Few among us have a life that can inspire and enrich other people’s existence. A life full of unexpected events that become lessons and opportunities you never thought you’d get. A life that starts with dreams and continues on a path full of positive energy and desire to achieve them, even when times get tough.
My friend Miha Kline is a person that will inspire you. A true believer that the best can happen, as long as you hold firm belief in one hand and determination in the other.
As you will see, Miha worked with Disney’s Soccer Showcases several times in the past two years, therefore I’d like to share a great quote I came across recently, and it seems fitting here:
“Somehow I can’t believe that there are any heights that can’t be scaled by a man who knows the secrets of making dreams come true. This special secret, it seems to me, can be summarized in four Cs. They are curiosity, confidence, courage, and constancy, and the greatest of all is confidence. When you believe in a thing, believe in it all the way, implicitly and unquestionable.” Walt Disney.
He is now the Director of Recruiting for the Grande Sports Academy based in Casa Grande, Arizona. Truly one the best youth academies in the USA.
We played together and now we share many great memories. We had a great interview that presents a modern vision of youth soccer and clarifies the demands related to elite player development. It has so many deep thoughts that resuming it in a few words would simply be wrong. Check it out:
1. Miha, before we get into the talk about the Academy, can you tell us more about your story and how you ended as Director of Recruiting? It was quite an adventure I suppose…
Yes, an adventure it was indeed. In 2008 my professional soccer career ended due to an unfortunate heart condition that required an immediate open heart surgery. During my recovery period I had plenty of time to think about my life, my past and my future. I decided to focus on getting the best possible education and invest all the love, dedication and knowledge about the sport that I love so much and try to make a difference off the field and positively impact the lives of talented young soccer players. Therefore, after completing my Bachelor’s Degree in Management back home in Ljubljana, I decided to continue my studies in United States and learn from some of the best sports industry professionals. While completing my Masters in Sports Management Degree at University of Massachusetts Amherst I was involved in a number of different youth soccer events. I’ve interned with a local soccer academy that organized soccer camps for high school players in five different states, I helped organize and manage a huge grassroots soccer tournament in Massachusetts for players ages 6-18, I also volunteered to help run a major Disney’s Soccer Showcase a number of times in Florida. After graduating at UMASS I went to Florida and worked with IMG Academies and their Soccer Academy for 5 months and then got an amazing opportunity to work with Major League Soccer in New York. For the next 6 months I worked closely with the Director of Youth Development and Director of Competition on a number of different things and learned a lot about the MLS organization and its structure, youth development initiatives and soccer in the U.S. in general. One of the biggest and most important things I learned during my first year and a half here in U.S. was the importance of networking. As you can see, in the short period of time that I’ve been overseas, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet experienced and knowledgeable people and be involved with a number of organizations, various events and projects, etc. Wherever I was I tried to do my best and leave a footprint and it helped me build great, strong relationships with people. Earlier this year my phone rang and it was the owner of Grande Sports Academy who had heard about me from the Director of Disney’s Soccer Showcases where I had volunteered many times. That day I had a great conversation with him about the Director of Recruiting position and the academy, had another interview with the General Manager and two weeks later I was on a plane to Arizona. I liked the job description and was certain it would be a good fit for me, however I had never imagined that it would turn out to be such a rewarding job where I’m fortunate enough to do all these incredible things day in and day out (scouting and recruiting is just a small part of it) and positively impacting lives of so many talented young soccer players and their families. It truly is a dream job.
2. We know that every single player has his own characteristics, but in terms of talent identification, what are the main things you look for when observing a youngster?
When a player stands out and “catches people’s eye” in a game that they are watching it usually means that he has incredible ball control and a great soft first touch or has lightning speed and killer instinct in front of the goal or any other skill or is just physically superior with his strength and power. He can even have all of the above. And without a doubt these are all very important characteristics (or a combination of them) that every coach, scout or recruiter looks for in a player. However, how often have we seen a great player, an immense talent that was “out of this world” good in one club and then comes into a different environment and burns out and often simply disappears from the soccer map. Thus, when it comes down to evaluating young players for our academy it is extremely important for us to focus on several other things as well. Don’t get me wrong, being a good soccer player, having the potential to develop into one, being motivated and having the desire to learn, improve and excel are on the top of our list when assessing a young player. However, due to the nature of Grande Sports Academy, where boys ages 14-18 live on the campus full time for 11 months, go to school, train and compete at the highest level of youth soccer competition in U.S., a lot more than only soccer skills or physical attributes of a player comes into play. Our academy has a set of values that everyone on campus, players, coaches and staff, lives by: honesty, respect, commitment, integrity, discipline, teamwork and sportsmanship. Therefore, a player that is a candidate to join our program needs to understand these core values and be willing to embrace them in every single thing he does or says as a member of Grande Sports Academy. Off the field persona is extremely important. He needs to fit in. He needs to be coachable. He needs to be aware of the sacrifices that he would have to make by living away from his parents, friends, by not being able to party or drive a car, etc. But at the same time realize how beneficial the program can be for him and his future, and that there is a big family here that supports him. Our mission is to teach them, coach them and shape these talented soccer players into becoming young, independent, responsible young men who will have a much easier and smoother transition into the college world or even a professional soccer career when/if they are at that level. There is nothing better than when the game that they love the most can serve as a tool to get them an invaluable education for the future. As you can see there is a pretty extensive “check list” that we go through when evaluating potential players for our academy.
3. Anywhere in the world, all the big clubs have their own academy where young players live and train 24/7 at the club’s facilities. There seems to be a consensus that a full residential program is a best way to develop elite players. Since you propose this kind of full-engagement program, you certainly agree with this philosophy. Can you tell us why this is the best way?
I absolutely agree. Just look at FC Barcelona and their academy La Masia and the success they’ve has throughout the years. I believe this is the only way to successfully nurture young talents and produce high quality players for your club. I already talked about our academy’s structure and the important things in player development above. I truly believe it is a huge advantage when young players live in a professional environment where everything is provided for them: dorm rooms, modern training facilities and fields, healthy nutrition, mandatory study halls and tutoring, educational sessions about college recruiting and application processes, etc. It’s an environment where they can completely focus and dedicate themselves to training and studying, without many outside distractions. Furthermore, our players are involved in various community service and leadership projects and learning about the importance of reciprocity and giving back to the community. Almost every sports organization in the world has its own charity or community service foundation and it is a big part of sports and building a positive image of the organization and the players themselves. In Europe a big majority of clubs do have their own academies, however the problem is that the youngsters that develop through their youth system rarely get any real opportunities in the first teams and usually get loaned out to lower division clubs only to be replaced by another expensive foreign player. It’s true that sports sphere over here is very different from the one in Europe because college sports are such a big part of it and are rooted in the American sports culture and history. On the other hand in Europe there is basically no connection between education and sports. Therefore, there is a difference between our full time academy and a similar academy in Europe. We are Real Salt Lake’s (MLS club) youth academy and our academy is the first and only full time residency program in the country at the moment. The difference is that our number one goal is to make sure all of our graduating students (seniors) get a college scholarship offer from a university that is a fit for them academically and on the soccer side. We’ve had all 36 of our seniors in the past two years receive scholarship offers from some of the best college programs in U.S. (Stanford, Georgetown, UCLA, Marquette, etc.) and four of them decided to go on and play professionally immediately upon graduation (three with RSL and one signed with Brondby, Denmark). Six of our players are currently on the RSL’s shortlist to be signed as a Homegrown Player. There is a trend in Europe for the past decade or so that has been very detrimental to the youth academies and development of young players. Billionaires have been taking over clubs and spending ridiculous amounts of money for big name players that more often than not don’t fit the system, philosophy or style of play in the club. Basically what some of the teams do is just throw together star players without any well thought through plan behind it. It is kind of like a “soccer manager reality show” for these rich owners who end up buying the players and coaches from season to season without any success. It’s just not a sustainable model. On the other hand, I strongly believe full time boarding academies and youth development should be the future of all the clubs, especially over here in U.S. and their Major League Soccer (MLS). A fact that I always mention when discussing youth development in soccer: FC Barcelona’s starting lineup always has at least 6 or 7 La Masia graduates. In November 2012 they fielded the first ever La Masia starting eleven and won the match against Levante in convincing fashion. There is obviously a big age difference between the active La Masia players but they were all raised and developed through the same system, playing the same style of soccer, thought the same soccer philosophy and embracing the same core values of the club from a young age. This is what academies should be all about and what RSL-AZ academy strives to achieve.
4. What is it about your academy that makes it so attractive? How do you persuade players to commit to your training program?
Grande Sports Academy (GSA) is the only full time residency program in the U.S. that is affiliated with a Major League Soccer team, awareness and knowledge about our amazing program is spreading extremely fast across the country and even though we are only in our third year, our program is already very well renowned in the soccer world. Four of our GSA graduates signed professional contracts, every GSA graduate till now has been offered a college scholarship, seven of our players currently play in U15, U17 and U18 US National Teams, one of our players was named 2012 U16 Academy Player of the Year, two of our players were 2012 Western Conference U18 and U16 Players of the Year, five others named into the Western Conference Starting XI. With all these incredible results and achievements on top of everything I already mentioned in the previous couple of questions, it comes as no surprise that there are hundreds of players who are trying to get their foot in the door and join the academy, however you need to find and select the top quality ones as well as follow many rules and policies that were put in place by US Soccer and MLS. That is why it is so important to regularly track and scout players in tournaments and showcases, invite players to 3-day tryout sessions that we organize about six to seven times a year and which are a great opportunity to get to know the player better on and off the field, as well as for the player to get the feel for the life on campus, get familiar with the coaches and current students, etc. It needs to be the right fit for both the academy and the player, on and off the field.
5. You are affiliated with the MLS giant Real Salt Lake. How does this help you and your players?
Yes we are Real Salt Lake’s, 2009 MLS Champions, youth academy program. We teach our players about RSL first team soccer philosophy and train them to play “the RSL way” (fast paced, one-two touch possession game, spreading the field, use of wingers and full backs, etc.) from the first day they walk through the door of the academy. In the past two seasons ten of our best players played for the RSL Reserve Team in the MLS Reserve League and as I’ve mentioned before three of our graduates signed professional contracts with the first team as Home Grown players. There are a number of our current players on their prospective Home Grown Player’s List as well and nine of them also got the chance to participate in this year’s RSL Pro Combine with the rest of the 47 invitees. Our boys did really well in the scrimmages and the RSL coaching staff was full of praise and very impressed with what they saw from our boys. We truly got a group of really talented young players who all have bright futures ahead of them, whether in collegiate soccer or with their professional careers.
6. To end this great discussion and since you’ve been a great pro player in Europe, let’s talk about the comparison of the two visions of Soccer. Do you feel that European and American ways of looking at Soccer are coming closer every day? Or are they still very different because of the cultural and sociological contrast between the two continents?
I have to say that there is still a noticeable difference in quality between MLS and the top five leagues in Europe, however the gap is definitely smaller than it was before. The quality of Major League Soccer has improved immensely in the last six or seven years and I believe it all started with David Beckham’s arrival to LA Galaxy. It was wide spread public’s opinion at the time that this was solely a marketing move for the Galaxy ownership and MLS, however it turned out to be so much more than that. His reputation, positive image and marketability have certainly helped raise the awareness of MLS and increase interest in soccer in general in U.S. However, his soccer skills, experience and undeniable leadership qualities turned LA Galaxy into one of the best franchises in the league that won the MLS Cup twice in a row in the last two years, crowning his 6 year stint at the Galaxy in the best possible way. He opened up the doors of this fast growing soccer market for other European stars who were deemed to be pass their prime, i.e. Henry, Ljungberg, Nesta, etc. but still had a lot to offer and brought MLS to a much higher level. Furthermore, as interest and demand for soccer rose MLS and owners started investing more and more into new infrastructure, building new soccer specific stadiums and training facilities, which are more often than not sold out in the past few seasons. People are also not merely spectators of the game anymore, but are completely involved in the game, forming large supporters’ groups, creating an incredible atmosphere in the games with singing, chants and cheering. Some of the most famous ones are Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers supporters, who are certainly just as loud and animated as some of the best supporters in England or Germany. And seeing a completely sold out 67,000 seats CenturyLink Field stadium and a true soccer atmosphere is something that no one could have foreseen happening in MLS five years ago. It’s still a fact that football, basketball and baseball (also hockey) are considered the top 4 Major Leagues and that MLS has always been considered a second tier sport. However, MLS is making big strides in last several years and it is not surprising that the league has surpassed both basketball (NBA) and baseball (MLB) in average attendance standings and is now in the second place only to NFL football. Additionally, nowadays media coverage of soccer in U.S. and around the world is far better than in the past, there are soccer specific shows with experts dissecting and analyzing the game which helps Americans understand soccer even better, MLS and its franchises have negotiated ground breaking broadcasting deals with TV networks, there are a number of soccer specific channels where people can follow all the big leagues around the world basically 24/7, etc. Soccer is definitely getting more and more of the much deserved respect over here and we can also see a number of U.S. players doing well and playing important roles in top European leagues (Dempsey in Tottenham, Howard in Everton, Bradley in AS Roma, Altidore in AZ Alkmaar, etc.). Furthermore, after the great success that U.S. Women’s National Team has had historically and especially in recent years winning the 2012 Olympic gold medal and silver in the 2011 World Cup, they are setting up a new women’s professional soccer league (no name yet). Despite great results from their national team, they’ve had little success with professional women’s soccer leagues and the last league, i.e. WPS (Women’s Professional Soccer), folded earlier this year. This time around they claim to have learned from past mistakes and have focused on establishing sustainability over the long term and created a unique league model. Three national soccer associations, US Soccer, the Canadian Soccer Association and the FMF (Mexican) will make a significant level of investment to subsidize the development of their national team players in a competitive league. To conclude, the quality of soccer in North America has risen and the game has become much more popular among people who now have access to soccer content on a daily basis on various media outlets. In my opinion, soccer in U.S. has definitely gained ground on other sports that have been historically known as “American” sports as well as narrowed the gap in quality with other professional leagues around the world.