Roots Of The LAFC Academy Run Deep In LA

For a profile on LAFC’s esteemed Academy Director, Todd Saldaña, the club reached out to writer and season-ticket holder Alex Dwyer, who covers the club for MLS.com. This is his story.

In the hazy Los Angeles of 1979, when soccer games in town were as hard to find as a clean scoop of sky anywhere east of the 405, one team trained and played, hidden in plain sight, at a pitch in Pasadena famous for another kind of football.

“Sometimes the smog at the Rose Bowl is still bad today,” says Todd Saldaña, the Director of Los Angeles Football Club’s Academy. “But back then, it was unbearable.”

Wedged between the towering San Gabriel mountains and their lesser San Rafael cousins, the Arroyo Seco stadium site held more smog in its river-carved canyon than water. Camouflaged in this grimy soup and the relative sleepiness of the American football offseason, the L.A. Aztecs of the North American Soccer League, called the Rose Bowl home during years five and six of their seven-season lifespan between 1974 and 1981.

One day, when he was just a seventeen-year-old high schooler training with the professional club, Saldaña remembers a particularly thick fog of pollution sunk deep into the famed stadium, causing him and all of his Aztec teammates to wheeze as they began their warm up — all of them, that is, except for one nonchalant, rangy-legged Dutchman.

Johan Cruyff slid his hair gently against his forehead and lunged out onto the pitch without a hint of hesitation.

“The guy smoked three packs a day,” Saldaña says, jovially. “The smog didn’t bother his lungs.”

Like most young attackers in the world then and now, Cruyff was Saldaña’s idol. Rinus Michels, Cruyff’s fellow Dutchman and the architect of Holland’s “Total Football” of the 1970s, came from FC Barcelona to coach the Aztecs. In the eyes of a Torrance-bred teenager with big soccer dreams, an opportunity to accompany them on a field in your backyard, however muggy it may have been, seemed like the stuff of make believe or miracle.

“As much as going to UCLA was also a dream,” Saldaña says of the decision that led him to the privilege of jogging alongside Cruyff that smoggy afternoon. “I was so into the game that it really wasn’t much of a choice.”

Saldaña wasn’t formally allowed to join the club until he could legally sign his first professional contract after his 18th birthday. In the meantime, he spent his 17th year chugging up and down the 110 freeway, running post-training sets of automotive sprints past packed basketball courts, baseball fields, and American football practices lining his drive between sessions with the Dutch footballing deities.

Despite ownership including the likes of Elton John and players like former Manchester United midfielder George Best, Angelinos young and old were widely unaware of the L.A. Aztec’s existence. Fans of the club rarely filled more than 15 percent of the Rose Bowl’s seats. Yet, like an ambitious, young archeologist discovering the treasures of an ancient civilization, Saldaña’s enthusiasm for the Aztecs project dwarfed the wider Angelino aloofness.

“The chance to get away from school and come and train with this pro team?” Saldaña wonders playfully, his glowing eyes betraying the answer to his own hypothetical question.

“I couldn’t get enough.”

Born in the World Cup year of 1962, when Brazil — without Pelé after he’d punished Mexico in the Seleçao’s first group match only to injure himself in the second — beat Czechoslovakia in Santiago to lift their second championship, Saldaña found the game at an early age in his South Bay hometown.

“A lot of the guys I grew up with, their parents didn’t actually play the game,” he says, from the stands overlooking an LAFC Academy training session one weekday evening this fall. “My father didn’t really play so much soccer but he loved the sport.”

Whatever, Saldaña felt for the game, love was too simple a word. As a quintessentially American boy, he loved all sports. Before reaching his tenth birthday, he played basketball, baseball, and football as much as he did soccer but the fluidity of the latter seemed to combine the sports into one. When he joined his first club team, soccer shifted from his priority to his obsession.

“I credit my youth coaches,” Saldaña says, without a tinge of self-aggrandizement as he watches his own unit of youth coaches patrolling the LAFC youth training below. “I was very fortunate to have some British coaches that were so passionate about the game and were constantly giving me that same feeling back.”

Saldaña’s vicious appetite for the game and good fortune aligned at age 11 when he joined the South Bay Vikings, a club team founded by eventual German-American coaching legend Sigi Schmid. Though he would go on to coach the Seattle Sounders for many seasons before most recently taking the helm at the Galaxy, Schmid was still an undergraduate at UCLA and coached youth players in the spare time between his studies.

“I went to a soccer camp in Santa Barbara, next thing I know I’m getting a call when I got back home that we’re putting together this club team,” he says of joining the Schmid’s Vikings. “I was very lucky, and all of us were, to play for someone with that kind of passion for the game. That’s where it began.”

Saldaña saw himself as a classic No. 10, a creative player. He had his own mind for how to play. He feels this made Schmid’s job a little tricky but insists that his “beyond normal” affinity for the game compensated for it and left some room for error.

“In a game, I was going to maybe do something against the grain a little bit and not always exactly what the coach told me to do,” Saldaña says of his years under Schmid’s tutelage. “Credit to him, he allowed me enough freedom but gave me enough structure that I could do my thing but learn how to fit into a team game also.”

The freedom Schmid afforded Saldaña was the gasoline to his budding fire for soccer. It took his focus and commitment to the next level. His ability to fit into a team mold, however, would be tested within a couple years after joining the Vikings.

Saldaña was called up to the U14 Youth National Team, becoming the first in the long line of Schmid-coached players to wear the American crest. Beaming with pride and confidence, Saldaña flew to New Jersey to join the camp as they prepared for a trip to Germany. From the get-go, he approached his role in training the same as he had back in Los Angeles.

“I wanted to be this free player and maybe not fit into the structure as much,” Saldaña said, chuckling at his youthful recklessness. “I thought everybody was going to be going to Germany. Then I got sent home.”

Though devastated at the time, Saldaña looks back now and attributes much of his unpreparedness to the overly positive experiences of a talented youth.

“At that age, and I think these guys here too, everything is pretty positive” Saldaña says nodding in the direction of the LAFC squads putting around on the pitch. “You’re pretty successful in every game you play. You’re one of the stronger players. You’re allowed freedom as one of the top players on your team.”

A year younger than most of the other players at the camp, Saldaña discovered he wasn’t ready to be told he wasn’t perfect. Though he insists there is an argument to be made about how structured a young player’s life ought to be, the squad in question was an international team. If he wanted to be on it, he needed to adhere to a structure.

His club teammates were confused when he returned, but luckily, they had a tournament a couple days later. Without too much time to mull over what had happened, Saldaña channeled the motivation and anger from being cut and turned in a great performance. Six months later, he was recalled to the national team and made the traveling squad.

“I was ready the second time,” he says with the trademark humility that probably began to calcify after that early-career stumbling block. “It was a rude awakening. It came early, but I think, helped me along the way because I probably got that shock earlier than some guys, maybe they’re getting into college the first time someone tells them it’s not good enough.”

Saldaña didn’t miss another national team roster from then until the squad qualified in 1981 for what was then called the FIFA World Youth Championship and today is known as the FIFA U-20 World Cup. The Stars and Stripes failed to make it past the group stage in the Australia-based edition of the tournament, but drew 1-1 with the runners-up Qatar, who lost to West Germany in the final.

“I was a big fan of international soccer,” he says, remembering his trip down under. “I watched as much soccer as I could see on TV: German soccer, English soccer, the Mexican League, anything I could get my hands on as a kid. To get to play in an opportunity in a World Cup, just say the name ‘World Cup’, that was enough for me.”

The lasting impact that monumental moment in U.S. soccer history had for Saldaña was in the beginnings of a more all-encompassing affinity for the game’s status outside American borders. He was taken aback by the fans attending the matches and people recognizing him when he came off the field. Some fans even asked for his jersey after international fixtures, something he wasn’t seeing much of in his life as a professional player in the NASL.

At the time of the tournament, Saldaña was already a professional with the Aztecs, having foregone the opportunity to play in college to pursue his career in earnest. Though his mother was cautious about her son’s move, Saldaña believes his father’s heritage as a Mexican immigrant played a key role in his family eventually supporting it.

“Maybe because of his own background, he wasn’t afraid of allowing me to follow my dream and wasn’t as concerned about college as people are now,” Saldaña says of his father’s reaction to the decision to turn pro out of high school. “That’s not the background he came from. He learned a trade and got in to start working. For me, he was probably thinking, ‘Okay, this is your trade. You’re going to start working at eighteen.’”

After his time playing with the Aztecs at both the Rose Bowl and the L.A. Coliseum — which included winters in an indoor soccer league that held matches at the L.A. Sports Arena, the same plot of earth where LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium stands today — Saldaña moved on to play for the San José Earthquakes and Tulsa Roughnecks until the NASL folded in 1985, when Saldaña was just 23.

“The NASL had a lot of world stars in it,” Saldaña says of the quality of the league at the time. “The New York Cosmos had Pelé, Beckenbauer, and Carlos Alberto, huge stars at the time. You couldn’t afford those players now. The game has risen so much in terms of the finance.”

He briefly played for the Fort Lauderdale Sun in the United Soccer League before moving back to Los Angeles. Once home, he played two final professional seasons in the newly formed Western Soccer Alliance for the Los Angeles Heat and the California Kickers.

As quickly as it happened, life as a professional player was over, which still shocks Saldaña today.

“I have a picture of taking a shot in Giants stadium and Beckenbauer attempting to block it,” he remembers. “I mean, I look at some of those moments. It’s almost like, is this a painting? Did I really play against Beckenbauer and he was trying to block my shot?”

From what I can tell, every young, sweaty-faced LAFC academy cadet shakes Saldañas hand. This doesn’t just happen before weekday evening training sessions and weekend matches, but after them as well. As I’m standing beside him before one training begins in earnest, one last player races over and shakes the Academy Director’s hand before he turns to me and grasps mine. Simultaneously, he shoots me the same glance I imagine he would if he just nipped the ball away from me on the pitch.

“He’s our youngest,” Saldaña says, as satisfied with the acquisition as he is struck by the palpable energy exuding from the player himself, who sprints away to join the first drill of the evening. “Only nine-years-old, meaning he’s playing up three years with the U12s.”

I ask if all the players are so eager and Saldaña laughs with the same sort of look in his eyes as the boy, peeking out from a pair of thin-wired eyeglasses. He’s decked out in black and gold training gear from head to heel, with only his stud-less sneakers seeming to prevent him from being an attacking threat on the field.

“They always come up and say hello to every one of our staff,” he tells me. “The first thing I do is when we shake hands is ask them how they’re doing. I make sure they say more than, ‘Did you have a good day?’ ‘Yes.’ Give me something. Tell me what happened in your day. Did you do well in school today? Did you have any issues? What did you have for lunch? Start a conversation with them.”

Then Saldaña delivers what most closely resembles his motto: “You can’t coach a player well unless you know him.”

It’s a lesson instilled on him from coaches like Schmid and Michels but also by the players he’s coached in the dozen years he spent on the sidelines at three of L.A.’s highest caliber university soccer programs: UCLA, Cal-Poly Pomona, and Loyola Marymount University.

“Managing players, even at the youth level, people will find knowing how to work with different types of players is as important as knowing the X’s and O’s,” Saldaña, a self-described “people-person,” explains. “Some of them are very emotional. Some of them are very hard on themselves. Some of them are very casual. You need to help them find that balance in the game. I think having been a little bit of a personality player has helped me to work with different personalities.”

At UCLA, Saldaña coached famed MLS and USMNT goalkeeper Nick Rimando, current Atlanta United Technical Director and Vice President Carlos Bocanegra, as well as local MLS heroes like Sasha Victorine and Peter Vagenas.

When I ask how his playing experiences informed his coaching style, he points to life off the field with his various teammates, venues where he learned more about the fabric of people’s lives.

“I wasn’t always living in LA, so they’d have you over for dinner with their family,” Saldaña says. “I got traded from San Jose to Tulsa, they put me in a condominium with a married Polish guy whose family was still in Poland under Martial Law. He’s calling home. He’s trying to get some time to talk to his wife. Meanwhile, he’s making me this incredible goulash every night and treating me like a son almost because he was away from his family.”

Learning about his teammates outside the game helped him understand them better inside it. These experiences lead to a personality-aware development approach.

Between coaching top level collegiate and championship-winning academy development teams, he dovetailed his experiences into a scouting role with the United States Men’s National Team. Saldaña had a hand in a good spell for the national team leading up to the Copa America Centenario, including compiling the scouting report on the Costa Rica side the U.S. downed 4-0 in Chicago.

Once LAFC hired Saldaña to direct their academy, his initial task was to build a staff that reflected the international mix he feels benefited his education as a player, coach, and scout.

“We have a Spanish coach, an Italian coach, an Argentine coach, an English coach,” he says, pointing across the field at the staff he handpicked. “It’s deliberate. It may be harder to mesh, but it’s exciting when it really comes together. I think you see that in our teams. That’s where our coaching and our methodology bring those unique styles together under one roof.”

When I ask the coaches under Saldaña about working at a program like LAFC’s, they respond with a mix of optimism and faith. Goalkeeper coach Neil Thompson feels Saldaña’s native Angelino-status gives the coaches confidence to get the lay of the land and the culture. Former Academy Coach Luciano Fusco speaks to how the inclusive-approach to player recruitment helps the club get the very best players but also presents the challenge of having to balance the squads with the various player-types like a chemist with test tubes.

Director of Coaching Enrique Duran has been perplexed by the soccer culture of Los Angeles, where players don’t always come to practice discussing the marquee televised matches of the weekend as is customary in his native Spain. Still, he recognizes how every country must find their own way to develop players, pointing to an unsuccessful experience he had with trying to impose European-style diets on players at a South African club he worked with.

“It would be easier just to get a bunch of players that all play the same way,” Saldaña says, considering these ideas. “But I don’t think you have a chance of getting as many guys to the top level. I think as an opponent, we’ll be difficult to play against with that variety in our teams. I also think about what it does for these kids to be amongst all cultures in our own team in L.A.”

Cruyff “Cruyffed” Saldana, “more than once,” in their time playing together. Like the one of Beckenbauer, there are photos of him going toe-to-toe with George Best. He remembers the English, Welsh, and Irish international players he faced during his professional career as being the physically strongest and determined he’s ever seen.

“You got a lot of these little pieces from guys from different parts of the world and little bits of insight,” he says. “I didn’t know how hard I could push myself until I was amongst some of those players too.”

If there’s a main theme to Saldaña it’s this harmony of difference.

“You got a great education with the international players that were here at that time,” he says at last, looking out at a sky that is, by most estimates, three times less polluted than it was in the 1970s when he began training with the Aztecs.

“Now you can find soccer 24/7,” he says, considering how different his commutes to and from training seem today. “You just drive up and down the 110 freeway and turn off anywhere, there’s a soccer game going on. That wasn’t the case when I was growing up”

I ask Saldaña if he still ever gets the “always want to play” feeling he had growing up.

“Yeah, I miss it even though I’m well past it,” he says as we turn to leave the pitch. “I think to be able to pass that onto a player, you have to have that feeling yourself too.”

As we clear off the field for the training drills to expand, Saldaña holds his arms behind his back as if he has to handcuff himself from running into the drill, snatching the ball, and dashing goal-ward.

“It will be interesting to get to a point where a kid grows up wanting to play for LAFC like a kid that wanted to play for the Dodgers or play for the Lakers,” he says, forecasting a future for the city that his European staff might not be able to fully grasp just yet.

Each academy player receives tickets to every Banc of California Stadium home fixture for the senior team and after I watch the U14 players voluntarily flood the stands, shoulder-to-shoulder with the LAFC independent supporters union — The 3252 — waving flags and vocalizing their support for the U12 side in their battle over their crosstown Galaxy rivals later that weekend, it’s hard for me to doubt Saldaña’s expectation that they’ll fill those seats every chance they get.

“The kids I’ve found, that we’ve chosen,” Saldana lights up. “They can’t get enough of it.”

Under Saldaña’s stewardship, the academy views every one of the hundreds of youth matches underway at any minute across the city as a potential location where LAFC could find their next recruit. Based at the convergence of so many of L.A.’s main thoroughfares at the Cal State L.A. campus, the club’s net stretches as wide as the city’s network of freeways.

Saldaña can’t play anymore but he’s dead-set on making sure these players can. Even when he’s away from training and recruiting, his mind is occupied with tasks like getting a club shuttle-van system in place to save parents traffic headaches and make sure players can make it to the central L.A. training facility. Questions about getting academy players an on-site education will come after that, as will handling forthcoming international call ups, opening a female academy, and handing players over to the senior team when they’re ready.

Later, as we near the end of our conversation in the bleachers above the pitch, I see the bobbing head of the nine-year old academy player who shook my hand with such vigor earlier, making his way up the stairs toward us.

“Every week, you see a little bit more taking charge attitude from him,” Saldaña whispers, as the young player approaches. “At the beginning, he was kind of quiet kid.”

We greet him. He shakes Saldaña’s hand, then mine. I ask him how training went, but he’s too shy to respond. As he’s walking away I see his backpack is open and inform him.

“Thanks,” he says softly, but his mind is too focused on the game he loves — maybe more than loves — to be bothered with petty inconveniences like backpack zippers.

He leaves it open.

“That’s part of it,” Saldaña says, watching him descend from the bleachers to join the others streaming away from the ground. “He’s not a real talkative kid, but you see him in his play?”

Saldaña maintains the buoyant tone he uses when he speaks about Cruyff, or himself.

“He comes alive once he steps on the field.”