Off a two-lane country road in Loudoun County, where new construction seeps into farmland and jets approach Washington Dulles International Airport, one of the world’s iconic sports brands has driven a claret-and-blue stake into the fertile ground of U.S. youth soccer.
Some 4,000 miles from the grandeur of FC Barcelona’s Camp Nou Stadium, banners proclaiming the Spanish club’s American ambitions — and, in some respect, its global objectives — cling to the fences at Evergreen Sportsplex.
Images of Lionel Messi and Neymar, among others, punctuate the message: “Teaching Barca Values.”
Atop a rock-climbing wall overlooking the main field, a flag with Barcelona’s unmistakable crest flaps in the spring breeze next to U.S. colors.
On the outskirts of Leesburg, in a region bursting with soccer families, Barcelona has launched FCBEscola. “FCB” is the club’s abbreviation. “Escola” is Catalan for school.
The Washington area is among six Barcelona development programs in the United States — South Florida and Charlotte are up and running, while Austin, Chicago and San Diego are planned — and among almost 40 globally.
Barcelona sponsors dozens of week-long camps around the country and sends its star-glazed senior squad to the United States for summer friendlies. The formation of development programs, however, signifies a deeper, long-term plunge into the lucrative American market.
“We want to be the most admired, most beloved and cherished, and most global sports club in the world,” said Arno Trabesinger, an Austrian who, as Barcelona’s managing director for the Americas, oversees a Manhattan office that opened last fall.
“This is our goal. In order to reach this goal, we want to be in the U.S., the country that is number one in terms of sport, economy, entertainment. Soccer is growing over 30 years, and we want to take advantage of this situation.”
Mining rich territory
The club partnered with a sports management firm, Sporting Global, to launch the Northern Virginia soccer school. The group signed a five-year lease to operate at Evergreen, which opened in 2013 and features four synthetic fields, as well as other outdoor activities, such as ziplining.
With a technical director from Barcelona overseeing tryouts on weekends this spring, the outfit assessed players and extended invitations to enroll in the school, which will begin in earnest this fall. The age range is 6 to 18 here, 6 to 16 in other Escola locations.
Barcelona enters a local scene rich with well-established organizations, such as Bethesda Soccer Club, McLean Youth Soccer, D.C. United’s youth academy and Loudoun Soccer Club, which is based three miles from Barcelona’s Evergreen location.
“Name clubs want to get their foot in the American market,” said Keith Tabatznik, the former Georgetown University men’s coach who is the director of soccer for the McLean program. “We’re seeing more of it.”
Barcelona isn’t the only big European club attempting to make business and marketing gains in the United States: Bayern Munich opened an office in Manhattan three years ago, four blocks from the Spanish operation. Another Spanish club, Valencia, will open a full-time academy at Long Island University this year.
FCBEscola isn’t here for goodwill; it’s here to make money. Like many U.S. youth operations, it will charge for the privilege of participating. Local officials declined to specify the amount, but the cost to enroll at the Florida branch is about $2,500 for a nine-month season — comparable to other U.S. youth clubs. Players will practice three days each week and play a match on weekends.
“We definitely want to provide any player a place where they can develop,” said Juan Carlos Garcia, who relocated from Spain to serve as the technical director for the Northern Virginia school.
“If they are very good, hopefully they will get to where they are supposed to get. Our main goal here is not to get the next Messi. Messi is unique. You can’t guarantee someone is the next Messi. You can guarantee we will be supportive, and if we find an amazing player, that’s great.”
FCBEscola’s primary mission is not to supply players to the senior team, which, in the past 12 years, has won eight Spanish La Liga titles and four UEFA Champions League trophies. That success has fueled Barcelona’s rise to No. 3 on Forbes’s list of the most valuable sports teams in the world, behind the Dallas Cowboys and Real Madrid.
For homegrown talent, Barcelona has La Masia, a youth academy that, since its formation in 1979, has become the world’s foremost soccer incubator. Nine La Masia graduates, including Andres Iniesta and Gerard Pique, were members of Spain’s World Cup championship squad in 2010.
In theory, players who thrive in FCBEscola anywhere in the world could receive an invitation to join La Masia (if they meet FIFA’s conditions for minors moving abroad).
At age 10, after thriving at a Barcelona program in Japan, Takefusa Kubo moved to Spain in 2011. Four years later, he was forced to return because Barcelona had violated FIFA eligibility rules. He’s now a successful player in the Japanese league. American Ben Lederman, who recently turned 17, has been tangled in eligibility issues since entering La Masia five years ago.
For most players and their families, the FCBEscola experience is about developing as a player and person.
Jeannette Campos of Ashburn enrolled her 12-year-old son, Eamon, who is leaving a team in Fairfax County after eight years. The Barcelona brand was “certainly a draw,” she said, “but I wouldn’t just drop my money because of brand recognition.”
The Campos family had just returned from a youth soccer tournament in Barcelona when they learned of FCBEscola coming to Northern Virginia. During the trip, she said they marveled at a Barcelona youth squad not only performing at a high level, but conducting themselves in a mature way.
“Eamon realized he is ready for a change, and he wants to continue experiencing the game he loves in new and different ways,” Jeannette Campos said. “Escola will provide that opportunity in a way that no other local club can. We don’t know if it will be better, but we do know it will be different, and that difference will be a challenge.”
‘A Barcelona environment’
Barcelona’s slogan is “mes que un club” (more than a club). And while the transcendent message carries into culture and politics — FC Barcelona has symbolized Catalan identity and independence since Francisco Franco’s nationalist reign — it’s a selling point at the youth level.
Some parents, such as Campos, want more than shooting tips.
“We will treat them exactly like a player in Spain, not only in training but the human side,” Garcia said. “They’ll be in a Barcelona environment.”
From a technical standpoint, FCBEscola hopes to attract students to the club-wide philosophy of practicing what’s widely considered the most attractive brand of soccer in the modern era: “tiki-taka,” featuring quick passing and fluid attacking.
“We hate to say tiki-taka,” Garcia said, “because it’s much more than that: position, possession, mind-set, high pressure.”
Garcia will oversee the training of coaching candidates from here and abroad in the Barcelona way of doing things.
Escola officials estimate girls will make up 30 percent of the Virginia program. Separately, Barcelona is in discussions with U.S. officials about owning a team in the National Women’s Soccer League as early as next year.
“Women’s football is a very important project for us,” Trabesinger said, “not only for our U.S. operations, but the club in general.”
Beyond the brand, colors and values, FCBEscola is connected to the Spanish mother ship by an annual gathering of international programs in Barcelona for a tournament.
This summer, Virginia pupils might have an opportunity to meet the famous players when Barcelona faces Manchester United in a preseason friendly at FedEx Field.
In the bigger picture, the organization is eager to make inroads in a soccer frontier.
“This country is very big and very strong when it comes to sports, but we have to fight for a place,” Trabesinger said. “Nobody here is waiting for European soccer clubs, but so many soccer clubs try to bring their footprint to the U.S. and last only a few years. We want to stay.”