Danny Gavin knows the best way to improve is to play with and against the best. That is why he jumped on the opportunity to play for Real Salt Lake Academy in Casa Grande.
"All the players are very well-trained," Gavin said. "The players are more crafty and smart, and more fun to play against."
Gavin, a sophomore at Desert Vista High School, has played on highly competitive teams his whole life.
"Danny has been playing since he was 6 years old," said Joe Gavin, Danny's father. "He played for the Tempe Pros, he played for Sereno. His last club before playing for RSL-AZ was SC Del Sol. He has had some of the best coaches in town."
Playing for the RSL-AZ continues to give Gavin exposure to great coaching as their staff included former Major League Soccer star Greg Vanney until he recently moved to coaching a pro team.
The Academy is run by the 2009 Major League Soccer champion team Real Salt Lake.
They combined with Grande Sports World to fund a U.S. Soccer Development Academy, known as the top boys program in the country.
RSL-AZ's match schedule cranks up in February against other professional youth academies. It plays in the SoCal Division of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Some of the other teams in the program include Real Salt Lake-CA, Chivas USA (Los Angeles), Nomads SC (San Diego), San Diego Surf and six others.
"We understand they are still teenagers, but we expose them to many of the aspects of being a professional with travel and some of the other programs the MSL-based teams provide," RSL-AZ academy director Mike Munoz said.
The team practices three days per week with the option of participating in weight training, yoga and pool therapy two days per week
According to Grande Sports World, each USDA game is scouted by U.S. Youth National Team scouts as well as being the premier location for collegiate scouts.
It goes hand-in-hand with Gavin's goals of playing collegiality and then later professionally.
"It's been one of my dreams since a little kid to become a professional player at the MLS level or even in England somewhere," said Gavin, who has been with RSL-AZ since August. "I feel that RSL gives me the best opportunity as a player to develop and become a professional soccer player."
The Gavin bloodline has professional soccer engrained in it as he has two cousins playing professional soccer.
"Danny wants to play in college and God-willing hopes to follow his cousins," his father said. "One of his cousins plays for the LA Galaxy, Michael Gavin. His other cousin, Blair Gavin, is in his second year at Chivas."
Gavin, who is forward/midfielder, attends Desert Vista, but commutes to Casa Grande to play for RSL-AZ. He did not play for Desert Vista his freshman year, which isn't uncommon as club soccer at the highest levels takes precedence over high school soccer.
Munoz said it is clear that Gavin made the right choice.
"The first thing you notice immediately about Danny is his great size, strength and speed," Munoz said. "Every day he gives you everything he has. He holds himself to a high standard, and he constantly tries to reach that standard."
Gavin, who was named to the US Soccer Region IV (West Coast) Championship All-Tournament Second-Team last season, understands the importance of competing with those equal to or better than himself.
"You don't (want to play) down (to their level), instead you raise your level to their games," Gavin said.
Munoz said Gavin - like all players in the program - had to adjust his approach when he got to the team.
"He was the man on his club team, but so was everyone here," Munoz said. "In the first month or two, he had to get used to that, but has clearly imposed himself on this team."
The individual attention Gavin has received at RSL-AZ is what he enjoys most.
"I feel like the Academy has raised my level a lot. Instead of focusing on the team, it's more about the development of the players," Gavin said.
Gavin, who participated in the US Soccer U-17 Men's National Team Mini-Camp in April 2010, decided to play for RSL-AZ after talking about it with his dad, who knew of his son's dreams as well as the prestige of the program.
"I was involved as team manager for his Olympic Development Program team and got to know all of his club coaches as well as his ODP coaches pretty well," the elder Gavin said. "All of them said the Academy program right now is the best overall program for youth soccer in the country. We were very fortunate to get an Academy team here in Arizona."
Daniel Kemp is an Arizona State University freshman majoring in journalism.