Ryo Fujii
Hana Asano

Game changer: LA Galaxy partnering with local university to help young players develop on and off the field

CARSON, Calif. – Professional development on the field was the main goal of the LA Galaxy II project when it was established a year ago, but as the venture enters its second season, Los Dos are also looking to emphasize the personal growth away from the sport.

When the Galaxy II announced the signing of Galaxy Academy product Ryo Fujii from U.C. Santa Barbara in early February, the deal came with an additional provision previously unheard of in a signing announcement. As part of Fujii’s contract, the Galaxy will provide the midfielder with the financial resources to enroll at nearby Cal State Dominguez Hills, allowing him to further his college education.

Fujii is the first player to take advantage of the Galaxy’s partnership with Dominguez Hills, but will be joined by goalkeeper Eric Lopez when he returns from U.S. Soccer’s Residency Program in Florida.

The Galaxy believe that this scholarship program is a game-changer for American soccer youth development.

“This is the best of both worlds. Players are in a real professional environment and they can also further their education,” Technical director Jovan Kirovski told LAGalaxy.com. “Overall, we want intelligence. We want players who are intelligent on the field as well as off of the field. We’re providing something that is different than what they offer in Europe or anywhere else because of the importance that we place on education in this country, and this offers players that [educational] opportunity if their professional career doesn’t work out.”

The college game has long been the next step for elite soccer players, much like it is in other American professional sports, but given the need to develop players at a younger age—as they do in Europe and South America —Kirovski and the Galaxy sought to go another route.

“It was a collaboration between myself, Galaxy Academy Director Peter Vagenas and club President Chris Klein,” Kirovski recalled. “When we’re going after young kids who have full ride scholarships to places like UCLA, UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley, we can tell them that we’re trying to develop professionals, but in order to compete with the schools, we wanted to provide education as well. That’s when it clicked that we needed to utilize our longstanding relationship with Cal State Dominguez Hills.”

When deciding who would be a recipient of the scholarship, Fujii proved to be a perfect candidate for the Galaxy’s budding educational venture.

Born in Hong Kong to Japanese parents, Fujii moved to the United States at the age of five and quickly became a standout in the Torrance youth soccer scene. After jumping around various AYSO teams, Fujii made a name for himself during his time with both Cosmos Academy West and the Chivas USA Academy before ultimately joining the Galaxy Academy at the behest of head coach Michael Munoz.

The midfielder had immediate success on a Galaxy U-18 squad that boasted players like Bradford Jamieson IV, Adonis Amaya and Jaime Villarreal as they finished the season with the best record in the US Soccer Development Academy Southwest Division. 

Fujii’s USSDA accomplishments helped him earn the attention of UC Santa Barbara head coach Tom Von Steeg who offered the defensive midfielder a full scholarship to UCSB, one of the finest college soccer programs in the nation.

During his only season with the Gauchos, Fujii showed considerable promise as he earned Big West All-Freshman team honors while logging over 1,200 minutes and recording two assists.

After a banner first season in Santa Barbara, it became clear that Fujii was ready to make the jump up to Los Dos, and that is when the conversations began between Galaxy brass and the teenager’s family.

Even though there was some initial apprehension from Fujii about the Galaxy’s new educational program, Kirovski says that he earned family’s trust when he laid the plan out in full.

“We’d been monitoring him for a long time. We knew that he has real potential to be a very good professional,” Kirovski said. “It was very important for his parents for him to further his schooling, but the kid knows what it takes to be a pro soccer player, and that’s being in an environment suitable to become a professional. At the end of the day, his family trusts us and has total faith in what we’re doing.”

To support Fujii’s schooling, the Galaxy enlisted Lee Hancock, an associate professor of kinesiology at Cal State Dominguez Hills, to serve as a personal counselor for the youngster. 

Like the counselors that Fujii had in Santa Barbara, Hancock serves as part administrator and part guidance counselor for the 18-year-old. Hancock not only advises the still undeclared freshman on what classes to take, but also enrolls Fujii in courses—both online and on campus— that best suit the hectic and ever-changing schedule of a professional athlete. Although Fujii gets no preferential treatment when it comes to classes, Hancock provides Fujii a little convenience as he balances four classes and his commitments with Galaxy II.

“What we’re doing is we’re basically creating our own college program,” said Hancock. “The [Galaxy] have had their eye on how to bring young men from college into their teams, and keep them in college. As a club, the Galaxy have a goal of developing the whole person, and if you can see that in some of the great people that they have had like Landon Donovan, Juninho and A.J. DeLaGarza.

“To see the Galaxy make this commitment to these young men is a totally new way to move professionals along on this career path. They didn’t have to give these kids scholarships, and while they’re definitely a tool to entice a player to join the Galaxy, they’re showing that they want to invest [in the player], and this is what we’ll do to do that.

“That’s a bold step because it truly does change the game. It provides an opportunity to get really bright young men into a professional environment and allows them to continue their schooling.”

For Fujii, who is taking two online courses and two classes on campus during the current quarter, this guidance is valuable as he navigates coursework at a still unfamiliar university.

“This is so convenient because Cal State Dominguez Hills is so close to the stadium and I’m able to go to my classes directly from practice,” said Fujii who is still age-eligible to play for the Galaxy’s U-18 squad.

“I just bring my backpack to practice, shower after training, and head to class. This is one of the big reasons that I chose this path because the Galaxy wanted me not only to have a chance to face better competition, but also saw the positive in me finishing school. It was a win-win situation.”

Now that Fujii is balancing soccer and schoolwork as part of this club sponsored initiative, could this scholarship program become the norm for Galaxy II signings coming from the Academy?

According to Kirovski, the Galaxy will take each potential signing on a case-by-case basis.

“We have more opportunities to get the best players though. It’s harder and harder to compete for the best talent because of the uncertainty that comes from being a professional,” said Kirovski. “We’re doing things a little bit differently than everyone else because we want to grow everyone as a professional soccer player and well-rounded people.

“Simply put, we can give something more than anyone else can give right now.”

For the time being, however, Fujii will be the only player to sling his backpack over his shoulder and head to class after a day of training as a professional, but the intelligent young midfielder knows that he won’t be the last.

“I think there will be a big movement toward these types of programs,” Fujii said. “I feel like if they’re taking care of you correctly and they’re developing you properly at such a young age, then you’re definitely going to turn out to become a better person and have a better professional career. This could be a big step forward for American soccer as a whole.”           

Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/Insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@Gmail.com.