Commentary

Southern California soccer experience serves Coach Andrew May well with Real Salt Lake Academy

Andrew May has been coaching youth soccer for a couple decades, starting when he was a collegiate player. Until 2020, he coached in Southern California, where he was born and raised. After six months at Real Salt Lake-Arizona Academy, May moved to the Real Salt Lake Academy in Utah. In July, he coached RSL's U-15s as they won their age group's title in the inaugural MLS Next Cup. Of course, the pandemic made for a unique season.

He took over in April, after which May's team only had four official regular-season games -- two each against the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders -- but scheduled as many local friendlies as possible. MLS Next, which replaced the U.S. Soccer's Development Academy, hosted its first national playoffs in Frisco, Texas, to finish on a high note a first season hampered by COVID restrictions.

"We didn't know we were going to be in the playoffs until about a week before," May said. "MLS Next did a good job putting the tournament together, and used a different format."

The norm for national championships tends be round-robin group play ahead of a knockout stage. MLS Next was a knockout tournament from the get-go, with losing teams moving into the showcase to guarantee three games. "It made each game more of a battle," May said. "You had to be at your best in every game."

May's RSL team, before beating the Philadelphia Union in the U-15 final, prevailed over Orlando City, Total Futbol Academy, Sockers FC and the San Jose Earthquakes.

"I knew the group from having been in the organization," said May. "I knew what I was coming into and they allowed me to put my spin on it. ... We came with no real expectations of winning. It was more about getting some high-level competition for these kids. 

And of course the ultimate measure of an MLS team's academy is how many players end up making it the pro level. May arrived at a club with an impressive record in that department. By midsummer of the current MLS season, RSL had a dozen Homegrown players on its first-team roster. The RSL academy alum include current starters Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera and David Ochoa, and Sebastián Saucedo (now at UNAM Pumas).

May's mother emigrated from Mexico and he grew up bilingually, but his family wasn't especially soccer-oriented, although his grandfather was somewhat of a fan. "My mom put me in everything, swimming, basketball, baseball, but it was soccer I gravitated toward," May said. "Then I had the opportunity to play for Luis Balboa. An awesome experience."

Argentina-born Luis Balboa, with Brazil-born Tad Bobak, coached Fram-Culver to the 1986 McGuire Cup U-19 national championship with a team featuring Luis' son, future Hall of famer Marcelo Balboa. May played for Luis Balboa at Mission Viejo SC in the mid-1990s. One of his teammates was Brian Kleiban, with whom he became friends and would later coach with.

May attended Vanguard University in Southern California in the early 2000s. His teammates nicknamed him Chelito, after Argentine striker Marcelo Delgado, but injuries took their toll on his playing aspirations. Vanguard coach Randy Dodge -- who also coached and served as director at the Bobak-founded SoCal Blues -- encouraged May to pursue coaching.

"I had four knee surgeries," May said. "My buddy Randy Dodge told me, 'I think you'd be a good coach. You need to start doing your licenses.' I started doing that and coaching grassroots, while I was still playing."

May went on to serve as associate head coach for both Vanguard's men's and women's teams. In 2012, Kleiban arranged for May to be interviewed by Chivas USA academy director Sacha van der Most. May and Kleiban coached Chivas USA youth teams through 2015. After a year with Strikers FC, where one of the players in the age group May coached was Matthew Hoppe, he reunited with Kleiban at the LA Galaxy. There they coached a dozen future MLS players and now well-known Galaxy academy products such as Efrain Alvarez, Alex Mendez and Uly Llanez.

With Kleiban, whose parents emigrated from Argentina, May sneaked into an Argentina national team closed-training at the LA Coliseum to see Marcelo Bielsa at work. There were also visits to Barcelona's La Masia. They were part of a sea change in American soccer coaching, which for so long had been dominated by a British or Northern European approach.

"You develop your eye by watching high-level soccer and as much training as you can," May said, "but then you as a coach you have to transmit those ideas to the players. Coming up with your own methods of how to teach it."

Whereas the Los Angeles Galaxy's academy filled with local talent, Real Salt Lake players hail from around the nation and attend full-time residency at the Zions Bank Real Academy facility, which was completed in February 2018.

The RSL first team trains at the facility -- in Herriman, Utah, about a half-hour drive south of Salt Lake City -- and the second team, the USL Championship Real Monarchs, trains and plays there, in the 5,000-seat Zions Bank Stadium. The youngest players entering residency are the U-15s, high school freshmen.

"It's a big sacrifice for a player and the family to leave home for residency," says. "We're supportive as coaches, we wear many hats, and the club is also good at providing mentorship in terms of mental state of players, the psychological aspects. We don't want a lot of turnover, that's why the scouting is so important."

While some clubs use host families for out-of-town players, RSL has a dorm setup, and even the handful of Utah players on May's U-15s live there.

"There's a common area, where they can gather and play pool, indoor soccer, play basketball, ping-pong, video games," he says. "They eat together. It's a family feel. The residency program is right on the facility. There's a gym and indoor facilities for when it snows. There's a charter school on the facility, so literally they walk across the parking lot to go to school."

A major difference between the U.S. landscape compared to when May was an aspiring young player -- or when he started coaching youth soccer -- is the huge increase in opportunities for youth players to be part of a pro environment, thanks to the investment of MLS clubs. 

"Their big dream when they're at an MLS club academy is to become a professional soccer player," he said. "That's their main ambition. We strive to help them realize that dream. But we know that's not going to be the case for all of them. We have to also prepare them for a Plan B."

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