By Ryan Maquiñana
Special to the Examiner
From Manchester to Mexico City, youth academy soccer players around the world dream of climbing the ladder and earning promotion to their club’s first team.
The San Francisco Glens made history this week by signing three players from their own SF Glens Evolution youth academy (SFGE) —Xander Sagatelyan, Kevin Estrada, and Diego Grande — to their first team in USL League Two.
The trio, which are still in high school and had been training with the first team the past month, will be promoted from the Under-16 Celtic Academy team coached by Javier Ayala-Hil.
“I’ve been training the three of them now in our academy for a little less than a year,” said Ayala-Hil, who will also be their coach on the Glens’ first team. “Our [U16 team] has been growing a lot together, and the three of them have done so individually. They’re buying into the culture we’ve been building. I’m fortunate that I also coach the first team and I can give them the chance to prove themselves.”
Glens team president Mike McNeill was in accord.
“It’s a proud day for the club and myself to see our youth players get this opportunity. This is the reason behind why we added a USL League Two team to complete our pathway pyramid,” said McNeill, who also runs the Glens’ Celtic Academy. “As the only club in San Francisco with a direct pipeline to this level, we’re fortunate to have a board of directors that is forward-thinking and shares this vision.
“These boys have grown up playing here in San Francisco and are a huge part of the youth scene in The City. I’ve coached these boys personally and know firsthand how driven they are, constantly seeking additional training opportunities, working out on their own, putting in the work on days off. This will be an incredibly challenging experience for each one of them, but one where they will learn and grow exponentially.”
The club broke the news to the players by enlisting the services of Glens first-year technical director Jimmy Conrad. The former U.S. Men’s National Team captain and 2005 Major League Soccer Defender of the Year surprised the trio on the phone and captured their reactions on video in real-time, which recently aired on the Glens’ social media accounts.
“I’m absolutely buzzing to be able to make these calls, and to be a part of something where we’re giving youth players the opportunity to take steps and move up the ladder,” Conrad said. “That was a big reason why I joined the Glens.”
Sagatelyan, who attends Lowell High School in San Francisco, has anchored the back line for the academy’s NPL Champions League team for several years.
“Making the USL League Two first team is a journey that I have been striving for since the Glens announced they were having one last year,” Sagatelyan said. “To be a part of this now is surreal. The Glens are doing something really special because they’re giving their youth players a huge goal to reach for.”
Grande, a versatile winger and midfielder at the academy, was a vital part of the team’s ascension to the Champions League. He was also a key contributor in Sacred Heart Cathedral’s run to the NorCal Division III final this past season.
“The Glens have given my teammates and me a chance that we will always remember,” Grande said. “This club is all about giving opportunities, and this is one of the biggest ones I have ever had.”
Estrada currently attends Leadership High School. The dynamic forward developed his game with Mission Chivas, as well as with local powerhouse and Glens partner club Bay City FC before joining SFGE in recent seasons. Last week, he scored two goals in a win over nationally-recognized Merced United.
“Ever since the club announced the first team, my goal was to be able to play with them,” Estrada said. “The Glens have given me that opportunity; I’m very grateful for that and won’t take it for granted.”
Despite the three players’ relative youth, Ayala-Hil feels they’ll continue to be up for the challenge against grown men. The talent pool in USL League Two mainly consists of the top Under-23 players in America, such that more than 70% of Major League Soccer SuperDraft picks are USL2 alumni.
Ayala-Hil coached four of those MLS selections last season, as the Glens became the first San Francisco-based club to have four players chosen in the same draft — Sam Junqua (first round, Houston Dynamo), Roy Boateng (first round, New York Red Bulls), Shinya Kadono (third round, D.C. United) and Sam Ebstein (fourth round, FC Dallas).
“I like being in uncomfortable situations and constantly challenge myself,” Ayala-Hil said. “I like to project that on others as well. People can say we’re doing this for marketing purposes, but that’s not the case at all. When they are ready, and they will be at some point, we will give them the opportunity to play.
“That’s what it’s all about. They’re going to grow and take this experience, and hopefully later down the line, if they make it to the highest level, they’re going to look back at this season and see that they’ve learned a lot.”
The signings are pending league and federation approval.
The Glens’ preseason schedule concludes on Saturday, April 27 at 5 p.m. when they host the San Jose Earthquakes at Skyline College. The game is part of an official Partnership in Development between the Quakes and the Glens, who became the first San Francisco club to strike such an agreement last year. San Jose will be sending a mix of reserves and Under-19 players and will be led by up-and-coming coach Eder Quintanilla. Admission will be free.
The SF Glens’ youth club, SF Glens Evolution, is holding competitive tryouts for boys and girls born between 2001-2012 starting next Saturday, April 27. Learn more at sfge.org/tryouts.