Receiving an education while training professionally is a blessing that many young adults don’t have a chance to receive.
The University Degrees Abroad Soccer Academy is a program that provides opportunities for college students to receive an education and receive professional soccer coaching and development in order to get to the next level of the sport.
Through contacts and a lot of decision-making, UDA found its way to New Mexico State University last fall.
UDA professional director Jeff Thompson believes this program provides many benefits to students. “I would describe UDA as changing lives through education. This is what our mission statement is,” Thompson said.
Thompson said this academy was founded first in 2018 at the University of Chester in the U.K., where young athletes would develop their skills to hopefully become pros in the future.
The program began when American kids would go overseas to England to experience university life and see what training looked like to become a professional soccer player, Thompson said.
UDA also has found its way to two other locations. One at the University of Gloucestershire in England, and another at Menaul School in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Athletes from all around the world have made their way to Las Cruces to receive an education and train like professionals.
Darios Masha moved to the United States from Tanzania. “Playing with the program you learn new things,” Masha said. “You get different playing styles from different people all around the world.”
The program’s diverse and international team members play a huge role in the young players’ success. Capable of seeing different styles of play and personality really brings the team together, Thompson said.
Eric Gomez, who is from San Sebastián, Spain, described what brought him to UDA. “I was playing in Denver, Colorado, and I had a friend who told me about everything they had going on here, and I just really liked it down here.”
The club plays year-round in the United Premier Soccer League, which is a high-level, semi-professional development league based mostly in the United States. The league consists of around 300 clubs that all compete in different conferences. The UDA is part of the Southwest Conference, which comprises teams from Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Texas. The season runs from March to October, with a pre-season in February.
Head coach Tahlon Drake described the benefits of playing with UDA. “At the collegiate level you only play four months out of the year. Here at UDA you play 10 and a half months a year,” Drake said.
Drake said the UDA does not operate under NCAA rules, so the team has the freedom to play all year round. This is a big reason why many kids choose UDA over offers from different universities.
“We have three kids coming from Mexico. They chose this over other universities because we do play all year round,” Drake said. “They wanted that fully integrated college experience, also with that fully professional development style.”
Drake said players who are part of the program for four years get to experience 40 months of soccer. By contrast, the normal collegiate experience provides players with approximately 17 months of experience.
Training five days a week and playing games on the weekends gives great insight into what being a professional soccer player is like. According to Drake, the program shows how hard you must work to make your dream a reality.
UDA targets players from an age range of 18-21, who then compete against other players who are much older than the squad. “They’re playing against guys that are all older, bigger, faster and stronger than these guys,” Thompson said. “It’s always good to play up in that level.”
Thompson said they’ve been contacted by other universities about the program to possibly explore this type of concept.
“We’ve seen a lot of men’s soccer programs get cut,” Thompson said. “This is kinda like the best of both worlds for a university, with a team participating at a pretty high level, and something [the university] doesn’t have to fund.”
All players go to either NMSU or Doña Ana Community College and receive a great education while playing a sport they have been in love with since their childhood, according to Thompson.
“Having the opportunity to bring those guys through DACC — they can do two years of general ed classes, then through the Aggie pathway they can step into NMSU,” Thompson said.