Heriberto Melgoza and Joseph Restani have taken different paths to becoming teammates in the fledgling Republic FC Academy program.
Restani was a multisport athlete at Pleasant Grove High School, where he led the soccer team in scoring, was a reserve point guard on the basketball team and kicked for the football team last year.
Now in his senior year, his focus is completely on soccer, though he no longer plays for his high school team.
“I want to play in college and I want to play professionally and, hopefully, one day I’d like to play for my country, so I knew this was the best move for me,” Restani said. “It was hard because I liked playing high school sports.”
I want to play in college and I want to play professionally and, hopefully, one day I’d like to play for my country, so I knew this was the best move for me. It was hard because I liked playing high school sports.
Joseph Restani, a senior at Pleasant Grove High School
Melgoza, a freshman at UC Davis, last played high school soccer as a freshman at Woodland. He became an academy player (for San Juan) four years ago because he saw it as a fast track to becoming a pro.
“This is much more serious, more about player development,” Melgoza said. “It’s been really helpful. It’s not only got me more exposure to the first team but to a lot of other college coaches.”
Melgoza and Restani are two of Republic FC’s inaugural class of 64 players from 36 area schools who are competing in three age groups looking to play the sport at the highest levels. Both aspire one day to be pros in Sacramento.
For players desiring to play Division I college soccer, make a national team or play professionally, the U.S. Soccer Development Academy system is now viewed as one of the best routes to achieve those goals. There are 74 clubs competing nationally in the U-16 and U-18 divisions.
While all 20 Major League Soccer teams have academy programs, Republic FC is one of only a handful of minor-league teams that have made the financial commitment to develop their own talent.
“It’s massive for the area; it’s massive for the club,” says Republic FC Academy director Rod Underwood. “The goal of the club ultimately, as we continue to develop and hopefully move into MLS, is to have most of our players coming from here. We want to become a Sacramento club in every aspect.”
One of Republic FC Academy’s biggest draws is that it’s fully funded. Parents don’t have to pay for training, travel and uniform costs that can run $7,000 to $10,000 a year.
But players must commit to a 10-month season that involves four days of training a week and intense weekend matches that are sometimes out of state. Vancouver Whitecaps FC, Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers FC and the San Jose Earthquakes are among the MLS teams competing with Republic FC in the nine-team Northwest Division.
It leaves little time for extracurricular activities.
“Soccer and school, that’s their focus,” Underwood said. “We know it’s not for everyone. Even during our tryouts, we had players debating whether they wanted to do this. But we think it’s great for these kids to get the chance to consistently play with like players.”
Restani admits the demand has been challenging.
“It was a tough decision whether to do this year-round or finish out my senior year playing all those sports for my high school,” Restani said. “The physical part hasn’t been a big adjustment because I’m used to being active every day. But playing soccer every day definitely has been different.”
Playing for Republic FC Academy already has paid dividends for Restani. He’s received an uptick in college scholarship offers, so many that his toughest decision is choosing between schools.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking right now because I have to make my decision in the next few weeks,” said Restani, a forward. “I feel bad because I want to go to all the colleges I’ve visited, but you can only play for one.”
While Melgoza hasn’t ruled out college, his ultimate goal is playing for Republic FC’s senior team sooner rather than later.
“If I could play for the first team, that would be cool,” said Melgoza, a defender.
If I could play for the first team, that would be cool.
Heriberto Melgoza, a freshman at UC Davis
He attends UCD, as a student only, because it gives him a chance to play one more season in the academy.
“For now, I am working on what I have to do to be a better player,” he said. “I’m improving my skill and my physique. At the end of the season (in June), if I don’t have a pro offer, I’ll weigh my options and see what schools are interested in me and which best fits my style.”
Mason Finnell, a goalkeeper from Vista del Lago who competes for Republic FCs U-16 team, this week became the first player from the academy to be selected for a U.S. National Team U-15 training camp. He is in Bradenton, Fla., this week working out with other top players born in 2000.
An added benefit for academy players is that they often train with Republic FC.
“I think these guys realize what a great opportunity this is for them,” said Ivan Mirkovic, a Republic FC midfielder who trains with the young players several times a week. “But they can’t just be satisfied being here. They have to keep striving for something bigger. They have to keep working hard and listening to their coaches if they want to take that next step.”