Sports programs are much more than summer-time fun for aspiring youth athletes

On a small field tucked away just off of a bustling State Street in Sandy, a group of kids are engaging in an impromptu soccer game. This isn’t any ordinary game between friends at a park on a warm summer day. TV cameras are observing the action and James Milner, one of the top players from English Premier League power Liverpool FC, is participating with the kids. (Liverpool FC photos by Taner Pasamehmetoglu.)

It’s all part of the festivities celebrating the beginnings of Liverpool entering the Utah youth sports scene. LFC International Academy Utah, a soccer academy using curriculum designed by Liverpool FC, is establishing a full-fledged academy in Utah. This is not simply another local youth club team branding itself after a more famous namesake.

LFC Utah is sparing no energy in its efforts to reshape youth soccer.

“I thought there were some things we could do better,” says LFC Utah CEO Wayne Scholes. “I wanted to see things improve. And it wasn’t that there aren’t great people in Utah involved in soccer. My issue, really, is that there are great people involved in soccer in Utah—I just don’t think they necessarily had the right opportunities. So our thought was that we could bring something here that would really raise the game and really help build soccer in Utah. It is a loved sport here. There are so many people who watch soccer and play soccer.”

Soccer complexes are already in the planning stages for St. George and the Salt Lake Valley. LFC Utah’s complex in St. George is scheduled to be completed by summer 2018 and will be funded largely by private investors. Salt Lake will have a finished complex by the end of 2018.

Each soccer complex will feature two full-sized indoor fields and six to eight outdoor fields. They will also be designed to accommodate future growth. LFC Utah already has 55 boys’ and girls’ teams under its umbrella, covering age groups ranging from U6 to U19.

A third complex will open in a yet-to-be-determined location in Northern Utah. The goal is to use these complexes to more effectively train and mold young soccer players to better position them to pursue opportunities within the sport.

“We will have at least three locations in Utah to be able to provide the right level of training and facilities for our kids so that we’re not always worried about if we can get a field or can find an indoor training facility,” Scholes says. “It’s tough to find when you’re a soccer team here in Utah. We want to make sure that those facilities are there because, again, if you’re serious about this, you got to invest in it. That’s just the way it is.”

A focus on athlete development

Soccer complexes like the ones LFC Utah has in the planning stages offer a snapshot of the growing role youth sports play in Utah. Club soccer, Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) basketball and other sports are not simply an outlet to play with friends during the summer. These are vehicles for fulfilling dreams. Many kids grow up wanting to be the next LeBron James, Tom Brady or Serena Williams. Their parents are determined to bring such dreams to life at all costs.

Player development has become a greater priority for youth teams with future athletic scholarships—or, in rare cases, future pro careers—hanging in the balance. Wins and losses aren’t everything. Positioning a kid to climb higher in their sport is what matters.

Such a philosophy drives how Salt Lake Metro navigates the AAU Basketball scene. Dave Hammer started coaching his first Salt Lake Metro teams 23 years ago. From day one, he has emphasized investing in players who enter his program at the 15U level and developing their skills to the point where they can attract attention from college coaches looking to recruit student athletes.

The results speak for themselves. Through the 2016 recruiting class, 403 former Salt Lake Metro players have moved on to play college basketball from the NAIA level up through to NCAA Division I.  Salt Lake Metro alumni have received more than $11 million in college scholarships.

“Everyone is treated the same in our club,” Hammer says. “They all pay the same. They’re all going to get an opportunity to play. We give them all the same amount of recruiting help. Each individual player is important to us. They all have the same dreams and the same importance in what their dreams are. We’re there to facilitate trying to help that individual player, and the parents, with their individual development.”

Individual development can build the reputation of a club team or camp and turn it into a preferred destination for young athletes looking to get on the radar of a college coach. The annual All-Poly Camp is one such success story.

Since the first All-Poly Camp started 18 years ago, it has expanded its reach well beyond Utah’s borders. Twenty-one states were represented at the 2017 edition of the camp. High school-aged football players from Connecticut to Hawaii—with some coming from as far away as Australia and New Zealand—came to Utah to spend a week getting tutored by coaches in all aspects of football.

Approximately 130 college coaches attended the camp. Eleven of the 12 Pac-12 schools had coaches in attendance. Ten Mountain West Conference schools sent coaches, as well as all of the Big Sky Conference schools. Many coaches also came from lower-division NCAA schools or NAIA schools.

Camp attendees focus on both academic and athletic components of football. They get a crash course in the recruiting process, transitioning from high school to college and cultural awareness. The other focus is on skill development. Players receive coaching on individual positions until the final day of the camp, when they participate in a scrimmage.

“If you’re a college prospect, especially in today’s game, you’ve got to get out and get in front of the college coaches for them to actually want to recruit you,” says Alema Teo, the founder and director of the All-Poly Camp. “Performance is everything. They’ve got be able to see how you run, how you move and how you react to football situations. There’s only so much you can get off of a film. There’s only so much you can get off of your 40 time or your vertical jump. All those things are helpful, but the final factor is putting shoulder pads on and helmet on and actually playing the game live. They want to be able to see them.”

The traditional approach for drawing recruiting attention in many club sports is to travel to out-of-state tournaments or showcases. These pit youth teams from Utah against top competition from other parts of the nation in one central location. For high school-aged teams, this means getting in front of college coaches and drawing interest and, eventually, scholarship offers.

Some club teams do their best to position their kids to get the most notice. Exum Elite Utah Prospects fields three teams in the 15U, 16U and 17U age groups and competes on a tournament circuit with other teams sponsored by Adidas. A team can go to a tournament on the circuit and have around 30 college coaches sitting in the gym watching them play.

“It throws a broader net to the schools that could be interested in them,” says Tim Davis, head coach of Utah Prospects. If they’re just playing for their high school, maybe some schools in the West Coast will know about them. But there’s more Division I schools outside of the west than there is in the west.”

It has benefited alumni of the club team. Exum Elite Utah Prospects sent its first class to college in 2014. It produced its first NBA Draft pick this past June, when former Lone Peak High star Frank Jackson was selected 31st overall by the Charlotte Hornets and then sent to the New Orleans Pelicans in a trade.

Investing in the future

With sports like soccer, the quest to get noticed by colleges or professional teams goes beyond simply joining a club team. Soccer academies like those being built up by LFC Utah or Real Salt Lake are poised to be the future avenue in the Beehive State for kids to take themselves to an elite level and land that coveted scholarship or even a lucrative contract when they come of age.

RSL is constructing a $50 million soccer Training Complex, including a STEM charter school, in Herriman. The 42-acre facility includes eight fields—two of which are positioned under a 208,000-square-foot structure—and will house the MLS team’s U-18 and U-16 developmental teams that are currently based in Arizona. About 250 students will attend the charter school, developed in cooperation with Utah State University. (RSL Youth Camp photo by Tyler Gibbons & Robert Hitz.)

LFC Utah is also building a structure for a strong organization. Coaches will have a training room and full office spaces. They will have the ability to engage in live chats with Liverpool FC coaches in England. Full administrative, marketing, finance and legal teams are in place to support various LFC Utah teams.

Kids involved in soccer with LFC Utah can expect to become immersed in a curriculum designed to mold how they approach the sport. Milner recalls his own experience going through the Liverpool Academy system, which involved training three days per week, weekly games and learning the culture and values important to the club.

“It’s like any other job you do, really,” Milner says. “You have to earn your stripes. That’s important to keep the players grounded and appreciate, if they are looking to make it, how hard the journey is and to keep your feet on the ground.”

Joining LFC Utah’s teams in the Salt Lake Valley, for example, requires a significant investment. It costs $1,900 per season per child. It includes fees for two tournaments, referees, coaches, transportation, lodging, uniforms and other soccer-related items.

The same is true in other sports. Attending the All-Poly Camp costs $275 during the first three months after the registration window opens, and the cost rises to $300 until the week camp starts. Parents who register kids on the day of camp, if room is still available, must pay $400. All camp attendees, however, need to provide their own football equipment, lodging and transportation.

Salt Lake Metro has four boys’ teams and four girls’ teams in each age group. They compete with other teams in the 15U, 16U and 17U age groups. Players on each team pay $1,300 per year and $450 per event in event travel fees. These fees cover everything from gym rental costs to team equipment and medical supplies.

Some club programs look for ways to reduce the amount of fees on players. It helps make participation less cost prohibitive for some families.

For example, Exum Elite Utah Prospects struck a partnership with Adidas to help reduce costs. The deal lowers the annual cost to under $1,000 for flights, hotel rooms, registration fees and gear. The only expense not covered is food. Adidas also provides unlimited gear, which can make a big difference: Without the affiliation, it could cost several thousands of dollars to obtain gear for the summer.

Utah Prospects also partnered with Utah Jazz point guard Dante Exum following his rookie season in Salt Lake City. Exum invested in the club team while rehabbing from an injury during his second NBA season. He comes to practices and works with the kids involved with Utah Prospects during the NBA off-season.

“Dante was hurt that year and he was trying to push his name out,” Davis says. “He’s such a good guy and a high-character guy. He fit what our program wanted. We fit what he wanted. It’s been good. He pitched in to help the program.”