Soccer can be a cruel and unjust game, and it can also transform lives.
So it was at Swope Soccer Village in Kansas City on Tuesday night, where the championship finals of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy, the top youth competition in the United States and Canada, unfolded.
Odds are you’ve heard plenty about Major League Soccer’s massive investments in developing young talent over the past few years. Youth soccer can be a wonky topic, murky and confusing for newcomers. But the maturation of the Development Academy and the increasingly professional approach taken by clubs means that it’s easier than ever to follow the process, and to watch big events like this one via the sorts of live streams that the federation provided over the past few days.
NYCFC prospect Gio Reyna (right), LA Galaxy prospect Alex Mendez (left) in action Tuesday | Courtesy of NYCFC
Yet like any meaningful game at any level, myriad layers swirl under the surface.
Sometimes great teams, players and coaches do everything in their power to climb the highest summit they can reach, only to be denied by circumstances, fate or an opponent that lunges a fraction of an inch further. Such was the case for the LA Galaxy in the Under-18/19 final.
The core of this group, led by coach Brian Kleiban, has taken a simply incredible journey to reach this point, across multiple clubs, competitions and even countries. Several of the key players – names you may know by now, like Efrain Alvarez, Ulysses Llanez and Carlos Anguiano – have been guided by Kleiban for essentially the entirety of their teenage years.
They rose to prominence, in youth soccer circles at least, way back in the spring of 2012 when a YouTube video of their team at the time, Barcelona USA, went viral. Though they were only Under-11s, they showcased quality and understanding far beyond their years, dominating their opponents in a Cal South State Cup match with fluid possession play and swarming pressing on the defensive side. It was a revelation, plain and simple, to see American players that young be that good.
The core of the team soon joined the Chivas USA academy, and continued to turn heads both nationally and beyond as they produced quality soccer even in illustrious international events in Spain, Mexico and elsewhere.
When the Goats shuttered operations in 2014, Kleiban joined the LA Galaxy academy, with many of his players following suit. In the ensuing years Alvarez, Llanez and others would be spotted and called up by the US and Mexican youth national teams, and now some of them are on the cusp of – or have already begun – highly promising pro careers.
In one sense Tuesday marked the biggest and perhaps last moment of their group’s trek through the wilderness that is American youth soccer. They long ago demonstrated proof of concept. But what proof is sweeter and realer than a major trophy?
But the adversary standing in their way had plenty to play for as well. While the Galaxy were one of MLS’s earliest adopters of youth development, New York City FC are still relative newcomers; 2017-18 marks the first time they’ve fielded a U18/19 team after starting their program at the younger group groups. Two have already signed MLS Homegrown deals: James Sands and Joe Scally.
Like LA, they’re led by a highly respected coach, Matt Pilkington, the Englishman who groomed Gedion Zelalem, Jeremy Ebobisse, Carter Manley and a host of other prospects at Washington, D.C.-area side Bethesda-Olney before joining NYCFC at the dawn of their academy project. Like LA, the City squad that reached the DA final included plenty of younger kids “playing up” after proving themselves ready for bigger challenges.
Their clash in KC was about as good as a 0-0 game gets. Both sides showed technical and tactical quality on both sides of the ball, building out of the back in possession and pressing fiercely when the ball was lost. Perhaps it was alert emergency defending that kept them from finishing their chances, or tired legs from Sunday’s semifinals.
But a PK shootout was required to break the deadlock, and NYCFC held just a bit more of their nerve, goalkeeper Johan Peñaranda saving one spot kick and his teammates netting all five of theirs. Believe it or not, some on the blue side of New York stayed up late to watch, and celebrate:
It was a harsh ending for Kleiban and his boys, and a huge achievement for Pilkington & Co., who are already helping transform NYCFC from the aging unit featured in their 2015 expansion debut into one of MLS’s most dynamic young clubs.
Conversely, sometimes very good teams are badly beaten in terms of the final result. Such was the case when the reigning champions from Atlanta United were blitzed 5-1 by an impressive Seattle Sounders side in Tuesday’s U16/17 final.
ATLUTD have rapidly set a new standard for ambition at the academy level since their arrival on the scene. They won this competition last year, and have already sent a steady stream of fresh-faced talent towards Tata Martino’s MLS-leading first team. The Five Stripes’ academy is a powerhouse, built practically overnight.
Yet this day belonged to the young Cascadians who’ve built an incredible DA season – and capped a phase of stunning improvement for the entire Sounders academy, which looks to have taken a dramatic step forward over the past year or so.
Those of us who keep an eye on the youth development scene have now scribbled names like Ray Serrano and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez into our memories. Those richly-talented teenagers, already signed to the Sounders' USL team, have shown that they possess the potential to someday don Rave Green at the MLS level, and perhaps even represent the US at international level, too.
Seattle have raised their game, in part by wading into academies’ increasingly ferocious competition to recruit top youth talent from across the continent, and Tuesday provided reward for their efforts. Sounders fans fretting over their graying and increasingly grizzled first-team roster may wish to take note.
Player development, not scorelines and standings, is supposed to be the prime criteria for rating youth programs, so take team results with a grain of salt. But the environments that consistently nurture future pros often foster collective successes as well. The best moments of Tuesday’s games offered hope for those seeking growth in the youth game as a means to bigger and better things for club and country in the US and Canada.
The kids in our system are harbingers of what’s to come, on multiple levels. If you’re not paying attention yet, now is a good time to start.