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A look inside the Revolution Academy

Jack Panayotou scored the game-winning goal in the championship game for the MLS NEXT U-19 age group. It was a moment of great pride for the midfielder, but it’s not his favorite moment.

“[Goalkeeping coach] Jasir Charris, he’s been with the Revolution and with the Academy for 13 years, I think. He was there before we even had an academy,” Panayotou told The Bent Musket. “He was telling our team about how the other teams used to go to these tournaments and we’d lose 9-0 and 6-1 and he said, ‘We had no shot of winning a tournament like that.’

“And here we are winning the national championship, and he was in tears.”

There were a lot of tears during the celebration, a sign that winning the title meant so much to so many people. New England Revolution Technical Director Curt Onalfo called it “euphoria.”

It was a benchmark to celebrate, but the Revs Academy has so much more they want to accomplish as they look to strengthen the program under a new leadership team.

★ ★ ★

Rob Becerra had a difficult decision to make in 2021 when he was offered the job of New England Revolution Academy Director. On one hand, he would be reuniting with Curt Onalfo and Bruce Arena to work on an ambitious project. On the other, he’d be moving to the opposite coast, leaving his family behind so his daughters could finish high school in California.

Becerra made a few requests before accepting the job. He wanted the Academy teams to meet 5-6 days a week, input as the staff grew, and increased resources.

When the requests were met, Becerra began to build out his staff. He understands that success doesn’t happen alone and commits to using “we” instead of “I” when talking about program accomplishments.

There are many pillars to the current Revs Academy, including B.J. Noble and Liam Connors. Noble not only coaches and helps with administrative work but also lives in one of the two residency houses with his wife and son. Connors brings tireless energy and coached two teams at one point despite originally being asked to coach one. Connors and his wife are residency parents in the other house.

Recruiting like-minded coaches who worked with Becerra in the past was helpful as the new regime instituted its vision.

This isn’t to say that former director Brian Scales was doing anything wrong. Becerra said that Scales, who now serves as the Executive Director of Charlotte FC Academy, “is a wonderful human being.” The two coaches still speak.

“I think he did a great job and I just think that now that I’m here I’m able to have some new resources, some new support,” Becerra explained. “Whenever there’s a new boss, sometimes those things happen. I’ve been able to benefit from these pieces [that Scales put in place]…So I thank him for what he did before because there was already a nice culture in place and now we’re just really pushing it and driving home.”

The Academy staff took inventory of the positives and brainstormed what they hoped to improve. The end result was an emblem that features prominently for Academy staff and players to see. The overriding words are “relationship” and “legacy.” It’s the first and last thing that Becerra sees every day.

“It’s our core,” Becerra explained. “It’s our foundation and all the coaches participated. We all created together. When a kid comes to join the Revs, I pull it up and I talk to him about it.”

Courtesy of the New England Revolution

Since becoming the Revs Academy Director, Becerra has focused on maximizing all of the resources he has. It’s the mindset he had when he got his first job as a head coach at the University of Redlands at 24 years old. The Division III program had never recorded a winning season before Becerra’s tenure. Becerra ultimately led the Bulldogs to five straight conference titles.

But it took time to build the program. When he started, the team didn’t have a locker room or dedicated field. Instead of complaining, he worked to do all he could with what he had.

He has taken the same approach as the director of the Revolution Academy. He’s happy with the staff and plethora of resources, but also recognizes that “everything’s not perfect.”

An example of this is access to the first team gym. Though he’s deeply grateful for this, the Academy isn’t able to use it until after 4 o’clock. Instead of complaining or making excuses, they just work around the limitation as they look to make things better.

SOCCER: JUL 22 MLS - LA Galaxy at NE Revolution
Rob Becerra as an assistant coach for the Galaxy in 2017
Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Becerra takes this approach when it comes to developing current players while they look to attract new players. Curt Onalfo noted, “When we first got in, we didn’t necessarily get the best players in the community into our program and to me, that was a little bit of a warning sign that we had to get better.”

One way that this has gotten better was by adding a full-time scout. Before, Academy coaches had to work relentless hours in order to identify the best talent. The current coaching staff continues to be an important part of the recruitment process, though their duties are eased.

“[T.J. Love’s] job is to know New England [first] and then know the rest of the country,” Becerra explained. “So when we’re playing on Saturdays he’s off watching a kid somewhere else in Massachusetts. His job is to start to build relationships.”

Becerra and his staff meet with the prospects and their families, showing them the training facility, practice fields, and more. They explain what the Academy can offer, which includes a path to getting a college education.

“I’m so proud of this issue because we had 12 seniors [going to college] and they’re not just going anywhere,” Becerra noted. “They’re going to Harvard, Northwestern, BC, BU, American, Vermont, Virginia. It’s such a big deal that they’re going to these schools.

“I can literally look at parents and say we provide two pathways for your children if you’re here. If they do all the things that they’re supposed to do and then as parents help them and guide them academically, then the worst-case scenario is they’re going to get seen for collegiate exposure to go to college. That’s the worst-case scenario and that’s a pretty darn good scenario.”

The residency program, founded in 2019, is a tool that the Revs use to entice talent. The team will soon add a third house, which will allow approximately 16 players to relocate to Foxborough where the residency houses are located. The players live with a coach, but Becerra is quick to point out that the house mothers provide a lot of value.

“It’s great to have a coach there but, honestly it’s the moms–it’s Kaylee and Shannon–that are doing a lot of the heavy lifting,” Becerra said. “They’re helping when the boys aren’t playing or they’re having a hard time or they’re a little homesick. They’re the ones who know what they really want to eat, what the special meal…Just the little things that maybe we’re oblivious to that they pick up on, and I think it makes the transition easier for the players.”

The houses allow people from outside of New England to come to be a part of the Revolution Academy. Becerra said that the organization will continue to prioritize local players, but also recognizes that they can’t ignore talent from elsewhere. He notes that Academy players must understand that “you’re not just competing with the best players in Boston or the best players in New England, you’re competing against players across the country. You’re competing with players across the world.”

Justin Lucien, who goes by Bobby, recently began living in one of the Revolution residency houses. The 15-year-old is from Neptune, N.J., but was spotted by scout Love at an MLS NEXT tournament in California. He attended a trial in June, staying with Coach Liam and his wife Kaylee. He immediately felt “welcomed, like I belonged.”

Courtesy of the Lucien family

Lucien is now a member of the Revolution Academy and stays with Coach B.J. and his wife Shannon. He feels comfortable, saying they create a “home away from home where I can let my guard down and concentrate on my game and school work.” He’s eagerly awaiting the first day of preseason on Aug. 1.

“The Revolution is the right fit for me because they have many resources that can help me improve my game and bring me to the next level,” Lucien said. “The strongest resource is the people. They invest a lot of time and energy into my craft. Here I am given an opportunity to improve and showcase my talent on a national and global scale.”

★ ★ ★

Already established New England Revolution Academy players recognize recent changes to the organization.

Jack Panayotou first represented the Revolution as a member of the U-14 team. He’s always worn the crest with pride, believing that the Academy is the best in New England. Now, he believes that the Academy is becoming one of the best in the country.

Panayotou notes that the $35 million training facility that opened in 2019 gives the Academy a home. He also points out that the team trains more. Before, they usually practiced three days a week with their 90-minute sessions often being cut short. Training happens more frequently now and Becerra has introduced a 15-minute grace period between sessions so coaches don’t feel rushed when wrapping up or setting up

Panayotou has also benefited from the Revs starting a second team in 2020. This has given him, and other Academy players, the opportunity to train with professionals. The midfielder has made 9 appearances with Revs II, including a 45-minute outing against Cincinnati 2 where he scored a brace.

“The transition from the Academy to actual MLS is huge and you need something like the MLS Next Pro to help you get in with men and play against older guys,” Panayotou explained. “There’s stuff you get away with at an Academy that you don’t with older guys. Getting used to the speed of play, the physicality, and the more aggressiveness has been awesome for me. I think it’s something that’s really accelerated my development, personally.”

Rochester NY v New England Revolution II Photo by Tim Bouwer/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Panayotou made the trip from his home in Cambridge to Foxborough this year, just like he did when he was a member of the U-14 team. It looked different recently though, as he sometimes attended a class or two in the morning at his high school before heading to practice with Revs II. He would then head back to class before tackling homework.

Now a high school graduate, Panayotou reflects that it was difficult, but worth it, to maintain that schedule. He hopes that it will lead to his ultimate goal of being a starter for the Revolution’s first team.

Max Weinstein has the same goal, but his path has been different. A native of Vermont, his participation in the Academy wouldn’t be possible without the residency program.

Weinstein was invited to Foxborough after Revolution coaches saw him on film. The goalkeeper spent a few days practicing with the Academy before deciding to relocate.

“They have any resource you can think of from nutrition coaches, weight coaches, anything,” Weinstein said. “The coaches here, they want you to do better. They want you to get better. If you ask for extra training, you ask for anything like that, it’s not like a drag for them to stay after to do work for a while. They really want to do that and that, for me, separates the Revs from other places.”

Toronto FC II v New England Revolution II

Weinstein always tried to eat healthy and take care of his body, but noted that he’s improved significantly in these areas since joining the Revs Academy. He’s better at being physically and mentally prepared to play and understands the proper way to recover.

Off the field, Weinstein feels comfortable, which says a lot when his family is four hours away. He lives behind Gillette Stadium in one of the residential houses with a coach’s family and other players.

“Right now it’s me and Esmir [Bajraktarević] and it’s great,” Weinstein said. “It feels just like home now. At first, it took a little bit of adjustment, but now everything’s perfect. It just feels like another family here, and all of us at the house here are really close. It’s really nice.”

Panayotou and Weinstein have benefited from interactions with first-team players. Panayotou noted that Henry Kessler trained with the second team while coming back from an injury. Playing against a Revolution starter gave him a better understanding of what it takes to be a professional.

Weinstein has enjoyed working with Jacob Jackson and received some meaningful feedback from Djordje Petrovic when the current Revs starter got minutes with the second team. He also recalled an interaction with Matt Turner that could only happen at the Revolution training facility.

Weinstein remembers Turner coming over to provide some coaching tips while he and another goalkeeper were getting activated. This happened after Turner was sold to Arsenal.

“One thing I learned from [Turner] is you’re never you’re never too good for anything,” Weinstein said. “No matter where you’re playing, you’re never too good for it. It doesn’t matter the level.”

Weinstein is committed to the University of Vermont but has one more year of eligibility with the Academy. He recently made his debut for Revs II, recording five saves in a 2-0 loss to TFC II.

Panayotou’s time at the Academy is over and he’s slated to go to Georgetown University, though he hopes he’ll be a professional one day. His appearances for Revs II make him confident that he’ll be able to make the jump when his name is called, noting “I have a ways to go to make it but I’m not far off from this.”

The Revs have shown a willingness to give Homegrown contracts to players that deserve them. Weinstein and Panayotou hope they’ll receive an offer at some point.

“I hope that that continues and we create sort of an ecosystem of players who kill it with the Academy, come in with MLS Next Pro and do well, and then ultimately earn first team contracts and develop into legit first team players,” Panayotou said. “I mean that’s the pathway that I want, and I think Curt and them want, for sure.”

★ ★ ★

Winning the MLS NEXT Cup championship in the Under-19 age group was a significant moment for anyone in the program. Everyone there–not just the players and coaches–showed raw emotion as the trophy traveled from person to person.

That trophy showed Jack Panayotou that the ten minutes he spent working on his footwork before school each morning was worth it. It was proof that Max Weinstein made the right choice when he traded Montpelier, VT for Foxborough, MA. For Rob Becerra, it helped justify his move to a new coast without his family.

Courtesy of the New England Revolution

More than that, it established a legacy. Not just for the Academy, but for the New England Revolution as a whole.

“Just because of the way the Academy cycle works, we didn’t get our uniforms until now, so we finished in the old logo,” Becerra explained. “And I said, ‘Think about the pride in this. This is the last time this logo will ever be won in a competition, this is it. And we get to look at this with all this pride and then we’re going to have a chance to leave a legacy because we’re wearing the old logo. That crest started when the Revs were formed, and this is it, it will never be worn in competition again…It was kind of cool to have it on and give it our all.”

Becerra reflected on what he and his staff have accomplished since his arrival in Apr. 2021, saying, “You know what we’ve done in a short period of time is unbelievable but the goal is to make it sustainable for long periods of time.” They want more big moments, more championships.

They also want more Academy graduates contributing to the first team. The club currently has four Homegrown players signed to first-team contracts, but Noel Buck and Esmir Bajraktarević play for the second team. Damien Rivera and Justin Rennicks have had moments of success with the first team, but haven’t broken through as full-time starters.

Becerra thinks that vertical integration can lead to Academy products contributing more to the first team. Academy coaches try to use the same vocabulary as Clint Peay and Bruce Arena. Academy players, as well as the staff, are always welcome to view first- or second-team training sessions. Players who are excelling are invited to train and/or play for Revs II.

Academy coaches are also encouraged to show clips from Revs teams during film sessions. This is done to help the players understand that everyone is part of the same organization.

“As great as other teams are and people are infatuated with EPL, Champions League–that’s great, it’s great to watch–but we’re the Revs,” Becerra said. “So when we do things, we show Revs II clips, we show Revs clips. This is who we are. I’m trying to embed that culture so that we have general integration from top to bottom. I want our heroes to be Carles Gil or Matt Turner or Andrew Farrell or A.J. [DeLaGarza].”

All of this creates commonality within the organization. The hope is that players see the pathway to becoming a professional. They hope the players see themselves when they’re watching Rivera, Rennicks, Buck, or Bajraktarević.

Nothing highlights Becerra’s mission of unity more than a trip to Atlanta earlier this season. The U-17 team was warming up as the U-15s were playing. The U-15s came back from a 1-0 deficit to win 2-1. Becerra was celebrating with his coaching staff when he saw the entire U-17 team leave their warm-up to celebrate with the younger athletes.

“I’m looking at this and I’m overwhelmed with the excitement,” Becerra said. “And [goalkeeper coach] Jssir Charris pats me on the head and goes, ‘Look at what you’ve done!’ And I go, ‘No, no, look at what we’ve done.’”

Courtesy of Kari Heistad

Moments like this—like winning the U-19 MLS Next Cup Championship, like seeing Academy players take the field for Revs or Revs II—are signs of success, but Becerra notes, “We have so much to do.”

Becerra said that all coaches, including himself, need to get better. His staff also needs to gain a better understanding of the landscape in order to attract the best players. Even something as simple as travel is being considered. How can the Revs Academy best prepare players to play in the Orlando humidity?

“We cannot be complacent, we cannot settle, and we need to look at people who’ve done this time and time again,” Becerra said. “FC Dallas has produced professional player after professional player and they’ve won and they’ve won. We need to do that.”

Becerra also names the Seattle Sounders, New York Red Bulls, and Philadelphia Union as examples.

This is a long-term project and Becerra wants to be part of it. His goal is to watch Academy players become men who play with the first team. There are several players in the program that Becerra thinks could make the jump one day.

Peyton Miller is an ‘07 who scored over 30 goals for the Academy. He will soon move into a residency house as he looks to continue his progress. Malcolm Fry has contributed to various age groups within the Revs Academy and is committed to Wake Forest. Jack Burkhardt had solid seasons with the U-17 and U-19 teams and is now training with Revs II.

But it’s hard to know what will happen because everyone develops differently. Becerra uses Jack Panayotou as an example. Becerra isn’t sure if people viewed Panayotou as a Homegrown candidate last year. However, the midfielder “jumped all in on the process” and is now a contributor for Revs II. The hope is that he will one day play for the first team.

“I think for us, the one that we really need is if Jack can go through because Jack has spent a year in our culture right now,” Becerra said. “[He’s been] going through learning, changing his habits, growing.

“Then what would be really neat is seeing what happens with those ‘08s. and ‘07s. Can they be in this environment for a couple of years and really go through? That would be really exciting.”

Becerra feels that the Academy is well-supported, noting that Onalfo attends games, as well as Club President Brian Bilello, Head Scout Remi Roy, and Director of Soccer Operations Chris Tierney. He said Onalfo was the only technical director at the MLS NEXT Cup.

“We’re kind of all together and we’re all helping each other,” Becerra said. “Gary Hall and Deven Apajee are continually helping us with names for the Academy while I’m in constant conversations with Clint [Peay] on how to move players through. I speak with [Revs assistant coach] Richie [Williams] and then with the integration with [Revs assistant] Shalrie [Joseph] going from the Academy to the first team, there’s a true blend. It’s really cool to see how this is all going to work and transpire.

“We all have to do our best to live up to the standards that Bruce [Arena] sets with the first team”.