Top level soccer talent emerging from Barça Residency Academy in Casa Grande

The Barça Academy U19 team trains ahead of the MLS NEXT Cup. (Photo by Marcos Grada Martinez/Cronkite News)

Barça Academy shares premises with Grande Sports World at Casa Grande. (Photo courtesy of Barça Residency Academy USA)

The teams for the summer camp competitions are named after some of Barça legends and rising stars. (Photo by Marcos Grada Martinez/Cronkite News)

CASA GRANDE – Fútbol Club Barcelona is one of the most famous football clubs in the world with various titles in Champions League, World Cup and LaLiga. However, it is also known for producing historical talent, as evidenced by the names of Leo Messi, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández, Gerard Piqué, Carles Puyol or even the most recent Ansu Fati or Gavi.

Called “La Masia” – named after noble houses in Catalonia – this manufacture of superstars achieves its goal through a very specific process: young players, some starting as young as 6 years old, move away from their families and live in a dormitory-style learning facility and exercising.

Since 2016, FC Barcelona has had a second “La Masia” in the Casa Grande: the Barça Academy and Residency USA, which follows exactly the same approach as in Spain.

However, the ways in Europe and the United States are different. Most European youth aspire to sign a professional contract as early as possible and try to stay that way throughout their careers. Leo Messi, for example, made his debut when he was 16.

On the other hand, most US players consider college first and then try to go pro. Because academics are part of this journey, ASU Prep Academy has a presence at Casa Grande’s facilities.

The home of the Barça Academy is the Grande Sports World, which has on-site dormitories, eight soccer fields and a 58,000 square meter state-of-the-art sports training facility. It is introduced by a building that houses classrooms, weight rooms, and locker rooms. In the center of the building is the weight room, surrounded by the FC Barcelona logo.

ASU Prep Academy is accessed through double doors leading to another wing with a Hall of Fame and a variety of classrooms. A door opposite the entrance opens to the training ground and several fields.

Barça Academy has two full-time coaches who take care of the players while they are on campus. (Photo by Marcos Grada Martinez/Cronkite News)

In this case, the Barça Academy mixes both approaches and offers its graduates an environment that allows them to choose the path they want. All students have so far left the academy with a college offer or a professional contract (mostly in the MLS), according to their website.

“Mainly (the reason why 100% of graduates either go to college or work professionally) is because of our achievements, which attract the best players,” said Tim Alai, general manager of Barça Academy.

This success is achieved through a specific methodology.

“We have 135 staff on site who help support and manage the program, we have two coaches from FC Barcelona who work with the coaches and the players on the methodology and the curriculum,” Alai said. “So you have the best environment, the best coaches, the best facilities and the best education available to ensure that. So that environment produces those kinds of results.”

Luca Sowinski is an example of a student who traveled away from home — he was born in San Diego — to enroll at the Academy and commit to an NCAA program: the University of Denver.

“I think there are many advantages,” Sowinski said. “On the one hand, I certainly developed as a player in football. We have the most talented players and the best coaches. So I’ve certainly grown as a player, but also as a person. It’s a really good experience, meeting a lot of people and learning a lot of things.”

Aside from its marquee players, FC Barcelona is also known for its style of football. The late Johan Cruyff started this mentality at Barça by emphasizing style over results and it proved profitable as he built the Dream Team and won the club’s first Champions League in 1992.

In 2008, this style evolved even further when Barça appointed Pep Guardiola as head coach. With him, players like Sergio Busquets or Pedrito debuted in the first team, and FC Barcelona won the first treble in Spain’s history by winning the three big trophies.

This was achieved through this style of play, which held the ball more than its rivals (most games ended with Barça having more than 70% possession), with high turnover pressure and hundreds of passes per game, usually on the first touch.

This style became very recognizable and even had a nickname, the tiki-taka, and it was Barça’s trademark. That’s why in the Casa Grande academy they develop their players with the same idea, thanks to the support of two full-time Spanish coaches who live in Casa Grande and are from La Masia.

“The guys from FCB who come in… they really work not only with the coaches but also with the players to really implement what was before,” said U19 coach Ged Quinn. “Every drill we do is geared towards that: you’re looking for the different advantages we can have on the pitch, to keep possession, we want to make sure we can dominate the ball, we can dominate possession and we can dictate the player.”

The Barça Academy facilities have a state-of-the-art gym in the center of the building. (Photo by Marcos Grada Martinez/Cronkite News)

One of the main features of this style is that opposing teams are forced to run after the ball while trying to regain it, which becomes very tiring and something FC Barcelona coaches see as an advantage. Implementing this style may be a slow process, but it’s a sacrifice Barça Academy coaches are willing to make.

“We find in Arizona, especially with the heat, that we want the ball because the last thing you want to do is chase it in 100 degree weather,” Quinn said. “We could lose a few games in the 90th minute and that’s okay because if we play the way we want to play, ultimately we think we’re winning more games than we’re losing.”

For most soccer players in the US, enrolling in the academy seems like an obvious choice. However, it’s not that simple.

Aside from paying $75,900 in tuition for on-site living, players must either be recruited or tried if they wish. It’s a system that was built back in 2011 as Real Salt Lake City’s academy before FC Barcelona took over.

Once there, another challenge arises: homesickness. Iniesta, one of Barca’s greatest legends and the player who scored an extra-time winner at the 2010 World Cup final to give Spain their only world title, admitted in multiple interviews that he couldn’t stop for days, even weeks crying when he was brought to La Masia at the age of 12.

“We have a full support team here with a great staff,” said Quinn. “There are seven or eight people living with the boys on site. So you’re here as assistants. We have a full-time counselor who is available for the boys’ mental well-being – you can arrange to meet with her. And then the coaches are of course also available for a little extra support.”

For those who are struggling, the best help is to find friends who can support them in the same process. For example, Iniesta became close friends with Dani Jarque, who died in the summer of 2009. Iniesta honored him at this World Cup by unveiling a tank top that read “Dani Jarque, Siempre Con Nosotros” (Dani Jarque, Always With Us ).

“I think what I like best, to be honest, is just the people I’ve been able to meet here,” Sowinski said. “There are children from all over the country, even from abroad. I think my favorite part was just meeting her, getting to know her, learning all about her. I will hopefully be friends with them for the rest of my life. That was really, really special.”

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