Playing in a World Cup is a dream shared by billions of people around the globe. If there were a perfect formula to get there, it would be followed like Scripture.
The latest rosters for the Austin FC Academy were announced Monday, and they include 54 hearts and minds who hope to one day share their gifts with the world.
"Our dream is that hopefully one day one of these kids plays in the 2026 World Cup, which will be hosted here," Austin FC Academy technical director Juan Delgado said, referring to the tournament that will be held in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
By then, most of the players will be closing in on 20 years old. Right now, they are precocious middle schoolers in the under-13, U-14 and U-15 age groups — born in 2006, 2007 and 2008.
"We think Austin is a hotbed of youth soccer, and we’re really looking forward to working with these players," academy general manager Tyson Wahl said.
From the top down, Austin FC is a club focused on creating one of the best youth programs in the country. It started the initiative last spring with a U-14 squad that now is the oldest of the three teams.
Of the 19 players who began the journey, 14 have graduated to U-15, and they are joined by a pair of prospects who symbolize a growing footprint. Aidan Lopez is a midfielder from Waco who played last season for Lonestar Soccer Club in Austin. Fabio Bravo is a forward who recently moved to Austin after playing for a club in Little Rock, Ark.
Of the club’s 54 players, 45 were at Lonestar SC before joining the Austin FC Academy. Lonestar is a dominant force on the Central Texas youth soccer scene and for years was the area’s lone entry in the now-defunct U.S. Soccer Development Academy — making it the default for many of the region’s top talents.
There are exceptions, including two players on the younger teams from the Rio Grande Valley. At U-14, midfielder Alex Salazar was scouted from the Rayados McAllen Academy, and U-13 midfielder Abner Zuniga came via Rayados Laredo Academy.
Locally, midfielder Diego Zuniga joins a pair of U-15 teammates — Juan Carillo and Noah Calvillo — to rise out of the FC Barcelona-affiliated club based in Austin. Rowen Wells (Capital City Soccer Club) and Johan Argueta Chamorro (Millennium Soccer Club) are the other Lonestar exceptions.
Players in the younger age groups were chosen from what Austin FC calls its Center of Excellence program, for which 50 to 55 of the region’s top players born in 2007 and 2008 were invited to train over a period of months and the pool was narrowed over time.
There’s also U-13 midfielder Gavin Wolff, the son of Austin FC head coach Josh Wolff, who arrives from the Atlanta United Academy. Another of Wolff’s sons, 17-year-old Tyler, remains with Atlanta and was spotted training with the first team this spring.
Wolff and sporting director Claudio Reyna have taken a special interest in the academy. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, they would often be seen at training, and even now they participate in Zoom calls with the players.
"You could totally see the kids light up and you could also see them work pretty hard in front of (Wolff and Reyna)," Wahl said. "They want to show their skills, and they get it. They know the connection between the first team, and they know who Josh Wolff is, so you could see them raise their level."
Before coming to Austin, Reyna helped shape the New York City FC youth outfit, and before that he helped formulate the Development Academy as youth technical director at U.S. Soccer. His own 17-year-old son, Gio, is making waves right now with German club Borussia Dortmund.
"Claudio has been committed to us from day one," Delgado said. "A lot of communication, sharing ideas, philosophies, experiences. As well as Josh. Josh Wolff has been very open with us, sharing the secret sauce, I would say, which is not a common thing in soccer. Sharing all the plans, all the game models. There is a huge commitment from the first team to help us out."
The next step will be opening the St. David’s Performance Center, which will house both the first team and the academy, and showing players what the life of a professional player entails.
Not all of them will make it to the peak of a World Cup or even join the professional ranks. Wahl set a goal of sending one player per age group to the first team, a sobering statistic for any youth sports participant or parent.
"We’re going to produce hopefully one player a year, but what’s going to happen with the rest?" Delgado said. "We’re going to be very focused as well on developing the human side. We want these kids to love Austin FC forever. The ones who will not make it, our dream is for them to add value to society as well through what they have learned in the club. Maybe some of them will become the next coach of the U-15s one day, or the next technical director."
For 54 families, the dream of World Cup glory is alive. It’s something for which everyone at Austin FC is striving.
"Every time we put together a training session or we’re having a meeting or sending an email, it’s serving this big goal," Delgado said.