This season, the New England Revolution has unveiled a new aspect to its youth development program, creating a more sustainable path for players in the Revolution Academy to reach the first team club.
In its first year as part of USL League One – the third division of professional US Soccer — Revolution II has debuted 19 players at the professional level, including 12 current or former Academy players.
On Sept. 9, Revs II debuted 15-year-old Isaie Louis, of Everett, who became the youngest player in club history to play professionally, surpassing Diego Fagundez’s age 16 debut in 2011.
“Since this Academy started, age has just been a number for us,” said Bryan Scales, the Revolution’s Director of Youth Development and U-19 coach. “If they’re good enough, they’re old enough.”
The Revolution Academy, now in its 13th year, joined the new MLS Next league this spring when the US Soccer Development Academy dissolved early in the coronavirus pandemic. It’s the only fully-funded professional youth development in New England, and many of its 85 players hail from Massachusetts.
Competing in a league that includes 113 clubs and amounts to 90 percent of the current youth national team player pool, the Academy includes a U-19, U-17, U-15, and U-14 team as well as younger age groups through the club’s U-12 alliance.
Hikaru Fujiwara, a 17-year-old midfielder from Lexington, has been in the Academy since he was 13 along with his older brother, Kaoru. Hikaru debuted with Revs II on Aug. 15, with Kaoru setting him up for an assist; Hikaru became the first Academy player to record an assist with the club.
“I’ve just been following in [Kaoru’s] footsteps since day one,” said Hikaru, one of three Academy players to log over 100 minutes with Revs II.
“It’s really nice that we have the USL as a bridge, since it was a big jump from Academy to the first team before. Now we can get minutes against adults and pros, get the experience, and maybe be a little more used to a faster, more physical style of play.”
While Kaoru has graduated from the Academy and is now at Harvard, Hikaru’s Academy classmates, Meny Silva (Roxbury) and Dennis Ramirez (Waltham), recently signed contracts with Revs II and Damian Rivera (Cranston, R.I.) recently became the seventh homegrown player to sign with the MLS side.
Academy teams have also developed homegrown products such as Scott Caldwell (Braintree), Nicolas Firmino (Somerville), Justin Rennicks (Hamilton), and Fagundez (Leominster).
But Scales and Revolution Technical Director Curt Onalfo hope that by creating a professional affiliate for young players looking for experience, as well as first team members who are coming off injury or need minutes, the number of homegrown alumni will continue to increase.
“Bridging the gap between the Academy and the first team, that’s always been a little bit of a deficiency not only in our Academy, but around the [MLS],” said Scales.
“You look at guys like Damian [Rivera] and Hikaru, these are 15- to 18-year-old kids playing against professionals and they’re going to get their butts kicked. But that’s part of our process. We think it’s critical for their development.”
Along with Revolution sporting director and head coach Bruce Arena, Onalfo was one of the pioneers of the “MLS 2” model demonstrated by the Revs II. When Arena was general manager and head coach of the L.A. Galaxy in 2014, Onalfo became coach of the LA Galaxy II, the first such affiliate club in MLS history.
When Arena and Onalfo joined the Revolution last May, discussions were ongoing about launching a team in the USL, and with a $35 million training facility completed last December, ownership decided to further invest in the team’s future by creating Revs II.
“They do this all around the world,” Onalfo said, explaining that while Revs II (1-6-2) may be at the bottom of the table, this model is not about wins and losses.
“It’s how you develop players. It’s part of the structure you need to have so you have a pro pathway for some of these young players. Then you push it down to the Academy level and it gives them something to strive towards. It just completes the developmental system that we’re looking to enhance.”
On Saturday at 8, Revs II face Union Omaha in Papillion, Nebraska in a game broadcast on ESPN Plus.