CARSON, Calif. -- After being run off the field by Chivas USA's under-16 Academy side in their first encounter this week, the finalists for Sueño MLS presented by Allstate spent two days learning to become a team.
It made a world of difference, as they put in a much better performance against the LA Galaxy Academy U-16 team and wrapped up their on-field work in advance of Sunday morning's announcement of the winners on Univision's Republica Deportiva.
The "Dreamers" got off to a terrific start, connected passes, moved as a group and showed a lot of good things during the match.
"A lot of improvement," noted retired Mexican goalkeeper Martin Zuñiga, who was in charge of the Sueño team, along with former Colombian World Cup star Carlos Valderrama. "We are really, really proud of all the gusy, because they played better. You could see [how well they kept their shape].
"I think there's a lot of talent in there. We talked to them, that Sueño MLS is just the start for them. There's a lot of opportunity for them. They just need to be ready to get the chance, to get the opportunity, and I'm sure a lot of these guys are going to play professionally."
They got a look at the Academy standard in Wednesday's 3-0 loss to the Chivas team and couldn't come close, struggling to connect passes and win balls under constant pressure. This time, they were ready for their foe. They had the better of the game for the first 15 or 20 minutes, played with greater tactical understanding, and showed what difference a little confidence can have.
"We worked on a lot of things over the past week: our combination plays, our formation, how to better attack and defend as a team, and it showed," said Sueño captain Joseph Dezart, 15, from Jackson, N.J., who impressed as a holding midfielder. "Much better than Chivas. It was kind of a disaster against Chivas, but we really came together today and put up a good fight against the Galaxy."
Anthony Jimenez, 14, of Los Angeles, gave the Sueño finalists a lead in the 8th minute, taking a feed from Luis Garcia, 16, of Castaic, Calif., and tucking a shot inside the right post. The Galaxy scored against the run of play in the 17th minute, with Kevin Diaz finishing a through ball, then pulled away on goals from Jason Ballejo in the 35th and 39th minutes. Ballejo just missed a hat trick, crashing a shot off the crossbar at the start of the second half.
The effects of a Southern California heat wave, finally waning, plus five days of intense work and the massive field dimensions in StubHub Center's main stadium took a toll as the game wore on.
"This is mostly about the physical. When the body is tired, you cannot think at the same level," Zuñiga said. "This is why you start to miss a lot of passes in midfield. [The judges] are thinking about everything, not just the mistakes. Everyone did positive things, and I think there's a lot more positive things today than negatives."
The top field player and top goalkeeper will win the opportunity to play in an MLS Academy, and the players say the Sueño MLS experience has been eye-opening. Jimenez said it makes "you feel like a pro."
"It teaches me the level I need to play in if I really want to make it to the top level," Garcia said.