For Rising FC, academy players training with first team is a symbiotic relationship
Josh Martinez was in physics class at Chandler Hamilton when his phone rang. 40 miles to the north, Jacob Harris was in the Fine Arts Center at Cave Creek Cactus Shadows, sitting through a meeting for graduation and prom planning when his did, too.
On the other end of both calls was Rick Schantz, the Phoenix Rising manager who has helped elevate soccer in the valley to unprecedented levels over the past half-decade. Part of that growth has come at the youth level, where the Rising have built a full-fledged academy that provides a pathway to the first team.
Both Martinez and Harris were among the first members of Rising’s academy when it was founded in 2012. And, earlier this month, they became the eighth and ninth members of the academy to sign with the first-team, taking advantage of USL Academy contracts, which enable young players to play professional games without being paid, therefore maintaining their college eligibility.
For Schantz, the primary rationale behind promoting Martinez and Harris was to ensure Phoenix has 20 active outfield players at all times, enabling them to run 11-on-11 scrimmages during training.
As with any academy, though, Rising’s focus with its young prospects lies in player development. That’s where the other part of the equation to promote Martinez and Harris comes in.
“(It helps) them continue to improve and progress in their career and their journey and being a pro,” Schantz said. For Martinez, that journey is taking him to the University of San Diego, where he’ll begin his college career in the fall. Harris is still unsure on his next step. He plans to remain with Rising through the end of the USL season before assessing his options.
Because Martinez and Harris are still finishing up their senior years of high school, they’ve only been able to make sporadic appearances at weekday trainings thus far, skipping classes when they can but staying mindful of their remaining academic commitments. Even in that limited time, they’ve seen the benefits of training alongside fully-developed professionals.
“You definitely have to think a lot quicker,” Martinez said. “You have less time on the ball. And just because they're grown men, you're forced to protect the ball more just because they're bigger than you, they're stronger than you, most of the time they're faster than you. So you just have to be ready for that.”
The difference in game speed from the academy to professional level plays a significant role in Schantz’s decision-making when selecting players to promote.
While traditional logic would hold that the most physically developed teenagers should be first in line for first-team contracts, Schantz prioritizes on-field intelligence, as ascertained both in conversations with his youth coaches and from watching academy games.
“We want the best soccer players,” Schantz said. “Because we know that by the time they're 17, 18 years old, they're gonna get closer physically, but if they're not technically or tactically aware, they're not intelligent, sometimes it's very, very difficult. It doesn't matter how big and fast you are.”
Certainly, that applies to Phoenix’s two newest additions. At 5-foot-10, 140 pounds, Harris is among Rising’s smallest players. And while Martinez is 6-foot-3, his 165-pound frame puts him at a physical disadvantage among professionals.
In part due to that lack of physicality, neither is likely to see USL action this year, although both got preseason cameos with Rising. USL Academy contracts, though, mitigate the developmental impacts of that lack of game time as players are allowed to float back and forth between their youth team and the first team.
For Martinez and Harris, the impact of their new training schedule is most obvious when they return to their U-18 teams for training and, especially, weekend games.
“It makes you more confident because when you're playing at a higher level and then you go back to play the academy games,” Harris said. “In your head, you're like, okay, if I can play with them, then I can play at this level, for sure.”
Theo Mackie covers Arizona high school sports and Phoenix Rising FC. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @theo_mackie.