It wasn't random circumstance that the 31-year-old English star was in town kicking it around. Milner was the center of attention Tuesday because Liverpool is expanding its footprint worldwide, and of all places, it has chosen Salt Lake City.
The Liverpool Football Club International Academy Utah (LFC Utah) is on its way to state, headed by Utah businessman and lifelong Liverpool supporter Wayne Scholes.
And as Milner played soccer just across the street from Rio Tinto Stadium, it raises the question: What does this mean for RSL? The search for talent has suddenly stiffened in this market. Do clubs the size of Liverpool step on the toes of the local guys?
If you're driving in either direction along I-15 where Salt Lake County and Utah County merge, it's hard to miss the massive building out west. The roof, aptly a claret red, sticks out, nestled at the foot of the Oquirrhs in Herriman.
That's where the future of Real Salt Lake resides.
The estimated $60 million soccer complex will not only house the first team and its USL affiliate Real Monarchs, but just as importantly will serve as the club's primary residential academy. Since 2010, RSL's academy partnered with Grande Sports World in Casa Grande, Ariz. Located 45 minutes south of Phoenix's sprawl, the place became synonymous with churning out professional and Division 1 soccer players.
RSL's owner, Dell Loy Hansen, believes that in order for his franchise to build for the future it must eventually bring all of its elements under one roof, so to speak.
So when RSL made its intentions clear that it was going to relocate its academy to Herriman, Ronald Burks and his staff went to work. Last week, Grande Sports World and the Grande Sports Academy announced that it would be without a tenant no longer.
The new occupant? Barcelona. Yeah, that Barcelona.
Burks, the CEO of Grande Sports World, expects to cast a wider net in search of top-flight prospects without the strict geographical regulations of MLS academy set-ups.
"I think we'll attract even more talented kids," he said.
Inside the offices just west of the Salt Lake City International Airport, everything is decked out in Liverpool colors and mementos. Chairs, picture frames, windows, everything. On one wall reads a quote from former manager Bill Shankly:
"You must believe you are the best and then make sure that you are."
At the desk inside what is called the coach's room, where LFC Utah coaches will be able to chat live with academy coaches back in Liverpool, Scholes explains how this far-fetched dream came to be. It took a year of talking, he said, before any agreement became remotely close.
Eight months ago, Scholes received the phone call. LFC Utah was to become reality.
"You've got to be able to show them a vision for what you're going to build because they want to know ultimately, 'Are you going to mirror what we're doing here in Liverpool?'" Scholes said.
Meanwhile, the newly named "Barca Academy" is looking to replicate one of the world's most famous youth soccer institutions in the West, too.
The new academy in Casa Grande will be Barcelona's only official full-time youth residency academy in the world outside of Barcelona's renowned academy "La Masia" in Spain. Barcelona is relocating a technical director as well as a director of "methodology" from La Masia to live full time on campus in Arizona.
It will feature Arizona State's preparatory academy, ASU prep, on campus.
Grande Sports Academy will train and teach players, boys and girls, from 12 to 19, who will compete in U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USSDA), which also features 70 other clubs around the country. RSL's U-16 academy team, which features current first-teamers like Brooks Lennon, Justen Glad, Sebastian Saucedo and Jose Hernandez, won the USSDA title in 2013.
"You can talk to any knowledgeable person in soccer and you can say the words 'Casa Grande,' and they know exactly what you're talking about," Burks said.
The Barcelona way gets underway officially on Aug. 1.
RSL's academy, since named Zions Bank Real Academy, is expected to be moved into its spiffy new digs by the end of August where an in-house charter school of its own is already accepting applicants.
"We want to baptize them many times in a Real legacy," Hansen said.
One of the last frontiers MLS must conquer are established youth pipelines, and nobody knows this more than Martin Vasquez. The director of soccer operations of RSL's academy has seen first-hand the leaps and bounds made in the U.S. in recent years, but said powerhouse countries worldwide such as Spain, France, Germany, Argentina, Brazil and the Netherlands are the standard the U.S. must aspire to meet and soon.
Vasquez recently returned from a 12-day trip in France and Spain as part of an MLS initiative for academy directors around the league to scope out how day-to-day operations are run at clubs such as Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Monaco and Marseille.
"I don't think we're far from it," he said. "With our facilities that are being built, we will have some of the best facilities, not only in the MLS, but around the world."
Does Hansen's Herriman project help stave off big-name clubs such as Barcelona or Liverpool in RSL's own backyard?
"That creates competition. That creates interest," Vasquez said. "What we want to do is stay focused with what we're doing. We will see. If these international teams or foreign teams come to the U.S., if they can provide that, then great."
What is there to make of the sudden interest?
RSL general manager Craig Waibel said teams the size of Barcelona or Liverpool simply have the means to build their brand worldwide.
"We're still building and set to offer an experience of development both on the field and off the field, both in terms of an educational standpoint and a soccer standpoint, that would rival from a facility standpoint, top 10, top 20, in the world," he said. "There's no intimidation from these clubs. And to be honest, I've never been contacted by anyone from Barcelona or Liverpool to say, 'We're coming in to compete with you.'"
Roots don't grow overnight. Waibel knows that.
Soccer clubs often don't encounter the same laws in the U.S. as they do worldwide, he added. The wizard of worldwide soccer, Barcelona's Lionel Messi, signed with the club at age 13. Some stars have signed at younger ages.
"This is a business, and the reason these guys are getting their brand over here is to expand their business," Waibel said. "The model in America is so different that each one is remarkably complex to try and speculate on."
Wayne Scholes was in attendance at RSL's inaugural home game in 2005 at Rice-Eccles Stadium. He's Liverpool through-and-through, but said he roots for RSL any chance he gets. And he understands the odds facing academy players anywhere. Just 1 percent of Liverpool's academy players make it to the first team.
"I think this is a great opportunity for RSL to be able to look at an academy that has similar standards that they do," Scholes said. "The more we focus on excellence in our state, the better our players will be and the better that is for everybody. I look at RSL and think we'd love to complement what they're doing."
LFC Utah coaches will attend 1-to-2-week training courses in Liverpool, Scholes said. The program plans to have 55 teams from the U-6 to U-19 level. Scholes said the first portion of the academy is slated to get running in 12 months in St. George. If all goes according to plan, a Salt Lake chapter will open six months later.
RSL doesn't view Barcelona moving into its former academy or Liverpool planting a developmental flag in the Salt Lake Valley as a threat. Vasquez, a former U.S. national team assistant coach, said the sport, above all else, remains a business.
"[America is] definitely an untapped resource," Milner said. "It's a win-win for everyone. The academy is there to give the kids an opportunity and maybe play under more qualified coaches than they would normally."
Hansen's ambition doesn't wane when discussing his Herriman complex, what he believes it will accomplish for his franchise or what kind of player RSL might unearth. At the microphone stand last April, he said without pause, "We're looking for that Herriman Messi."
He added: "If I can recruit one Messi in 10 years, it's probably worth the money."
Giants at the doorstep
• FC Barcelona announces an agreement to take over for RSL at Grande Sports World in Casa Grande, Ariz.
• Liverpool Football Club International Academy Utah (LFC Utah) launches Tuesday.
• According to the Barca Academy brochure, Grande Sports Academy has had every student-athlete receive a college scholarship offer or sign a professional contract
• 33 professional signings (12 with RSL)
• 131 college scholarship offers
• 68 players called up to youth and senior national teams from 14 different countries
• The academy is expected to have 55 teams from U-6 to U-19 levels in St. George, Salt Lake City and potentially Provo. It is expected to get up and running in 12 months.
• Expected to move its academy north from Arizona to Herriman in August.