 1970s, the South Africa-born Thorrington from the post Palos Verdes Peninsula in the 1990s -- and had learned from legendary coaches. Saldaña had founded two clubs in the South Bay and had visited academies in Spain and France and throughout MLS during his time with U.S. Soccer; Thorrington had experience in Manchester United's legendary academy, which he'd joined at 17, before playing elsewhere in Europe and in MLS.
They'd met while Saldaña was working as a technical adviser and discussed how to create the best possible academy. “Between us,” Saldaña said, "we had a very good idea of what it could look like.”
Saldaña is SoCal soccer royalty. He grew up in Torrance, the epicenter of the region's youth soccer movement at the time, where he was mentored by legendary coach Sigi Schmid, who died in 2018. He played in U.S. Soccer's youth programs, representing the country at the 1981 U-20 World Cup -- Bob Gansler, Walt Chyzowych and Ralph Perez were among his coaches -- and went straight from South Torrance High School to the NASL's Los Angeles Aztecs, where another legend, Dutchman Rinus Michels, was in charge, with Brazilian Claudio Coutinho succeeding him.
Todd Saldaña played for the USA at the 1981 U-20 World Cup.
“Obviously, there's a lot of difference now [from the 1970s in how players are developed, and the biggest] maybe you could say is sophistication,” Saldaña said. “The access we have to learning how to be good coaches, with the Internet and everything else that allows you to be, you know, on the field at Bayern Munich or in South America or in Mexico on a daily basis. There's just so much more information.
“But I will say my upbringing was unique. I had Sigi as my youth coach from the time I was 11 to when I was 18. He was a soccer junkie, where we spent a lot of time watching every game, every training -- every game that was at the Coliseum from any country. He was a guy who really taught me to continue to study the game. It's almost mind-boggling how fortunate I was, in terms of being coached. You learn something from every one of those guys.”
Schmid, who won MLS championships with the Galaxy and Columbus Crew and had powerhouse sides with the Seattle Sounders, remains an inspiration.
“He's left a huge legacy, and I think of him often,” Saldaña said. “I continue to be fortunate being around another top coach in this country, Bob Bradley. And we had Bruce Arena in L.A. for a long time, too. These influences make a difference in your career.”
Saldaña also played for the San Jose Earthquakes and Tulsa Roughnecks before NASL's demise following the 1984 season, spent a little time in the indoor game and played for what passed for top-tier soccer in the country in the late 1980s, with stints for two SoCal sides -- L.A. Heat and California Kickers -- before turning to coaching full-time in 1989. He started as Schmid's assistant at UCLA, ran programs at several local colleges, and succeeded Schmid with the Bruins when the LA Galaxy came calling in 1999.
He presided over several mergers to create South Bay Force, which won a national title in partnership with Orange County's Pateadores and became a Galaxy affiliate, and later started California Rush. He developed an innate understanding of the youth soccer landscape in the talent-rich region surrounding Los Angeles, learning that there were “amazing pockets of Los Angeles,” many of them undervalued, that were producing “amazing talents” in places like Inglewood and Lennox, Santa Ana and the San Fernando Valley, throughout the growing Inland Empire to the east.
“We as a club benefit from the history of youth soccer in Southern California,” he said. “In L.A., the goal was to try to be an aspirational level for club soccer players and unaffiliated youth soccer players. I think we've done a good job of creating relationships with the [region's] clubs. It's never easy, because, of course, every club and every coach gets attached to his talented players. So we've tried to be respectful in the way we approach them about players.”
How the academy started, with only 12-year-olds part of the scheme in year one, was helpful because the players “weren't so long-rooted in some of the clubs, vs. picking players when they've already spent four or five years in another academy.”
LAFC also has been (gone out of their way) to recognize the clubs, noting players' club roots on its website and having “the boys do a video tribute to their former club and coaches, and we posted those things.”
“We tried to let them know we're not here just taking credit doe all of their work,” Saldaña said. “We think we have something to add, but we are respecting the work they did before they came to us.”
Most of the clubs, he says, appreciates what LAFC is doing, but “there's still a percentage that is learning that that is the true job of youth coaching and youth clubs, to advance your players, and it takes time to build the relationships.”
Erik Duenas (botton row, third from left) with LAFC in 2016, two years before the LAFC started MLS play on its U-12 team.
Saldaña works most closely with academy manager Tony Vigil, an administrator with a strong soccer background, and Duran, who coached in Barcelona's academy, was technical director at South Africa's Mamelodi Sundowns and project manager for Cruyff Football in Barcelona, and arrived when Todd Beane's Cruyff-influenced TOVO Academy served as a consultant as LAFC began constructing the Academy.
Saldaña calls them “a godsend.”
“I think we we're able to make an incredible amount of progress that I don't think would have happened if I was, you know, Academy director/director of coaching/executive director,” he said. “We have a really strong group of three now.”
The MLS Next season kicks off the second weekend in October on the West Coast -- Los Angeles County remains closed because of the coronavirus pandemic -- and the aim is to “add new things to what we do and keep evolving,” he says. Winning isn't important in and of itself, but it facilitates growth in the psychological part of the game and provides experience in difficult circumstances. That's important. The U-15 team that produced Dueñas, Leone and Torres went 22-1-1 and outscored foes, 96-17. The lone loss was to Toronto FC in the DA title game.
“We set out to win all of our matches, of course, and we've been fortunate enough to be in a lot of championships and finals so far,” Saldaña said. “But to me, that study equals experience. We also want our players to have experience in pressure situations. So playing top teams and having success and playing in the playoffs and championships [is a] great amount of experience under pressure for a youth player as they want to play under pressure at a first-team level. So it's important that we're working that hard to create that experience for our players.”
Adding a second team, as other MLS clubs have playing in the USL Championship, is “being discussed” -- there's talk that MLS will mandate second teams and start its own competition -- and would “aide our academy players to be even better prepared for our first team, a big, big plus.”
LAFC has a girls-academy agreement with Newport Beach-based Slammers FC, one of the region's stronger clubs, but there's no certainty how that relationship will evolve nor whether LAFC at some point could form a National Women's Soccer League team. Saldaña says he would “love to see it as a father of four daughters who all played youth soccer.”
Most vital is continuing to develop talent for the first team. That's always the biggest issue, and there's always pressure, even when there wasn't.
“I've always felt that the clock was ticking, even from the beginning,” Saldaña said. “The time seems like you have years ahead of you, but you look at nowadays when a kid comes into your academy at 12 and could be signed by the time he's 15 or 16. That's three or four years. So I look at every new class that we bring in and I look at that three-year window and think we really need to have some players ready to support the first team by 15 or 16.”