Real Salt Lake, New York Red Bulls ahead of MLS on youth curve
Besides ridiculous-sounding team names, Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls would appear to have very little in common.
One is located in the media capital of the world -- well, right across the state line in Harrison, N.J., anyway -- and the other calls home one of the smallest pro sports markets in the United States. One touts natural scenery and easy access to the mountains; the other represents a city that appears to be made almost entirely out of concrete. One touts itself as family-oriented and ingrained in its community. The other is both owned by and takes its name from a global energy-drink behemoth.
Real and the Red Bulls do have one thing in common, however, something that will be on full display during Saturday's clash at Rio Tinto Stadium: A commitment to youth development that's so far been matched by few of their peers in Major League Soccer.
Many MLS clubs preach the value of cultivating homegrown talent, practicing self-sufficiency and integrating systems from the minor leagues on up. This idea has been especially in vogue since the U.S. men's national team flamed out in World Cup qualification last autumn. If the U.S. is ever to seriously challenge the world's powerhouses, cultivating local talent from a young age would seem to be a decent place to start.
Yet few teams practice it like RSL and NYRB. Both are ahead of the curve.
Salt Lake, building off of the pipeline laid by former general manager Garth Lagerwey and former coach Jason Kreis, had three players make the U.S. national team roster for last year's U20 World Cup: Danny Acosta, Justen Glad and Brooks Lennon. Though still led by veteran mainstays such as Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando, this is a team very much powered by a slew of bright-eyed youngsters.
New York, meanwhile, started six products of NYRB II (its USL branch) in last weekend's 4-0 rout of Portland at Red Bull Arena. Many of them played a role in a recent CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal triumph over Tijuana, and 19-year-old midfielder Tyler Adams is one of the most promising prospects in the league.
Where the two teams' paths begin to diverge, however, is in the basis for their respective philosophies.
New York is doing so by strategic choice. For a long time it competed with the likes of L.A. Galaxy and Toronto FC, constructing rosters around aging European vets. Thierry Henry belongs on the short list of most impactful Designated Player signings in MLS history. Only recently has New York decided to lean on what has long been regarded as one of the top academies in the league under coach Jesse Marsch.
"Since I left, it's obviously been hugely important in the way they changed the philosophy," said RSL coach Mike Petke, having both previously played for New York and roamed the sidelines during the heady Henry days.
RSL leans on its youth because it is the only way a team from such an isolated locale can have sustained success against the Western Conference's big spenders. "It's a different philosophy here," Petke said, "and that's why we rely on our academy and our youth."
Petke also pushed back against the idea that Salt Lake is giving minutes to its own products for altruism instead of pragmatism.
"It's not a situation that because he's a young kid coming up out of the academy, he has to see the field," Petke said. "He has to work hard. He has to earn that spot." Regardless, Petke is both seeing over and is a product of two of the most intriguing projects in Major League Soccer.
Some of the big questions raised will only become more pressing as MLS continues to grow. Can either Salt Lake or New York legitimately push for championships against Toronto, Seattle and Atlanta by relying on its own infrastructure in a league being transformed by an ongoing cash infusion?
Only time will tell, but Saturday night's match will be instructive, featuring two clubs that, for all their differences, will in many ways be looking in a mirror when lining up for kickoff.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.