BELL GARDENS, Calif. – MLS Sueño's finalists were given a good look at the standard they're expected to meet in the first of two matches they'll play before winners are announced Sunday morning, and they learned they're not yet up to the task.
The Sueño kids struggled to hold onto or move the ball, lost nearly every duel and second ball, and were run ragged in a 3-0 loss Wednesday night to Chivas USA Academy's U-16 team in an hour-long encounter at the Bell Gardens Sports Complex.
"I saw something I think is positive," said MLS director of player programs Alfonso Mondelo, the chief coach working with the 18 Sueño finalists – 15 field players and three goalkeepers, ages 14-17 – selected in tryouts by the Colorado Rapids, LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls. "I think the MLS academies are getting better, and that you can't just take a group of kids, throw them together and compete, where a couple years ago we would do that, and they would give them a game.
"Actually, the difference [between] these kids that are training as young pros is a big step for these [Sueño] kids. The speed of play, the precision of play, the way the Chivas team worked as a group is something these kids are not used to, and it took them by surprise."
There was plenty against them. They were in a brutally hot and dry environment whipped by the Santa Ana winds, had trained together just twice, and a good number were playing away from their favored position, a must on a roster stacked with defenders and midfielders.
The Chivas team was strong all over the field and played at a pace and intensity overpowered their foes.
"They were animals," said Ronaldo Yepes, 16, a forward from North Bergen, N.J. "Like, that's the only thing I could say right now: They were animals, and then we were kind of scared. ... I don't even have words to explain the way I feel right now. Because I don't like to lose, and we're not losers, so then we've got to show we know how to play."
Mondelo said he "asked them today, 'Do you think any of you guys could have been able to take anybody's spot on the other team?' And they said no. That's what [Sueño] is all about, so I think maybe it's getting to the point that we have to go younger with this program."
Andrew Mendoza scored early in each half for Chivas – the first goal, a near-post header from Leo Cuteno's cross, was as good as anything you'd see in MLS – and Jonathan Hernandez curled a free kick to the lower-left corner with eight minutes to go.
"The competition was really good out here," said Oscar Aragon, 16, a center back from Magnolia, Texas. "I think it's an honor to play against a high-level academy. I could learn a lot from them. ... [We need to] play faster, be a little more precise with our touch."
They'll get the chance on Saturday against an LA Galaxy Academy side in the main stadium at StubHub Center.
"I want to see an improvement," said Mondelo, who must depart Friday and will miss the game. "If we can see that some of these kids have stepped it up a notch in their game and their decision-making, the way they approach the game, their view of the game, the way they execute ... can they adapt to the speed of play, can they begin to show some of these [qualities] that they have, because we're asking them to meet the demands that are a little bit higher. Now that they've faced a little bit of adversity, now that they know what to expect, now can they raise the level?"