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As a teenager in Slovenia, Miha Kline thought of nothing but playing soccer, and he was so good that he signed a professional contract at age 18. A decade into his pro career, he had a routine medical exam that changed his world forever when doctors found a heart defect that required immediate surgery.
“And I never set foot on a soccer field again as a player,” he said.
Now Kline is helping to prepare talented young players to reach their potential on the field but also for a life beyond soccer. He’s the director of recruiting and soccer operations of the Barça Academy, a residential program that has partnered with ASU Preparatory Academy Casa Grande High School.
The academy, which trains about 100 teenage boys, combines top-flight development with a rigorous academic program all on one campus. ASU Prep Casa Grande, which opened a year ago, and Barça Academy are both on the grounds of the Francisco Grande Hotel and Golf Resort, about 50 miles southeast of Phoenix.
The soccer school recently became an affiliate of FC Barcelona, one of the best soccer teams in the world, and is now the club’s only residential academy in the United States. That partnership likely will draw the most talented young soccer players in the country. And those teenagers now have the opportunity to attend ASU Prep Casa Grande for high school.
“Education, for us, is paramount,” Kline said. “Every player aspires to be a professional player, but the reality is it’s a tough competition and not a lot of them will make it to that highest level.
“So having that ace up their sleeve ... which is a college scholarship — and a college degree eventually — is our number one goal,” said Kline, who reassessed his life after his surgery, earning a master’s degree in the United States before becoming involved in youth soccer development.
ASU Prep Casa Grande is one of four ASU Prep locations, and like all charter schools, there is no tuition to attend. All of the ASU Prep high schools use the Cambridge International Curriculum, a rigorous college-prep program that's used around the world.
ASU Prep’s blended-learning model is critical to the success of the soccer players. Teacher instruction is combined with online coursework, with assignments done on the computer. This makes it easy for the Barça students, who frequently travel to California, Texas and Florida for games.
“It’s a lot of travel time that would sum up to about 25 missed days of school,” Kline said. “But with this platform, they don’t miss anything. They can work on the bus, where we have Wi-Fi. We have an hour each day, even on the road, to do that, so when they return to school on Monday, it’s like they haven’t missed a day.”
ASU Prep Casa Grande has 168 students in grades 9 through 12; of those, 69 are Barça players.
Barça Academy and ASU Prep work to create a balance in the daily lives of the players, who live in newly renovated dorms that were previously rooms at the resort. After breakfast, the boys attend classes, then a mandatory study hall. They begin workouts in the gym at about 4 p.m., then train on the fields until 6:30 p.m. After dinner and free time, it’s lights out at 10 p.m. Saturdays are game days and Sundays are for rest and recreation, such as hiking and movies.
“We can just wake up and just walk over to school, and afterward the fields are right here,” said Austin Amer, a senior at ASU Prep.
“Having everything on site is really nice. It’s not strictly soccer when you’re here.”
Video by Ken Fagan/ASU Now
Amer, a center midfielder on the team, is from Tampa, Florida.
“The schooling is really good, and my grades have improved tremendously since I’ve been here with the small class sizes,” he said. “I’m used to doing schoolwork online because of being homeschooled before, so I like how you can work on your own time and your own pace.”
Matthew Hoppe, a striker on the team and a high school junior, started playing soccer at age 3 at home in Yorba Linda, California.
“When they combined ASU Prep plus Barça, it was easy to make the decision to come out here,” he said. “There’s not much to do in Casa Grande, so you get a lot better at soccer and academics.”
Both boys want to become professional soccer players but will play in college if that doesn’t happen right away. The hallways of ASU Prep Casa Grande are lined with the portraits of players from previous years and their destinations. A few went on to play with Real Salt Lake, the Major League Soccer team that previously was affiliated in Casa Grande. But most went on to college — Princeton, the Air Force Academy, UCLA and Stanford among them.
Sean Mark, a biology and chemistry teacher at ASU Prep Casa Grande, said the influx of soccer players has made the school a livelier place in its second year.
“It’s exciting that we get to be the academic arm of Barça Academy because not every athlete will get the chance to play in the big leagues,” he said.
“It’s made for more interesting discussions because there are now students from different parts of the country with different perspectives.”
Mark said the school staff and the Barça staff collaborate, and the players have success coaches to help them balance all the parts of their busy lives.
“They’re 100 percent behind us to make sure the rigor and discipline is there, and they see that this is as important as the athletics.”
Top photo: Matthew Hoppe and his group scrimmage during practice at the Grande Sports Academy facilities, home of the Barça Academy and ASU Preparatory Academy in Casa Grande. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now