MLS academy would alter landscape of grassroots soccer here, pros say

Soon, being the latest professional soccer star from Austin might come with having your face on a billboard. For now, the stars who grew up in the Texas capital will have to settle for the adoration of a few hundred fans attending a charity exhibition game.

Some of the players present for the Dec. 23 match against a local indoor club, La Academia, have gained international recognition. They did it without the help of a Major League Soccer academy — something that might be just more than a year away here.

Columbus Crew SC, an MLS franchise exploring a possible move to Austin, has a fully funded academy, starting with instruction for young players under 12 years of age and extending to those who are 18.

“I think this city is hungry for a team,” said Khiry Shelton, 24, a Vista Ridge graduate entering his fourth season in MLS.

The winger was recently traded to Sporting Kansas City after three seasons with New York City FC, was one of two former Austin-area standouts in the MLS in 2017. The other was Kekuta Manneh, 23, who completed five MLS seasons after being drafted during his senior year at Lake Travis High School.

Both players are well aware of what a first-division professional team could mean for the grassroots soccer scene in their hometown.

Manneh played in the pre-Christmas charity match wearing a Crew kit, having spent most of the 2017 season in Columbus before signing with Pachuca of Liga MX at the beginning of January.

“You never want passionate fans to lose what they’ve had for so many years, but at the same time growing up here and seeing the passion — look at tonight, how many people came out for the game — this city needs a team,” Manneh said.

Although they came from different backgrounds — Shelton spent his early years in Colorado Springs, Colo., while Manneh, also a winger, grew up in Gambia — they took similar paths to pro soccer after moving to Central Texas.

Both trained with Lonestar Soccer Club, part of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Both also played for the Austin Aztex when the club was in the lower-tier Premier Development League, and Shelton played four years at Oregon State.

A local MLS academy would compete at the same level as Lonestar’s clubs. The difference is most MLS academies don’t require fees from their players, lifting a burden off families who now pay thousands of dollars to top-level youth clubs. MLS academy players also have a direct pipeline to the major-league club in the form of a “home-grown” contract.

“It would definitely be easier for players, and there wouldn’t be so much weight put on players’ shoulders to go to college and have to go through the college system to get to the pro level,” Shelton said.

Other talented young players, who might otherwise be priced out of the American soccer system, could receive a life-changing opportunity through a free MLS academy. For now, the Crew SC Academy enrolls only top boys players.

Sonny Guadarrama, who organized the December exhibition at SoccerZone in South Austin, ended the evening by telling the crowd, “This city is in dire need of an MLS team.”

Recent renderings of a proposed stadium on the site of Butler Shores Metropolitan Park showed a stadium full of scarf-waving, beer-drinking soccer supporters, but Guadarrama said the city’s youth soccer players have the most to gain with the arrival of an MLS team.

“It’s hard to pay fees that are above $1,000, $2,000 or $3,000 a year to play soccer. That’s expensive,” said Guadarrama, who retired last year after a 10-year run of playing professionally in Mexico. “Having it be completely free, you would cancel out all these problems of there being an excuse.

“It would just be the best players from Austin playing on one team.”

Austin-born McKinze Gaines took a different path to a pro career and said he doesn’t believe an MLS academy would have changed his route. The 19-year-old Lonestar product realized his dream of playing professionally in Europe in July 2016, when he signed with VfL Wolfsburg in the German Bundesliga.

After a year starting at winger for Wolfsburg’s under-19 squad, he moved to the first team at SV Darmstadt 98 in the German second division.

Even though he long had his eyes set on playing in Europe, Gaines has been following the MLS-to-Austin news intently. His 15-year-old brother Julian is one of the brightest young talents coming up at Lonestar and recently represented the U.S. under-17 squad at the Nike International Friendlies.

“For my brother it would be a really good thing just because the quality that an MLS team has with training facilities, just due to the revenue of the team, would be very helpful in the sense of development for him,” McKinze Gaines said.

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