By JOSE M. ROMERO
PHOENIX — In the desert between Phoenix and Tucson lies a place that is right now developing potential MLS players for Real Salt Lake, and for the immediate future, developing college soccer prospects.
That place is Grande Sports World, in Casa Grande, Ariz., home of Real Salt Lake Arizona, the state's academy team under the banner of the 2009 MLS champion.
The club was granted Arizona as a developmental territory so as to expand the area from which RSL can draw a player pool. Former MLS player Greg Vanney took that a step further, working with RSL GM Garth Lagerwey and coach Jason Kreis to not only get an academy team started, but to make it a residency program such as that of the Vancouver Whitecaps. Vanney's first class of academy players is now living on the Grande Sports World grounds and playing soccer every day.
UPDATE: Greg Vanney was named an assistant coach with Chivas USA after this story was originally written. Vanney leaves RSL Arizona and Grande Sport World immediately.
GSW has begun its search for a new operations and academy director. "Our plan is to advertise nationally and leverage our extensive network of elite coaches for recommendations, and already we are hearing from a large number of candidates expressing interest in this opportunity," said Ron Burks, co-owner of Grande Sports World, in a prepared statement.
While drawing a talent pool from two states might seem very advantageous for RSL, Salt Lake City is not the metropolis that is Los Angeles, or even Phoenix, and there are many more young players to see in bigger cities with MLS teams. So Vanney is using his resources to find players not only from Arizona but around the Southwest to come to Casa Grande and not only play, but live and grow away from home for those not from nearby.
No other MLS team has a program of this kind. The U-18 and U-16 players live only steps away from the hotel, fields and athletes performance center. They go to school at local high schools during the day, training in either the early morning or late in the afternoon.
"We've tried to make it not cost-prohibitve," Vanney said. "A big part of how we selected the team was in ability, but also character. Our guys enjoy each other and they get along."
It wasn't long after Vanney first saw Grande Sports World — in late 2009 — that he went to work for them. Vanney, who provided commentary on Sounders broadcasts during its inaugural season, was offered a job to run the facility and direct the academy, and hit the ground running.
His first impressions of the grounds were lasting.
"I was fully expecting to see a local motel with a park," Vanney said. "When I arrived, it was anything but that."
Given the freedom and leeway by RSL to expand on his direction, Vanney saw player development as part of the plan to grow soccer in the area. Real Salt Lake of MLS already had a presence in Arizona, and the club, looking for more of a youth development player pool outside of Utah but still within their territory for homegrown talent, reached a deal with Vanney to guide the new and improved RSL Arizona Academy.
The residency program only began in June of this year, and although competition is sporadic, RSL Arizona plays in a league of Southern California academy teams. There's a dormitory for the players and round-the-clock adult supervision, a support staff of coaches and trainers on site daily and an agreement to start holding classes on site that is close to being finalized.
It took some time for RSL Arizona players to get noticed by college recruiters, but the attention is growing. RSL Arizona's teams fared well at the recent Winter Showcase for academy teams from around the country, an event attended by a lot of scouts and college coaching staffs.
Vanney, who spent 13 seasons as a player in MLS and was also a defender for the U.S. national team, works hands-on with the players.
"I've always felt like Arizona is its own little soccer bubble," Vanney said. "A lot of people don't have access to higher levels of soccer. We're isolated from what's really happening in the world of soccer so it's kind of been my mission to open the eyes of Arizona to what's out there."