BELL GARDENS, Calif. – The 15 Sueño MLS survivors and three candidates for the Portero Allstate goalkeeping honor got their first taste of Academy competition on Thursday evening, falling 2-0 to Chivas USA’s Under-16 side. While the match didn’t go as well as they’d hoped, it did give the evaluators who will decide this year’s honors plenty to consider.
That's not good news for all.
“About eight of them eliminated themselves,” former US national team and MLS star Eric Wynalda, one of the Sueño MLS coaches, said following the 75-minute match at Bell Gardens Sports Center. “I already told two of them, 'You have no chance of winning, so just go out and give all you have.' ”
That might be tough to hear for a 14- to 17-year-old player striving for the opportunity to join an MLS Academy and, perhaps one day, make it to the league like Portland Timbers defender Jorge Villafaña, winner of the first Sueño MLS in 2007.
But the flip side to the dreams of these players – finalists from massive tryouts in Orlando, Chicago and Southern California – is that it's tougher now than ever before to find players from Sueño who can fit into the Academy system.
And that's not a bad thing.
“It's hard to judge year after year, but I think maybe the [Sueño] talent pool is dwindling,” said MLS director of player programs Alfonso Mondelo, who heads the Sueño MLS coaching staff, which also features former Mexican national-teamers Pavel Pardo and Martin Zuniga. “I think maybe the Academies are doing a better job of finding these players and pulling them up. There's less of a chance of finding that diamond in the rough that you did maybe eight years ago, when we found Villafaña or some other players that have come through this program.
“That's a natural progression of the game, and I think our scouting network and our ability to identify these players is getting better. I think it is great news. I think it's showing the progress the game is making in our country.”
That might be some sort of consolation to those who won't make it through this final week of competition – the Portero Allstate winner and three finalists will be announced Sunday on Univision's Republica Deportiva, with the Sueño winner announced on the following week's telecast – but the latter part of Wynalda's message, to keep pushing, is essential.
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There are several players among the 18 who, regardless of whether or not they win, could be worth an investment. A few made strong impressions in a challenging encounter – the Sueño roster had never played together in a match – against a team with 10 players who have been called into US youth national teams.
“You can't really expect them to look like a team after 24 hours, but I think they made the most of today,” Wynalda said. “We hit the post twice, and we threw a lot of risk into the last part of the game, which was actually the best we played, because we said: 'You know what? Let's go for it.' And we saw some personality come out of these kids. That's all you can ask for at this point.”
Baltazar Duran, a 15-year-old midfielder from Chicago, made the biggest impression while playing mostly out of position, as a left back. His runs forward tested Chivas USA’s defenders, he nearly scored twice, and one run past six defenders in the first of three 25-minute periods might have been the moment of the match.
He was passive at first, and then Wynalda told him to surge forward at every opportunity, to “show us what you're all about.”
“We just risked it,” Wynalda told Duran afterward. “Instead of you worrying about them, they spent the rest of the half worrying about you. Every time you went, they were on their heels.”
Two players out of the LA Galaxy's tryouts three weeks ago in Bell Gardens – midfielders Miguel Acosta, 16, of San Diego and Ariel Gracida, 14, of Garden Grove, Calif. – have caught the coaches' eyes, and they also like Luis Angel Arreola, a 16-year-old forward from Wheeling, Ill.
Arreola “showed something in training [Thursday] morning,” Mondelo said. “He's very composed for a big, tall boy. He has good foot skills, and he understands the game.”
Unfortunately, Arreola had to exit the match with a possible concussion after hitting heads with a Chivas player. Oscar Padilla, a 14-year-old defender from Indianapolis, also saw his time cut short after suffering a shin contusion. He's expected to be able to play in Saturday afternoon's game against an LA Galaxy Academy team in the stadium at StubHub Center.
Orlando Lopez and Leonides Cuteño scored for Chivas USA, both from Danny Villegas feeds, and goalkeeper Eduardo Muñoz, 16, of Lafayette, Ind., kept out a potential third, parrying an Alex Mendez rocket over the crossbar.
More will be expected of the Sueño group on Saturday.
“I saw a bunch of kids who were probably stars of their own teams [at home], some of their best players, facing some real competition and their weaknesses getting exposed, but it's an exercise,” Mondelo said. “They're getting to know each other; we're getting to know them. It's only one day that they've been here.
“It's always strange being thrown together – it's not an easy exercise – but you can see some individual characteristics, some guys who stand out a little bit, and we're looking for potential. That's what we're looking for.”