The latest team to join USL2, Morris Elite SC, has high ambitions to do well, but also is committed to the development of the players within the club.
Last summer, USL League 2, or USL2, announced that Morris Elite Soccer Club from Madison in New Jersey would join the league for the 2021 season. Like many teams in the pre-professional league, the side has many younger players, especially those who play collegiately. USL2 provides a platform for development, and acts as a stepping stone for players to take the next step: to play professionally.
In Morris Elite SC’s first season, the team is coached by Javier Velasco. As might be expected of an expansion side, Velasco’s roster has a mix of experienced players with professional experience, and younger players who have yet to play professionally. So far, the side is winless in their first two games and will be searching for their first win this Tuesday. Like any team, Morris Elite wants to win. Still, Velasco tells FanSided that one of the goals for the first season is to “become a competitive team” and be “fun to watch”.
Ideally, Morris Elite SC would like to make the playoffs as well. While the postseason would be quite an accomplishment in their first season, if the team can reach their goal of being competitive by the end of this season then that will show a sign of development and set them up for the following season.
However, Velasco recognizes this will not be a walk in the park.
“We are a new team with players and coaches from different backgrounds and tendencies that need to adjust to this process and need to become one”, Velasco said.
On the other hand, Morris Elite’s quick rise to success as a youth soccer club makes it seem feasible that the ULS2 team can be successful. Part of the reason why is the club’s commitment to development.
Thus, it is no surprise Morris Elite joined the USL2. The league’s predominant focus is on development, and gives young non-professional players an opportunity to experience what it is like to play in a professional setting. And, this all stems from the president and founder Vincenzo Bernardo, a former player and New Jersey native.
The commitment to youth and development for Morris Elite
After deciding to retire from playing professionally, Bernardo created Morris Elite SC back in 2016. The former professional player told MLS Multiplex that he thought of creating a youth soccer club before he retired.
The club, based in the picturesque New Jersey town of Madison, is just minutes from where Bernardo grew up playing soccer in a career that took him to the United States youth national teams and to one of the biggest leagues in the world.
“The inspiration to start Morris Elite came from running soccer camps in the summer during my offseason while I was still playing”, Bernardo said in an interview last week. “I grew a passion for sharing my knowledge and experience to the youth and it led me to want to create a club in my hometown.”
Fortunately for Bernardo, his career took him to four different countries, allowing him to learn how other clubs conduct their academy systems and teams. First starting out in the MetroStars Academy, now the New York Red Bulls, he made the jump to SSC Napoli, where he spent two years in the academy system of one of Italy’s biggest clubs. That experience allowed him to soak in the knowledge of how a European team runs their academy.
He now applies that knowledge to Morris Elite SC. A framed Napoli jersey with his name on it hangs on the wall behind his desk at his office in downtown Madison, a reminder to him of the lessons learned while with the Serie A club.
Even when his journey took him to professional sides in Austria then Guatemala and finally the United States, playing for different clubs in different regions of the world allowed him to see the differences in player development, coaching and now allows him to apply the best methods for his youth teams as well as the USL2 side.
But, if there is anything that Bernardo took from his career, then it is the importance and focus on development. On Morris Elite’s website, their mission and vision make this abundantly clear. The club’s mission is to “provide exceptional support and training to our athletes with the necessary guidance to be successful in all aspects on the field and in the community”.
Then, their vision states the following:
"“Look to harness the ability of our members and provide them with the opportunities to excel both on and off the field. Our motives are to create a reputation of developing exceptional human beings while aiding those who wish to graduate onto programs of the highest caliber.”"
So, not only is Bernardo and Morris Elite looking to help develop their youth players to be the best players they can be, but they are invested into developing them off the pitch as well. The founder solidified this idea when he stated the following:
"“I want Morris elite to be a platform for our players to use to not only develop as soccer players but as good people too. Using the sport of soccer to learn valuable lessons like working with a group of people as well as pushing yourself through not so easy times are life lessons that I hope our players take with them as they grow up into adults.”"
This clearly highlights that the goals of Morris Elite for their academy are beyond soccer. Yes, Bernardo would like to see his players find success. More importantly, he wants them to develop the skills that will help them in any part of life. Evidently, the club is more than just a sporting organization. Rather, it is a community filled with support, guidance, and care. One cannot help but admire the aspirations Morris Elite has for the academy beyond the game.
USL2 and development
Of course, Morris Elite SC wants to develop their youth players, and having the USL2 side aids tremendously. The USL is about development and offers teams to have a USL academy side and a pre-academy side. These teams will be made up of older youth players, mainly at the high school age. Morris Elite then has pre-USL academy teams for their younger players who will continue to participate in leagues like the Super Y League and Elite Development Program.
Hence, having a USL2 academy side allows for another step of development, and thefore increased competition. Playing at a higher level and increased competition can encourage youth to work harder at their craft, and make their ways from the pre- USL academy teams, to the academy team, and then to the USL2 team. Having this pipeline offers a route for players to hopefully make the step to eventually signing a professional contract.
Being a part of the league also offers more resources to put toward the club as a whole, which can again aid in developing young players. It also can further Bernardo’s dream of having “a service unlike any other youth soccer club in the area”. Nonetheless, having a top academy is not where the former player’s aspirations end. Additionally, he wants the USL2 team to be a top side. This is what he wants for the club over the next few years:
"“The goal is always to learn and be better every single day. I want Morris Elite to compete on a national stage and display a good style of soccer on the field which hopefully leads to one day winning a USL2 championship.”"
Yet, the heart of Morris Elite lies with development, and that is the same for the senior team. Many collegiate and younger players are on the USL2 roster, and Colgate University sophomore Will Bugliari, who recently signed with the team, sees the side as an opportunity.
“Now, as a Division 1 player trying to develop over the summer, the opportunity to play for Morris Elite is a dream scenario,” Bugliari said.
Not only do these younger players get an opportunity to continue their development, but Velasco sees it as an opportunity “to be seen by MLS, USL Championship and International scouts”. Again, USL2 is seen as a league for youth development and the hope is that many players will move onto professional sides.
The idea is that, in soccer-rich north Jersey, future stars will be able to start at Morris Elite SC at a young age and eventually work their way up to the USL2 side and compete against top players. The opportunity to train alongside seasoned professionals – Morris Elite boasts the likes of former United States national team midfielder Danny Szetela and current internationals for nations such as Liberia, Belize and Puerto Rico – can provide immense opportunities for young talent in New Jersey to learn, grow and develop.
It is the opportunity to stay home and grow into a future MLS player.
Bernardo, now 31-years old, wants to turn Morris Elite SC into a top USL2 side and have one of the best academies in the United States. He wants to create opportunities in north Jersey that he never had. The hope, he says, is that the next Vincenzo Bernardo to come out of north Jersey will have a pathway to development starting at the youth level.