For Gabriel Gonzalez and Phillie Villapudua, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ visit to the United States has been a preseason tour like no other. These two Arizona natives have been given a chance to show their skills off to the academy coaches at one of the Premier League’s top clubs.
Gonzalez and Villapudua joined up with Wolves’ Under-21 squad in Salt Lake City on Monday, taking part in the team’s preparation for the MLS Next Pro Invitational ahead of their opening game against Chelsea U21s at Zions Bank Stadium.
“It’s a unique experience that many don’t get to have,” says 18-year-old Villapudua. “I’m just thankful I got this opportunity with Gabi. We’re both from Phoenix, there’s a lot of good players here and we’ve just been dreaming of opportunities like this since we were young.”
The two were finalists in the Wolves academy’s Golden Chance program, a first of its kind in the United States that brought 70 players from the Arizona region (with particular emphasis on the greater Phoenix area) to train and play under the watchful eye of some of the club’s best coaches. Aged from 16 to 21, the unsigned talents gathered at FBSL Tuzos to work with academy coaches, elite player development manager Darren Ryan and international projects manager Joe Hunt.
Villapudua and Gonzalez, 20, shone the brightest of what the latter describes as “family.” Reflecting on his time so far with Wolves U21s, Gonzalez said it had been “a wonderful experience training but a tough one.”
He added: “Once you get adapted into it you start finding your rhythm, locking in the game.”
FBSL Tuzos is one of the more successful clubs in Phoenix, winning three national championships and 20 Arizona state championships. The club, which is entirely run by volunteers, allows around 1,700 players aged five to 19 to participate in competitive games and has developed talent including Liga MX defender Ventura Alvarado.
Club president Jesse Cedena said of the program: “It is incredible for our club to partner with Wolves. We believe every child should be able to play top level club soccer, regardless of their financial situation. Wolves can help us find the best ways to develop our kids, teams and leagues, while continuing the FBSL Tuzos mission — we share the philosophy that soccer is for everyone.”
This is the second staging of Wolves’ Golden Chance program. In 2019 Hong Kong youngsters Loong Tsz Hin and Tang Tsz Shing were selected to spend four weeks at the Compton Park training ground.