The United Soccer League (USL) officially unveiled its vision for the future of the league’s Academy system earlier this year when it rolled out a new tier in the league’s identity called “USL Academy”. This weekend in San Antonio the league will take the first steps to turn this vision into reality when the USL Western Conference Academy Cup Regional Event is contested at San Antonio FC’s S.T.A.R. Soccer Complex and Toyota Field.
Western Academy Cup Format
Twenty-one matches will be played by fourteen Under-17 youth teams between Friday and Monday, October 11-14. The Event is not a traditional tournament with knock-out rounds and a champion declared. Instead the clubs have been divided into two groups, eight in the Elite and six in the Premier groups. Each club will play three matches in its respective grouping. A similar regional event for eastern teams will take place next February in Florida. Results from these regional qualifiers will determine seeding and placement ahead of the National Event which will also occur in Florida next May.
All four Texas USL clubs will be represented. Austin Bold, Rio Grande Valley FC (RGV FC) and host San Antonio FC (SAFC) will play in the Elite group and El Paso Locomotive FC in the Premier. The remaining participants will come from western USL Championship, League One and League Two clubs.
The only match between two Texas teams will take place on Friday when Austin plays RGV FC. Three of the Academy Cup matches will be played at Toyota Field: SAFC vs. Orange County SC on Friday afternoon, and both Austin vs. St. Louis FC and SAFC vs. Phoenix Rising FC on Monday morning. All three Toyota Field matches will be live streamed by Nutmeg Sports Media.
Full Western Academy Cup schedule details can be found here.
Texas USL Club Academy Cup Participants
San Antonio FC
One of the early steps San Antonio FC took after they were established in 2016 was to form a Pro Academy program. The club, which began Academy operations at the U-12 level, has added an age level each year and competes now at four age levels. The U-16/17 age level team that will play in the USL Academy Cup this weekend was added to SAFC’s program this year. SAFC Academy teams are also part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system.
The SAFC Pro Academy is one of the more established programs in USL. The club has already promoted three players to the first team, one of whom, midfielder Leo Torres, is part of the SAFC roster for this Academy Cup. Torres and fellow SAFC Academy midfielder Rocky Perez were included in a recent USL Academy Western Players to Watch feature.
Austin Bold doesn’t have a youth Academy, but instead works with local coaches and clubs to field tournament teams. Earlier this year the club organized four teams of 8-12 year old players and entered them in the 2019 Premier SuperCopa youth tournament in Dallas.
One of the local coaches involved in the program is Lee Stooksberry who has a long history in the Austin soccer community, both as a player and youth coach. The Bold hosted tryouts over the last few weeks and has selected a roster of 29 players from six different local clubs to represent the club at the USL Academy Cup this weekend. In an interview on Thursday, Stooksberry mentioned that the squad was finalized this week and played a friendly against another local youth club Wednesday. He also noted that this will not be the only opportunity for the players to feature for the Bold. The intent is to loosely keep the team together and also compete in the National Event next May.
Rio Grande Valley FC
Rio Grande Valley FC joined the US Development Academy (USSDA) program last year and is currently competing in both the USSDA Cup and Frontier Conference Regular Season. Despite the early nature of the club’s Academy, one of their products (Brandon Morales) has played for the Toros senior team. Toros Academy Director Rafael Amaya discussed their Academy program in this article.
El Paso Locomotive
The Locomotive also do not have an Academy program established yet. This has not stopped the first year USL expansion team from establishing a robust youth soccer program, working closely with local youth clubs. The Locomotive Player Development Program has already begun operation and players from the Select part of this program will form the basis of the Academy team competing in San Antonio.
USL Has a Long-Range Plan for its Academy Program
The inaugural USL Academy Cup is a first step prior to launch of a new USL Academy Player development model in Fall of 2020. The plan is for USL clubs to form elite teams for U15-U19 players that will be designed, according to the Academy website “to move into a focused, pre-professional development environment with a direct and immediate connection to their local USL senior team”.
As more USL clubs add Academy programs, regional conferences will be formed, supplemented by continuing USL Academy events. Each club will also be required to establish a Youth Network to help grow the game at the grass roots level.
The event in San Antonio will also include a Player Village and off-field development program at S.T.A.R. Soccer Complex.