Two years ago, United Soccer League executives met in offices of the league's headquarters in Tampa, Florida, to answer a question: How can the league use its resources to not only reward the Super Y League's best players but also educate them on the professional opportunities they will have in North America later on in their careers?
Led by Gordon Bengtson, who currently serves as the USL's Vice President of Competition and Technical Development, the answer became the USL Experience.
The USL Experience was created to provide Super Y League's top players with a comprehensive look into the North American professional landscape, where they can experience life as a pro at a level never before visited.
Two years in, the elite player program has been a resounding success. In front of a passionate crowd of more than 20,000 at FC Cincinnati's Nippert Stadium in 2016, the Super Y League's top players were recognized as the future of the game. A year later, San Antonio FC welcomed the league's best to Toyota Field and the STAR Soccer Complex, where the players competed in high-level competition and were again showcased to a sell-out crowd.
"With FC Cincinnati hosting in 2016 and San Antonio FC in 2017, the quality of the organizations is evident to the players upon first setting foot on site; I think that aspect is easy," Bengtson told SYLSoccer.com. "The fact that many USLX players walked away fans of those clubs is probably a good indicator as well."
SYL / USL Experience participants cheer with San Antonio FC supporters' group Mission City Firm
In the eyes of the participants, the USL Experience has been a must-attend event, and USL clubs have taken notice, with two already expressing interest in hosting next year's edition.
"San Antonio FC made the 2017 USL Experience a huge success," Bengtson said. "They far exceeded expectations, going above and beyond to show the Super Y League players what it is like to play professional soccer in San Antonio. The players, technical staff and other members of the SAFC organization were first-class in every way imaginable. It is going to be extremely difficult to try and create a better experience for the USLX players in 2018."
The USL Experience teams – U-14 Girls, U-14 Boys, U-16 Girls and U-16 Boys – faced off against San Antonio FC Pro Academy ETP and Rio Grande Valley FC Academy this year, and many of the players impressed. College coaches in attendance at the STAR Soccer Complex have expressed interest in a handful of players, while a pair of U16 Boys players stood out to U.S. Soccer Federation scouts.
"The event's excellent. We're happy to be here and be a part because we're a part of the league [USL]," Rio Grande Valley FC Academy Director Rafael Amaya said while watching his teams face off against the USL Experience sides. "I think it's a great opportunity, it's another avenue for the kids, especially bringing in college coaches as the players get older for showcasing purposes."
"I came last night [March 31], watching the girls and the boys, and we learn where we are with the rest of the country. You see some good talent, you probably see a kid that may make a national team camp and gives everyone hope."
SYL / RGVFC Academy Director Rafael Amaya speaks with USL's Gordon Bengtson
The decision for the Super Y League to move away from its annual ODP National Camp in favor of the USL Experience two years ago was made, in part, because exposure opportunities for the youth players would greatly increase.
To date, that move has helped many of the USL Experience alums achieve their collegiate and professional dreams.
Multiple players, including 2016-17 USL Experience selection Alice Walker, have committed to play NCAA Division I soccer, and Super Y League standouts Tanner Tessman and Kameron Lacey joined the FC Dallas Academy after being recognized in the 2016 USL Experience. Lagos Kunga, who is now a member of the Atlanta United FC Academy, has earned U.S. Under-20 National Team call-ups since attending the inaugural event at FC Cincinnati.
"I certainly believe the program has done a good job thus far helping increase exposure for SYL standouts," Bengtson said. "For example, at last year’s event we saw a number players move to professional academies. We continue to track some of those inaugural USLX players participating regularly in U.S. Soccer National Team Training Centers in their markets.
"Perhaps the player that embodies what we view as progress is Lagos Kunga. Kunga’s journey over the last 13 months is pretty impressive. Lagos was invited to the inaugural USL Experience based on his outstanding performance at the 2016 North American Finals event. While he was disappointed that his team came up short in PKs that year, he relished the opportunity provided by the USL Experience program. He was then invited into the Atlanta United Academy, accepted a scholarship to Furman University, received multiple invitations into U.S. National Team camps, including the upcoming U20 camp in Europe. And his story doesn't stop there. He has since then made appearances for the Charleston Battery in the USL and was also invited to take part in Atlanta United’s first-team preseason camp."
Future collegiate and professional players have filled up the past two rosters of the USL Experience, and league executives are excited to see who will be a part of the 2018 event. The Super Y League will look to identify most of those selections at this summer's Regional Scouting Series events, which take place on July 15-16, July 22-23 and July 29-30.
"The Regional Scouting Series is critical to the continued improvement of the USL Experience because it is one of the first steps in identifying players for the National Player Pool who are in contention to be selected for the event," Bengtson said. "Year to year, 80 percent of players who attend the USL Experience are identified from the Regional Scouting Series, while the other 20 percent are identified at the North American Finals.
"The more quality players we have involved at the regional level raises the standard for those in contention for selection to the USL Experience. We must continue to analyze how we are identifying players at the regional level to ensure that the right players are offered an opportunity to take the next step on our Elite Player Pathway."
While the first two events have been a huge success in the eyes of USL executives, meetings – just like the ones held two years ago – are taking place now at the league's headquarters. As the game of soccer continues to grow in North America, and the USL continues to be on the forefront of that momentum, the league's front office remains dedicated to helping the Super Y League's best work toward their soccer dreams.
"Our number one mission is to improve the player identification and tracking process throughout the Super Y League and other competitions, Bengtson said. "With the increased number of opportunities coming at the professional and pro academy levels, ensuring that we have the best of the best at this event is paramount.
"The number of opportunities to play professionally in our country is growing every year, and living the life of a pro in the USL is a very real and exciting possibility."