Jeff Dewsnup was seated at a table in the Zions Bank Training Center next to the sprawling grass fields used by Real Salt Lake, the Real Monarchs, local youth football clubs and even the Utah Girls Tackle Football League.
There Dewsnup made a bold statement.
“If I could sign a home [player] Right now, I would, ”Dewsnup told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Dewsnup, a goalkeeper, was referring to the type of contract RSL awards to players who go through the organization’s development academy in Herriman. The type of contract signed by Aaron Herrera, Justen Glad, David Ochoa, and many others goes back to the years when the academy was in Arizona.
Dewsnup made this statement more than a year ago in October 2019 as a 15-year-old who had spent his entire first year at the academy adjusting to the rigors of life as a senior teenage soccer player and fighting homesickness when he was in lived in the dormitories even though his parents lived only 10 minutes away.
But the initial struggle was worth it. RSL signed Dewsnup, 16, on January 12th with a self-drawn contract. Not only did he become the youngest player the organization has ever signed, he also became a microcosm of the franchise’s vision that is evolving.
With RSL now in the midst of a change of ownership, the organization has spoken publicly about its desire to reset the culture within. One indication of this was the publication of the document “The RSL Way,” which was written by Deputy General Manager Tony Beltran to outline the core values and ideas of RSL in a new era. The club not only published the document but distributed it internally to all departments.
And the academy, which moved from Arizona to Utah in 2018, is an integral part of RSL culture and vision, according to team officials. So much so that losing it with the arrival of a new owner could be disastrous. Their fear: that the academy could be sold piece by piece, much like Utah Royals FC was. This team was relocated to Kansas City after the sale.
“We would lose an immense tool for developing native talent, and frankly, we would lose a large part of our identity,” RSL general manager Elliot Fall told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this month.
Football academies have long been a lifeline for professional clubs overseas and have started to gain a foothold in North America. Apart from RSL, Major League Soccer teams like FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls have been among the leaders in total minutes in recent years.
With Salt Lake City one of the league’s smallest markets, the club has increasingly focused on developing its own players rather than spending millions of dollars on overseas talent. What has been missing over the years, however, is a connection between RSL and the countless youth football clubs in the state, academy coach RSL director Arnold Rijsenburg told The Tribune.
“When I got here, I was amazed that there was no relationship between local clubs and RSL,” said Rijsenburg, who joined the organization in November 2019.
But Rijsenburg wants to change that. He said one of the main initiatives he wanted to launch after arriving at RSL was partnering with local youth clubs. The academy is partnering with five such clubs, he said.
Dewsnup played his youth football at a club in Herriman before moving to La Roca, one of Utah’s premier football clubs. He was recruited from there and invited to a trial with the RSL Academy.
This pipeline is one of the ways Rijsenburg would sell the academy to a potential buyer. He said the academy creates a deep connection with the football community in Utah in general by seeing players from their own neighborhood make the first team list.
The other beneficial aspect of the academy that Rijsenburg would convey to a new owner has to do with economics.
“Instead of investing in players and buying them for how many millions [of dollars]I think the value of an academy – especially the development of your own players – costs you less money, ”said Rijsenburg.
RSL started a basketball academy last year and brought in David Evans, who previously coached Wasatch Academy and Lone Peak High School. And while he stepped in before the allegations against team owner Dell Loy Hansen surfaced, he knows the impact the change of ownership could have on the program, which is in its first season.
“Someone could come in and turn it all off,” Evans told The Tribune. “I’m just grateful that I have this time. Maybe it’s a year, maybe it’s 15 years. We do not know it. “
But Evans would point out to a new owner that it doesn’t cost money to have the basketball academy under the umbrella of the RSL. Instead, it’s a profitable endeavor because players pay to be on the program and live in the dorms.
RSL Academy High School is included in the sale of Utah Soccer Holdings – the company that also includes RSL, the Monarchs, Rio Tinto Stadium and the Herriman training facility. It’s a charter school with an academic STEM program, but here, too, players on the soccer and basketball academy teams can take a break from their high-level sporting lives.
“With high school here, we can provide an aspect of off-field development that is just as important as the one in the field,” Fall said. “We shape young men into both people and athletes. And they won’t be successful at the next level if they don’t develop as humans and also don’t develop outside of the field. “
Dewsnup said he was honored to be the youngest player to sign by RSL and that the academy was vital to his development as a footballer, having learned from senior goalkeepers like Nick Rimando and Andrew Putna. RSL invited him to the pre-season camp ahead of the 2020 season, another indication of how highly the team valued him as a potential client.
Dewsnup said his signature shows how valuable the academy can be to players like him.
“I just think RSL is really good at trusting young players and taking risks for young players,” said Dewsnup. “I think this is very important, especially for younger children, to be able to look up to the academy. They look up to people like Justen [Glad] and me and all the locals and they can be like, ‘oh, maybe one day I can get to this level’. “