Sacramento has always been a soccer town. From the tremendous growth of youth soccer to the days of professional indoor and semi-pro teams, the game has long had roots in the heart of the Capital Region. With 13 million Americans playing the game, soccer has exploded in the last decade and is the third most played team sport behind basketball and baseball. Sacramento Republic FC is capitalizing on that fútbol frenzy, now boasting an elite youth academy program.
For the past 18 months, Republic FC has been working to add a youth academy program to its organization. This year, it was one of only four teams invited to join the prestigious U.S. Soccer Development Academy. The program is designed to develop the nation’s top male and female talent and and is meant for youth players who have the skill and desire to play the game collegiately and professionally, and can commit to a 4-day-a-week practice schedule, a season that lasts nearly 11 months and a travel schedule that includes multiple out-of-state trips. Tryouts are typically invitation-only, and admission is selective.
According to Republic FC Academy Director Rod Underwood, a clear pathway to the professional level, plus a fully-funded program that covers all player expenses tipped the scales in Republic FC’s favor when applying for the program.
“We have a direct link to a professional-level first team with Sacramento Republic FC,” says Underwood. “We are able to tick that box which is very important to the USSDA.”
With the Sacramento region drawing thousands of local and distance players, the area was ripe for a more competitive program, and Sacramento Republic FC is in an ideal position to lead it.
Last year, in its first full season, Republic FC captured the United Soccer League Pro title with a win over the Harrisburg City Islanders. The team also drew records crowds to Bonney Field for home matches, firmly establishing its place in the Capital Region as a team to stay. As Sacramento Republic FC continues its push to become a Major League Soccer expansion team, the organization is doing everything right: winning games, shattering attendance records, choosing a stadium site and now, adding a top-flight academy program.
Under the direction of Underwood and Youth Academy Manager Jeremy Field, Sacramento Republic FC will feature three academy teams in three youth age groups: boys under 13 and 14 years old (U13/14), boys under 15 and 16 years old (U15/16) and boys under 17 and 18 years old (U17/18) for the 2015-2016 season. But in order to draw some of the best talent, the organization had to get buy-in from local clubs. While Field and Underwood received support from nearly all the regional leagues’ coaching directors, soccer can be very territorial. “We try really hard to be Switzerland,” Field says. “We do our best to have open lines of communication and in the end are looking for this to be mutually beneficial for everyone.”
To develop strong teams, Republic FC brought on experienced coaches, but also needed local clubs to send its top players to try out. “We got complete buy-in for the U15/U16s and the U17/U18s,” says Field. The U13/14 team took a bit more coaxing. Both San Juan Soccer Club and Placer United Soccer Club have existing U13/14 academy programs, so Republic FC had to work a little harder to convince the clubs to send their younger players to try out for the program. In the end, Field believes they have three solid teams that will complete in the academy program’s fall campaign.
“In our first year, we are looking to get our feet wet and get these kids exposed to academy coaching and training,” he says. “But we also have high expectations to be competitive and get some good results.”
Home-grown Sacramento player and U15/16 head coach Brian Willey concurs with Field and has been waiting a long time for this opportunity. “It’s truly exciting to see the entire Sacramento soccer community on the same page,” he says. “It took an organization like Sacramento Republic FC to bring it all together.” But Republic FC’s new academy teams still have a lot of work to do. All three age groups will compete in USSDA’s western conference, arguably one of the toughest in the program. Republic FC’s Academy teams will face several MLS academy teams, including the San Jose Earthquakes, Portland Timbers, Vancouver Whitecaps and Real Salt Lake, as well as strong club programs.
Depending on how the academy program grows, Republic FC has some big plans for the future, including attracting international talent.
“Ultimately we would like to have a residency program where kids from all over can live and play soccer here, plus go to school together,” says Underwood. “We want to be a model both at home and abroad.”