A Shot at the Galaxy

L.A.’s soccer team cultivates teen talent with its homegrown player program

On a hot and muggy July afternoon in Kansas City, L.A. Galaxy forward Bradford Jamieson IV stands on the sidelines of the field at Sporting Park, waiting to start his first professional soccer game. The Galaxy are playing Sporting Kansas City, Major League Soccer’s defending champions. It’s the 75th minute, and Los Angeles is down, 2-0. The team needs an offensive spark. Based on his physical appearance, Jamieson seems an unlikely candidate to provide it: six feet one, gangly, with a dyed blond fauxhawk and a wispy goatee, he looks like a kid. That’s because he is. Jamieson is 17.

Four minutes into his professional debut, at the edge of the penalty area, he leaps and heads the ball into the path of 34-year-old Irish international Robbie Keane, who slots it past the Kansas City goalkeeper. The Galaxy can’t tie the score in the closing minutes, but Jamieson’s professional career is only 15 minutes old, and he already has an assist against one of the league’s top teams.

What’s unusual about Jamieson isn’t just that he’s a 17-year-old African American kid from South L.A. playing on MLS’s most famous team. It’s the path he took to arrive at that moment in Kansas City: Jamieson is a Homegrown Player, a roster distinction given for someone who signs with an MLS club after playing for the club’s youth academy. Youth academies compete in U.S. Soccer’s Development Academy, which the U.S. Soccer Federation established in 2007 to provide a training environment on par with that of foreign countries. The academies and the Homegrown Player rule are changing the lives and careers of thousands of kids across the country but most of all in L.A., where the Galaxy have been a Homegrown leader.

The team was the first in Major League Soccer to sign a Homegrown Player—Tristan Bowen in November 2008—and since then has signed six more. They are a group as diverse as the city itself: Along with Jamieson, there is Gyasi Zardes, a 23-year-old African American husband and father from Hawthorne; Jack McBean, a red-haired 19-year-old from Newport Beach; Jose Villarreal, 21, whose Mexican immigrant parents raised him in Inglewood; Oscar Sorto, 20, who’s Salvadoran; and 20-year-old Raul Mendiola, a native of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

The Galaxy’s 62-year-old coach and general manager, Bruce Arena, has signed each of the Galaxy’s current Homegrown Players. Among the most successful coaches in American history in any sport, Arena has won NCAA titles (five at the University of Virginia), along with professional championships (two MLS Cups at D.C. United before joining the Galaxy), and led the U.S. Men’s National Team to its best performance at a World Cup in the modern era, a quarterfinal appearance in 2002. In his first full season with the Galaxy, in 2009, he steered the team to the MLS Cup final. Two years later, in 2011, the team won the MLS Cup—its first in six seasons—then repeated as champions in 2012.

Grown Locally: Jose Villarreal (left) and Jack McBean are among the six Homegrown Players the Galaxy has signed since 2008
Grown Locally: Jose Villarreal (left) and Jack McBean are among the six Homegrown Players the Galaxy has signed since 2008

Photographs (from left) by Cal Sport Media/AP Photo; Kevin French/Corbis Images

Throughout his career Arena has demonstrated a singular focus on cultivating young players. At Virginia he developed three NCAA Players of the Year and sent half a dozen players to the U.S. national team. And when he went on to coach the U.S., he had the guts to start 20-year-old Landon Donovan and Da­Marcus Beasely in the 2002 World Cup. Now he’s trying to develop players for the Galaxy.

“It’s important for any club to develop their own,” Arena says. “What we’re trying to do with the Galaxy is provide a development ladder that makes sense. We want to incentivize all of our young players to want to be in a position to want to be Homegrowns or one day to play for the first team.”

There are at least 3 million registered soccer players in the United States—a number second only to Germany. Yet while the U.S. women’s team has won two World Cups, the men have failed to reach similar international success. “How does a country this big not have better soccer players and better soccer teams?” asks Alexi Lalas, an ESPN analyst. A former player for the U.S. and the Galaxy and the manager of the club at the time it signed Bowen, Lalas says the Development Academy is intended to address this fundamental question.

The world’s greatest clubs—Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid—develop their own players starting as young as the age of six. The academy aims to do much the same. Now, among the 88 academy teams—including 16 MLS squads and 72 private clubs—about 6,000 kids are training to become the best soccer players America has ever produced. “Player development is a numbers game,” says Arena. “Any time you have a young promising player, you want to get him in the system. We need as many of those types of players in our system, and hopefully some of them make it.”

In the fall of 2013, Jamieson was one such player. A high school senior, he was on the Galaxy’s Under-18 (aka U-18) Youth Academy team. Prior to 2007, somebody as skilled as Jamieson would have been part of as many as five teams: a high school team, a club travel team, Olympic Development Program teams at the state and regional level, and a youth national team. Under this new model Jamieson played for only two teams: the Galaxy and, for international tournaments, the U.S. Youth National Team. With the Galaxy, he—and every other kid in the academy—was being developed in a professional environment by an elite coaching staff, training at the same facilities as the Galaxy first team and getting the whole experience (even his uniform, equipment, and travel expenses) free of charge.

By the time he was a high school senior, Jamieson—who had spent his sophomore and junior years at the U.S. Soccer Under-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Florida—was expecting he would go to college for a few years, then enter the MLS draft. Heavily recruited by UCLA, he committed to UC Berkeley. Then in December 2013, a new option presented itself: The Galaxy offered him a Homegrown Player contract.

Jamieson and his mother, Danica, were apprehensive about the offer. “The first thing that came to my mind,” she says, “was, ‘He’s in the middle of his senior year in high school. How is this going to work?’ ” Danica is a stay-at-home mother of four who trained herself to become a licensed FIFA agent to help Bradford navigate his career, and she knew about the difficulties of players enjoying a professional career after signing a Homegrown contract. Of the five who’d been signed from the Galaxy’s academy, the only one to establish himself within the first team had been Zardes, who is also the only one to go to college—three years at California State University, Bakersfield. This season he’s become a regular starter for the Galaxy and, as of September 4, he has 12 goals and an assist.

But that’s a big leap. Danica didn’t want her son to suffer from trying to do too much too soon. “How does he develop?” she asked Arena. “From what my research has shown me, it does not make any sense to sign and then languish on the bench. I know how people end up being pros from college, but how does it play out here?”

Arena understood her concerns. “We have a black hole in our development in this country,” he says. “We [don’t have] a good enough answer yet for kids who are 18 and older. We’ve got to close that gap in our development.” To do that, in January of this year Arena led the formation of the Galaxy II, a team that enables players who are still sharpening their skills to play 30 games a season in USL Pro, a league two divisions below MLS.

The new team was critical to Bradford’s decision. “I can unequivocally say,” Danica offers, “that if he had not had this opportunity with Galaxy II, he would have gone to school.” Rather than attend Berkeley, Jamieson signed the Homegrown Player contract, joining the Galaxy II for four months, and then he got that first start in Kansas City.

Bradford Jamieson grew up a Galaxy fan. His family became season ticket holders when he was eight, and he attended the David Beckham Academy. Now he is a model for other kids. Rey Ortiz, whose Under-16 Galaxy team won the Development Academy national championship in July, says, “I look up to BJ. He inspires me. He’s a Homegrown Player. I really want to be a Homegrown Player, too.”

That is one of the great hopes behind the focus on developing young players. “You want that kid who’s coming to his first Galaxy game to be able to say, ‘That kid took the path that I could take,’ ” says Lalas.

The inspiration Jamieson can provide younger academy players may have as much to do with his off-the-field decisions and time management skills as his on-the-field ability. The academy puts heavy demands on its players. Many drive up to two hours each way to train four times a week. Ortiz lives in San Diego. Every day of training, the mother of his teammate Tyson Griffin picks him up from school at 2:15. They arrive at the StubHub Center in Carson around 5, train from 5:30 to 7:30, then head back to San Diego. They usually don’t return home until 9 or 10, sometimes 11.

“It’s really hard,” says Ortiz. “You get frustrated with the homework and the tests.” If he has an upcoming exam, his coach, Mike Muñoz, lets him take a day off Galaxy practice to study as long as he trains on his own at home. Ortiz, a high school senior, has maintained a 3.0 GPA, and he has committed to Berkeley.

Other players haven’t fared as well. Eddie Soto, the head coach at the University of San Francisco, spent four seasons coaching with the Galaxy academy, from 2010 to 2013. “If they weren’t a stellar student, it was really taking a toll on them academically,” he says. Soto and some of the staff tried to provide tutoring—one coach even served as an academic liaison, overseeing each player’s grades—but they couldn’t prevent kids from letting their grades fall below the minimum 2.0 GPA the NCAA demands.

“They weren’t NCAA qualified,” says Soto. “You finish at U-18 and you’re not good enough to be with the first team—well, where do you go? You go to college and continue developing, or you go to junior college. Some of these kids didn’t even want to do that. Some would go to a JC, and you wouldn’t hear from them again. And it’s sad because they were fantastic players.”

Soto estimates that roughly a quarter of academy players have gone this route, and while an even smaller percentage have become Homegrown Players, dozens have moved on from the Galaxy’s academy to UCLA, UC Santa Barbara, the University of San Francisco, and other schools.

Jamieson, who earned his high school diploma in the spring, will be starting college courses in the fall at California State University, Dominguez Hills, the campus where the StubHub Center is located. His first class will be in music theory. Still, his most challenging education will come on the training and game fields where he dreamed he could one day play—just like David Beckham—and where other kids throughout Southern California now dream they will one day play, just like Bradford Jamieson.