Central Valley Fuego FC's academy team gearing up for 2023 USL Academy Cup | Image Credit: Central Valley Fuego FC
FRESNO, Calif. – As the USL League One campaign is set to kick off its fifth season on Friday, we sat down with Adam Smith, Sporting Director at Central Valley Fuego FC, to discuss the development of Fuego FC’s initial academy system.
Set to compete in the 2023 USL Academy Cup in Tampa, Fla., the Fresno outfit partnered with youth organizations across the San Joaquin Valley, implementing instructional camps in Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield as a means of identifying and training high-level youth athletes. Not planning to compete, replicate or intervene with each player's respective club, the program wishes to recruit players to represent Fuego FC’s inaugural academy soccer team this Spring.
As the main goal is to provide local youth with an excellent opportunity, we connected with Smith to speak on the logistical plans that got the academy's developmental process up and running, as well as how they plan to operate moving forward.
USL HQ: Can you talk a little bit about the current model? How it's set up?
Adam Smith: Of course. Back in September of last year, we set up three regional training centers. One in Merced, Bakersfield and of course Fresno. One Friday a month at each site. You have a Valley corridor from Bakersfield right through to Merced, which that drive is three and a half hours maybe. Kids from Bakersfield, from Fresno, from Merced, they've had to get in the car and drive to San Jose, or drive to Los Angeles, or drive to Sacramento. It just doesn't make sense to be sitting in a vehicle for two and a half hours one way, two and a half hours another way, four, five, or six times a week. So, we thought well, how can we provide something that's missing for the kids in each area and come to them? i.e. provide a platform to showcase the best youth levels.
USL HQ: How does that system actually operate?
AS: In order to work with the local youth clubs, not against them, we came up with the idea of the hybrid model. We have the three regional training centers that we set up, ages 15 through 19, where we narrowed a pool of 200 players down to 70 and then down to a pool of 30 players to represent the first-ever Fuego FC hybrid academy model.
The reason why we've chosen a pool is that with it being a hybrid model, once we have our academy season up and running, we'll just try and get the best 18 that are available to come and represent. We know that not everyone's going to be available every game because there'll be conflicts, and we know there are still players out there that for one reason or another have yet to attend one of our training centers. We still have a good group and over time this will improve further. My aim is to try and get a solid 18 for each event that can go and compete and hopefully some of those players will go on to achieve their goals and become professionals, or as a minimum, go on and play at a high college level.
USL HQ: You’re now progressing to an official competition, which would be the USL Academy Cup, correct?
AS: Yes, so the first full training and game event we had was last weekend in Bakersfield at Cal State Bakersfield. We played our first game against a UPSL team from Southern California and it went really well. We're really happy with what we saw and we've already announced the squad for Florida that will go and compete in the USL Academy Cup. When we get back from Academy Cup and actually get around to doing the scheduling, we are going to be playing in the NorCal USL Academy division. We have about a 12-game season, six home, six away. It's going to be fun!
USL HQ: How have you put together your staff for the inaugural Academy when you are a “hybrid model”?
AS: I have been fortunate to be a part of the USL ecosystem since 1999 when I started playing in the A-League. I have made many great contacts and friends from the league and am fortunate to be once again working with a couple of them with this team.
Tom Taylor is going to be my Assistant Coach. Tom is an ex-player from the Portland Timbers in their USL days and was an assistant coach with both Wilmington Hammerheads FC and the Tulsa Roughnecks in the USL Championship. I actually played for his father in England at Walsall FC back in the early 1990s. He has a ton of experience. In addition to Tom, I have recruited Jesse Saenz as my Head of Medical and Sports Science. Jessie will handle all the warm-ups and cool downs in assisting to the medical needs of the players. He will also periodize everything that we are doing which is going to be challenging but crucial, especially when we only have the group for limited periods and will be attending the showcase which is four games in four days. I worked with Jesse during my time as an assistant coach for Preki, and then Paul Buckle, at Sacramento Republic FC. He is one of the best and this has been proved by him going on and working for other top USL Championship clubs and even a stint with Hull City, then in the English Premier League.
Finally, we have Matias Fernandez, one of my former goalkeepers from Fresno FC, helping with our goalkeepers, and I have a colleague from our front office, Tony Chow, handling the equipment and operations. Everyone’s duties with the Academy will be on a part-time basis this first season but the players will be treated just like young professionals, and should be very excited about the guys they have coaching and helping them.
USL HQ: We’ve seen a number of kids on USL Academy contracts move up and play with their respective USL Championship or League One first team. Do you see that happening with your group?
AS: It is simply down to the head coach, Martín Vásquez, and if/who he wants to sign. I think there are already a couple of standouts in the group that have the potential to go on and play professional.
First, however, we need to build a stronger relationship with the players on the team. Our group for the most part is very young. They will be playing up in age but this will stand them in good stead for the future. There is a long way to go before we will really know if any of them have what it takes however. Going to Florida for the Academy Cup will really help to start to do that. It's all very new for them and very new for us and I don't think it's the right time yet to be pushing guys to the first team group.
Having pros compete in the USL League with the Academy players is going to be a major advantage in the development of our players. If we are able to compete well in the Florida showcase, and then go on and have a couple of good showings in the league, then there might be time for those conversations with Profe Martín.
USL HQ: If you could sum up what this academy program means to the Central Valley community in a few sentences, what would you say?
AS: You know, the big emphasis is on just providing these kids an opportunity in the Valley that they've never had before. Give players a great chance to showcase themselves at a level they are not able to obtain from their normal club environments. My hope is that over time, we’ll be a real positive force for the development of local talent and we can start to see a pipeline of these players turning pro and reaching their ultimate goals.
The 2023 USL Academy Cup will start on Thursday, March 30, kicking off three days of group stage games in Tampa, Fla. They will take place in three blocks throughout the day, as all games are set to kick off at either 12 p.m., 2 p.m. or 4 p.m. ET during group play. On Sunday, April 2, clubs will compete against teams from the other group that finished in the same position. The time of the final in each division can be found on the complete Academy Cup schedule.