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New England Revolution among MLS teams cultivating homegrown talent

FOXBOROUGH — Christian Sady slung a red duffle bag over his shoulder as he walked past Gillette Stadium on Tuesday evening, gazing up at the galactic steel structure.

For two hours, the North Andover native and 19 other local soccer players practiced on the neighboring field.

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“I think all of us have a dream to play inside there one day,” said Sady, an 18-year-old who is committed to play at Harvard. “We would all love to play for the New England Revolution.”

By participating in this training session — for the Revolution’s youth team — Sady’s odds are better than most players his age.

The team is part of Major League Soccer’s ongoing initiative to cultivate homegrown talent. Starting Sunday in Houston, the Revolution’s youth team will compete for a U-18 national championship, which would be a first for a New England team.

It’s a testament to how the Revolution’s youth academy has grown since its inception five years ago, but also how MLS has created a culture of competitiveness across the US.

“This is a very good thing for soccer in our country,” said John Frederick, the coach of the Revs’ U-18 team.

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In recent years, MLS teams have made splashy international signings — such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry — which increased league visibility and sold tickets. But commissioner Don Garber has insisted the league is equally committed to growing soccer in America. In 2007, MLS created the Youth Development Initiative, encouraging clubs to field youth teams.

Six MLS clubs participated in the inaugural season. The Revolution joined in 2008.

In 2012, Garber said the league’s budget for youth academies exceeded $20 million.

“We are very focused on doing everything we can to build a pyramid and take responsibility for growing the game in this country,” Garber said during his state of the league news conference in November.

MLS wants kids to dream of playing pro soccer in America, especially for teams in their own backyard. Any teen living within a 75-mile radius of Gillette Stadium is eligible for the Revolution’s youth team. There’s one caveat: Players must choose between this and competing for their high schools.

“But the opportunities with the Revolution are pretty amazing,” said Willis Griffith, an 18-year-old from Amherst, N.H.

They train in a professional atmosphere and travel across the country for high-level tournaments. Youth players often mingle with Revolution players and can even earn time on the reserve squad.

“They treat us like young gentlemen,” Griffiths said. “Not boys.”

Last year, the Revolution even sent a team to South Africa for a 10-day tournament. “What an experience,” Sady said. “I mean, culturally, educationally, I think everyone walked away from that trip learning big lessons.”

Another perk for the Revolution’s youth team? Everything is free. The Revolution pay for everything from uniforms to travel costs to team meals after tournaments.

“It’s a pretty professionally-run organization,” Frederick said, “from the facilities to the environment we have with the kids.”

Frederick said the goal is to improve players’ skills and provide a peek of life in the MLS.

Sometimes Frederick must remind himself they’re only teenagers. For example, he will break down video with players — just as professional teams do — but limits sessions to about 15 minutes, catering to teenagers’ attention spans.

“You don’t want to overwhelm them,” he said.

Over the past five years, Frederick has seen the organization grow — “all for the better,” he said. For the Revolution, it’s a model that works.

They get first dibs on the area’s top talent. The Revolution can place “homegrown tags” on any youth player they think is MLS-worthy.

Currently, New England has two on its roster.

Diego Fagundez stood out so much when he joined the youth academy in 2009, the Revolution signed him a year later. He was 16.

Fagundez is still working on his high school diploma, taking classes a few hours a week.

Scott Caldwell, a Braintree native, took a more traditional route. Caldwell captained the Revolution’s inaugural youth team in 2008. He played four years of college soccer at Akron, but trained with the Revolution on breaks and over the summer. He signed in 2012.

It’s the path Sady hopes to follow. The model is already in place.

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