Soccer academy in Southern California will join an evolving MLS system that’s paying dividends

Ousseni Bouda was just 11 years old and growing up in the west African country of Burkina Faso when his family took the ultimate leap of faith by sending him alone to Ghana to play soccer.

Bouda arrived at the Right to Dream academy not knowing the language and with no guarantees he’d be accepted into the residential development program and school. But the youngster showed talent and won a spot.

“I think at first I was just so excited by the opportunity that I didn’t think far ahead to realize that I was going to be there by myself. It was an adjustment for sure,” Bouda said. “But after a couple of weeks, about a month in when I’d made really good friends with the kids and the coaches and all of that, it became a family to me.”

Years later, the gambit paid off when Bouda won a scholarship to Stanford, something he never dreamed of as a young boy. Now he plays for the San Jose Earthquakes in Major League Soccer, which opens its 29th season this week.

Now Right to Dream is coming to the United States as the academy under San Diego FC, which will join MLS as the league’s 30th team in 2025.

Right to Dream is unique in MLS in that its reach is international, with academies in Ghana, Denmark and Egypt. It is owned by Egyptian billionaire Mohamed Mansour, owner of San Diego FC along with the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.

The academy becomes part of a player development system in MLS that is seeing growing success in fostering world-class players. The league, which kicked off in 1996, started to look at development as it grew, adopting the homegrown player rule in 2008 to incentivize teams to cultivate local talent.

Promising players in the United States have traditionally been dependent on club and travel teams — the so-called pay-to-play model — for exposure to colleges and scouts. Really talented youngsters headed overseas, like U.S. forward Christian Pulisic. But players without the resources and money have sometimes been overlooked.

The MLS academy system is shifting that model. FC Dallas, which has one of the largest and most successful academies, has developed players like Weston McKennie with Juventus and Ricardo Pepi of PSV Eindhoven. The Philadelphia Union’s academy has produced bothers Brenden and Paxton Aaronson, as well as Auston Trusty, all of whom are playing in Europe. All those players have also been called up to the U.S. team.

“I think one of the most important contributions that we have made to the sport in this region is our commitment to player development. And remember, we’re 29 years old and the other countries who are in this business have been around developing players for generations and generations,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in an interview with The Associated Press.

Every MLS team has an academy to develop players but they vary in size and scope. High school-age prospects often live with host families and attend nearby schools while training with teams. Those players feed into the MLS NEXT Pro league and, if they do well, earn a chance with the senior club.

“You’ve seen it pay off, how the core of the Canadian national team has come out of many of our clubs, and the core of the U.S. national team, whether it’s McKinney or it’s the Aaronsons. And it’s not just on the U.S. and Canadian national team side — 15 of the players who played in qualifying in South America for the Olympics are players that have played in our league,” Garber said. “So we’re going to continue to drive opportunity for young players who play in our league and value for our teams who develop those players.”

The league’s development efforts were supercharged in 2020 when U.S. Soccer shut down its development academy because of COVID. MLS jumped in and created MLS Next, which includes more than 15,000 kids and both MLS and elite academies nationwide, and MLS Next Pro, a competitive pro league that’s a step below the MLS clubs — sort of a minor league system.

Players in MLS team-affiliated academies do not pay to play, MLS NEXT Pro President Charles Altchek said. And earlier this month, MLS introduced a grant program that would reward independent youth clubs financially for developing professional players. Among the retroactive recipients was Weston FC — which developed Inter Miami’s Benjamin Cremaschi.

“What we’re working very hard on is to find more ways to bring in more players from all different backgrounds, from all different socioeconomic backgrounds to be part of what we’re doing, because we know how important that is. And we’re committed to making as much progress as we can as quickly as we can,” Altchek said.

The newest Right to Dream academy is being built on the Sycuan Reservation in El Cajon, California. It will serve youth from sixth to 12th grade, free of charge. It will be a residential academy, where players will live, play and go to school. San Diego FC’s first team will also train there.

Tom Vernon founded Right to Dream in Ghana in 1999 when he was a scout for Manchester United in Africa. One of the academy’s graduates is Mohammed Kudus, who plays for West Ham United and scored for Ghana in the 2022 World Cup. The Right to Dream girls’ academy in Ghana produced Princess Marfo, recently signed by Bay FC in the National Women’s Soccer League.

Vernon’s vision wasn’t just to create players: More than 100 kids who attended the Ghana academy have gone to college in the United States. The San Diego academy will look to draw youth from the Native American community and also reach into Mexico.

“We had a feeling that we wanted to do something different, be something different, have a different interpretation for what an academy could be,” Vernon said. “We’ve managed to hold pretty fast some core values and principles that we believe are ripe for the academy system, that we think don’t exist in a lot of places. And that’s managed to take us on a journey to now have four academies around the world, if you include San Diego, and a lot of kids playing on great teams, whether that being in top U.S. universities or in the Premier League.”