FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – For New England Revolution fans hoping the club’s next local starlet is around the corner, patience is key. At least that’s the message General Manager Mike Burns and Academy Director Byran Scales recently conveyed in exclusive interviews with The Bent Musket.
Addressing the proverbial question in American soccer of who the next Homegrown signing is, Burns and Scales explained at great length just how extensive the Revs Academy system is. About to enter its ninth season, the program is completely free and funded by a seven-figures investment from the club’s ownership group, eradicating socioeconomic hurdles facing players of all backgrounds.
Through affiliations or New England’s own organizational umbrella, there are teams in the U12 through U23 age groups, many of which participate in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. All along, there’s a consistent philosophy instilled, one in which the first team serves as the end goal of a years-long journey.
"There’s some teams out there that have signed 10, 12 Homegrown Players, or at least a lot more Homegrown Players than us," Burns said. "Our position is we don’t want to sign players just to sign players, we want to offer players contracts who we think are the right fit at the right time."
The approach Burns alluded to is undoubtedly reflected in who the Revs have already signed to Homegrown Player deals, as forward Diego Fagundez, midfielder Scott Caldwell and midfielder Zachary Herivaux have all come through the ranks. That trio places the Revs second in Homegrown Player minutes across Major League Soccer, only behind FC Dallas.
Each success story didn’t come about overnight, though. Instead they’re the byproduct of unique paths – Fagundez signed at 15, Caldwell after four years at Akron University and Herivaux before he began NCAA play at Providence College – where each player slowly became familiar with the first team’s environment.
That latter portion is key, Burns explained, as budding players are integrated into the MLS side through summer training sessions, preseason trips to Arizona and springtime practices.
"Having kids in and around the first team is really the most important component to our Academy," Scales said. "As players get to that U16 age group, you can start to differentiate some of the players who might have professional potential. Jay Heaps and his staff, they know our academy guys very well and … are very receptive to having those guys in training to add more challenges for them."
In past months, those players have often been 17-year-old forward Justin Rennicks, 17-year-old defender Daniel Jones and 17-year-old defender Calvin Aroh. All have extensive experience with U.S. youth national teams, and are reflective of an comprehensive scouting process Scales spelled out.
The Revs Academy has several scouts that understand New England’s convoluted club soccer landscape, often watching hundreds of games across youth leagues such as the Massachusetts Premier League, the New England Premiership, the Region I League and regional U.S. Soccer training centers. From there, players will be invited into the Academy, but sometimes there’s a need to look externally.
That’s why the Revs partnered with New York-based Empire United in May of 2012, hoping to expand the club’s reach and influence. That partnership eventually fizzled out, though, Burns said, because the "distance was just too great to have any sort of meaningful relationship."
A similar undertaking took place with the Boston Rams, a PDL side the Revs partnered with until the 2016 season, providing college-age players a place to continue their development in the summer. The PDL side recently folded, however, opening the door to New England’s first ever U23 side, one that played an independent schedule throughout 2016’s late spring and summer.
"We think it was a success to be able to bring back a bunch of our college players that we want to be able to keep tabs on and have train with us," Burns said. "A couple times they had scrimmages against our first team, so our first team coaches saw the U23s play, and it was great for them. We felt that movement for us this summer was positive and we look to continue that program."
As is always the case with player development, questions linger over what the next step is. Several other MLS sides have opened fully functional reserve sides in the United Soccer League, the third tier of professional soccer in America, offering their prospects a routine chance at 90 minutes of gameplay. However, Burns said a standalone USL squad is not something the Revs are considering in the short term, while the long-term thought always exists. In the interim, the Revs maintain a partnership with the USL’s Rochester Rhinos, a link Burns suggested fulfills the same purpose.
Another possibility, Scales explained, is opening a residency program of sorts, much like the LA Galaxy and Philadelphia Union have. In such a format, players complete their high school degree and train on-site, creating an environment keenly focused on professional soccer aspirations.
As Burns and Scales both echoed, the Revs have held serious internal discussions about such an arrangement, but that opportunity wouldn’t take root for several years.
"I think for us, we’re in an area of the country where education is a huge component, and until we decide to build our own school and have our own residency program, we’re happy with the environment these kids are in right now," Scales said. "We’re up there in the top-five in Homegrown minutes, and that’s without a residency program and with the challenges we have."
With a greater scope of the Revs Academy established, it’s altogether clear that New England has devoted incredible resources towards developing players from within. Above all, it’s part of a league-wide emphasis on cultivating talent, as ownership groups have collectively invested $40 million in, frankly, teenage soccer players.
In that grander scheme, the Revs recognize how crucial Homegrown Players are, opting for quality as opposed to quantity. After all, it’s an approach that has paid dividends so far, with Fagundez earning team MVP honors in 2013 and Caldwell earning the same distinction in 2015.
Still, there’s no clear answer to who exactly the next Homegrown signing will be. It could be Rennicks, it could be a player in the college ranks or it could be an unknown quantity. The potential is anywhere, really.
"The Boston market isn’t like Los Angeles or Southern California or Dallas or even New Jersey or New York, but there’s players here, and we want to make sure that we find them and help move them along to become professionals," Scales said. "That’s our job, plain and simple."
And when the Revs do put pen to paper with their next Homegrown signing, that day will serve as yet another benchmark for the constantly-evolving Academy.
"At the end of the day, in the back of our mind, at the forefront of our mind, is always what do we need to do as an academy to try and develop the best possible players to make an impact on our first team?," Burns posed. "That’s our goal, we don’t make any secrets about that."