CASA GRANDE, Ariz. — As a freshman at Viewmont High last year, Lucas Cawley was arguably the best soccer player in the state of Utah.
A month into what should be his sophomore season, however, you won't find Cawley anchoring down the Vikes' midfield. Instead, the 16-year-old is chasing his soccer dreams at the RSL-Arizona Academy.
There's no place he'd rather be.
"It's been crazy, but it's been good. It's great for soccer; you're down there playing every day," said Cawley, who lives in the dorms in Casa Grande, Ariz., along with 70 other soccer hopefuls.
Cawley dreams of being a professional soccer player someday, and playing for his hometown MLS academy was the logical next step for a player who's thrived at every level.
That's been no different in Arizona. The RSL-Arizona Academy is divided into two teams, an under-18 team and an under-16 team. Cawley is a regular fixture at right midfield for the U-16 team, starting 12 of 18 matches this season in the U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy league.
Even though he hasn't scored yet, Cawley has been instrumental in leading RSL to an impressive 13-4-2 record.
It hasn't been without sacrifices, as he's given up a huge part of his social life.
"You've got to want it, you've got to be ready to sacrifice parties, the social life, to dedicate yourself to something you want," said Cawley.
For all students at the Academy, they're bused to one of two schools in the area — and for Cawley, it's Vista Grande High School. After school at 3 p.m., the players head back to the dorms and study before the U-18 players practice at 5 p.m. and then the U-16s practice at 6:30 p.m.
On the weekends, the teams play games against top-notch academy and club teams in the Southwest region, primarily California teams — including the L.A. Galaxy and Chivas USA academy teams.
Only 18 of roughly 30 kids dress for each game, so the competition for roster spots is intense, not to mention the competition to start.
"What really makes the competition even in practice set apart is, everybody is striving to be a pro someday, so everybody's trying to work harder than you and get better and play better than you," said Cawley.
Cawley is one of three Utah players at the RSL-Arizona Academy. The other two are senior Maikon Orrellana (Provo HS) and junior Noah Jackson (Timpview HS).
The odds that any of the RSL-Arizona Academy kids sign a pro contract someday are very, very slim.
"The reality is that two or three kids will make it," said RSL general manager Garth Lagerwey, who said it's an even more uphill battle from there.
"If you're the absolute best player at both age groups in the Academy, then I would say you have a chance one day to be an RSL player. The reality is, when you graduate from the Academy you're probably still a couple years away from being able to play in the pros," said Lagerwey.
College is the more realistic route for the Academy kids, which some would say is a better route anyway. Roughly 15 kids from the RSL-Arizona Academy senior class and another 15 from the junior class have already received college scholarships.
Based on Major League Soccer's homegrown player rules, RSL has the right of first refusal on all of its Academy kids, even if they play college soccer.
In a perfect world, a decade or two from now, most of RSL's new players each year will come from the Academy instead of the coaching staff scouring the globe buying foreign players.
Cawley, who was invited to participate in the Real Madrid Select Camp in Madrid last summer, believes the academies will change the future of American soccer.
"From 10 to 16 I think Americans are right there even with the rest of the world in soccer. These academies are where the rest of the world takes a leap over American soccer. RSL is a place where it's going to develop players on a full-time training basis. It's definitely going to take American soccer to the next level," said Cawley.
Cawley hopes to be part of the first generation that closes the gap.
"I want to be a pro someday. Of course college is great. It's a dream to play for my hometown first team and get to sign as a homegrown player," said Cawley.