San Antonio FC have established an exceptional program in USL Youth Development. Justin Sousa has spoken to the Welshman who heads up their standard-setting academy, Nick Evans.
The United Soccer League is a staple in the youth development landscape of football in the United States. Whether it be through the various Major League Soccer reserve teams that play across its three-tiered system or the league’s own individual markets, young Americans are provided a pathway to the professional game through their system. Now with the incoming USL Academy program in 2021, there will be even more structure to this pathway as youth development in the sport continues to improve and grow.
Even with these resources more readily accessible, there is still trouble establishing a functioning youth program internally for each club. Youth development is still sometimes viewed as an afterthought to some clubs, but a club’s ability to integrate their own homegrown players into the first-team is part of its DNA. For San Antonio FC, this has always been a foundation of their organization and a way in which they have become an extension of the San Antonio community.
The organisation immediately went to work putting together their SAFC Pro Academy system teams and staff members when they were established in 2016. Nick Evans was recruited internally to become the Pro Academy Director and tasked with facilitating and maintaining the club’s vision of community within the academy. Despite originally hailing from Wales, Evans has lived, studied and worked in the San Antonio area for well over a decade and has become intertwined with the city’s people and culture.
“In the early phase of determining what your academy looks like, you’ve got to take the context, and our context is San Antonio,” Evans said. “You look at history, population, and you look at potential barriers or obstacles to participation. History would tell us that from a geographic standpoint, we’re far south [in the country] and previous people who have tried to operate in this space have found it difficult because of travel and cost. So, how can we create a program that allows full participation for every player and removes any potential barrier to player participation and level of opportunity? This is something that we want to be the fabric of our club. It’s a component that is a part of the identity of our organization.”
Evans initially came to the United States at 22 years old on a soccer scholarship, in pursuit of a Master’s degree in kinesiology from the University of the Incarnate Word. Post-college, he worked in various directorial capacities with Classics Elite Soccer Academy from the under-8 level up to the under-15 level. He then worked in a dual role as the under-13 to under-15 Academy Director of the San Antonio Scorpions and assistant coach of the first-team.
After the Scorpions’ dissolvement in 2015, Evans joined San Antonio FC as an assistant coach before taking up the responsibility of Pro Academy Director in 2016. His work in San Antonio with various clubs has led to many of the unofficial grassroot connections SAFC have with the local club teams in their community.
SAFC Pro Academy products Ethan Bryant and Jose Gallegos, for example, first met Evans when they were 12 years old at Classics Elite. Since signing his first professional contract with the club in 2018, Bryant has moved abroad to Belgian second division side KSV Roeselare and earned a call-up to the most recent under-18 United States Youth National Team camp to evaluate players for the next under-20 cycle. Gallegos is still with the club and has become one of the most highly-regarded midfielders of his age group since making his debut in 2019.
“We firmly believe in collaboration,” Evans said. “We’re the minority [as the professional team]. We have multiple, multiple youth clubs within San Antonio and the greater region, but there’s only one professional team. It’s our responsibility that we operate on the highest standards and provide opportunities for players. By collaborating with all the clubs in the area, it allows us to reap the benefits of their player development systems and also to understand that when a player comes in here, it’s because he’s getting an elevated level of opportunity.”
The state of Texas has always been a prolific region in producing some of the United States’ top talents. Though FC Dallas have dominated the youth development scene recently, San Antonio also compete with another MLS market in the Houston Dynamo and a soon-to-be MLS market in Austin for the state’s youth talent. Expanding their geographic outreach can be difficult, but they are slowly starting to see results from their predominantly San Antonio-based recruits.
The approach itself resembles that of historic La Liga outfit, Athletic Club. Though their transfer policy does not distinctly restrict them from pursuing players outside of their immediate region, the vision and philosophy are to have a club that embodies the city it resides in. SAFC want the right mixture of players that have the quality to win games and provide fans with recognizable faces that grew up in the San Antonio area.
“As an organization, we want to be able to provide opportunity to, first, San Antonio players who can play and represent their city,” Evans said. “We want the fans to identify with the youth players who are from San Antonio and going through our youth experience and to form a connection with that player. We’re also mindful that in a youth experience, it’s very difficult to get 18 top players on the same team. When we look to recruit players, we do it from a standpoint of understanding what we already have in our environment.”
The club empathizes with the needs of the players, as well as their families. There are social and financial burdens that come with moving from another county or state, and parents make sacrifices to allow their kids to pursue a career in professional football. These issues are often overlooked, leaving players and families in the dark on how to handle them, but San Antonio address every potential change that comes with joining their organization.
Finances are some of the biggest obstacles to providing access to a fair and equal opportunity to a professional organization. Pay-to-play has consumed the mentalities of many of the country’s youth programs, but the SAFC Pro Academy has been fully funded at no expense to its players since its inception. The program fields teams in four age groups – under-13, under-14, under-15 and under-16/17 – and houses over 80 full-time players born between 2004 and 2007.
These players are not disillusioned with the idea that joining the organization ensures they will reach the professional game, though. Not every player is quite ready to make the jump to the professional scene immediately out of the academy, some might not be cut out for the professional game at all, and the option to continue their development as a player and pursue a higher education through college is stressed just as much.
“We want to enrich their whole family life,” Evans said. “The players and parents who have come here to San Antonio within Texas, from outside of Texas, from other mega markets, those players and parents need to feel that San Antonio is also an opportunity for them from a job perspective, a school perspective or from a life perspective. [The player] needs security, he needs the comfort of his own home, he needs the people that he trusts around him, and we’ve been fortune enough to develop and find that.
“Our investment is not just in soccer but in the community of San Antonio,” Evans added. “For every player that will sign professional for SAFC, there will be potentially 16 others to go to college and earn a scholarship, which is not something that has always been the case here in this city. It’s more of an enrichment program and life opportunity program just as much as it is a soccer development program. We feel we have a responsibility to provide an opportunity for our youth, and this is our vehicle and platform to do it.”
The process of identifying players that fit SAFC’s mold is a well-developed and detailed one. Evans said a player’s progression from potential recruit to first team player consists of four keys parts: talent identification, talent development, talent integration and talent opportunity. Each player receives careful attention from the coaching staff to provide them with personalized and detailed plans to continue their development at a pace that suits them best.
Developing players around the SAFC philosophy of community and family is also important to ensuring the longevity of the team’s youth production. Coaches across the four youth age groups and the first team work to ensure that a healthy team environment is maintained in training sessions, off-the-field activities and on game days. They ensure a level of professionalism and competitiveness resonates from top to bottom, but it is important to make every player feel welcomed as they make their way up the age groups.
Head coach Alen Marcina has developed an evaluation plan for players internally, in college, or in different leagues to help with talent identification. The method focuses on attributes that range from a player’s ability to his personality and the way he carries himself. It is a process that has seen academy success stories like Bryant, Gallegos and Leo Torres become consistent figures in the first team. It even led to the identification and signing of Argentinian playmaker Cristian Parano when he was a 19-year-old at San Martín de San Juan.
“We first measure the level of influence in their own age group,” Evans said. “Are they contributing in their age group, but are they influencing? By influencing we mean [their ability] to influence the game or influence their team-mates to provide positive outcomes. Then it’s a case of an integration period to the first team to see how they do in that environment. We have a four-layered approach to understand the competitiveness of the player in the environment, their on and off the ball capacity and then we’re looking at their influence.”
Evans examined Bryant’s career with SAFC as an example. It took a year before the club felt he was ready to start playing with the first team, by which point his competitiveness was at the level of a professional and he could adjust to in-game situations on the fly. He could play at a professional pace and created space for himself off the ball. Most importantly, he influenced games and training sessions and maintained a good level of consistency in his performances. It then came down to determining which match environments were best to ease him into the match day squad and, eventually, make his debut.
Evans also discussed the general understanding the organization has with players such as Bryant who want to move on from the club. He said the club works with the players to make sure the decision they come to is the one that will seemingly provide them with the proper platform to continue developing. SAFC is meant to be starting point for players, Evans noted, not their end point. The opportunity for players like Bryant to continue their careers overseas is exactly what the organization wants to provide all its players.
“We would like to have an identity where a high percentage of our players are from the academy,” Evans said. “At the same time, as I mentioned before, we’re your start point, not your end point. This season, our objective is to integrate eight players into the first-team environment. If we’re able to sustain integrating eight players into the first-team a year, having already integrated ten this season, and then provide these players with an opportunity when they’re ready, then we’re on the way to what we want to be as a club. We want to be able to develop and sell players from a youth level, and we want the players to be able to see that pathway.”
At this point in time, the club continues to build this philosophy though it may be from a socially acceptable, six-foot, or greater, distance. SAFC’s youth coaches are meeting with players to discuss their progression throughout the last year, reflecting on the areas of strength and weakness in their game. Through the utilization of Advancement Zones – a data analytics platform the club uses – coaches can examine a player’s execution and quality of an action, their intentions within the game and their interplay with other players.
There is a bit of anxiety surrounding youth development in the United States after the dissolvement of the DA program, but the USL continues to be a leading force for the country’s player pool in this respect. Some may do it better than others, but it’s pretty clear that San Antonio FC have established a blueprint for success that other clubs will soon emulate.
As ever, we extend our thanks to Nick Evans for providing such an extensive insight to the workings of a USL club. You can follow him on Twitter here. Once you've done that, go buy one of our Scouted Football Handbooks – the perfect lockdown reading.