While all eyes in Major League Soccer shift to Jeld-Wen Field where the Sounders FC will face the Portland Timbers on Sunday, some in the Seattle camp will have their attention turned towards Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
That is where the Sounders FC U-16s will play for the US Soccer Development Academy finals beginning Sunday. The U-16s won their group at the playoffs last week in Frisco, Texas, to advance to the finals. There, they will be joined by the CASL Chelsea FC Academy, Dallas Texans, LA Galaxy, North Carolina Fusion, PA Classics, Real Salt Lake AZ and Real So Cal in the finals.
The teams are split into two groups and will play a round-robin format. The winners of each of the two groups will then square off in the championship final July 16.
Sounders FC director of youth development Darren Sawatzky liked the U-16 team when they first took the field in October, but thought they would have to bond together as a group to find success. That is just what they’ve done in their 28 matches.
“This group of boys finds a way to do things together,” Sawatzky said. “From the very beginning we wondered where the goals were going to come from. There is a lot of good players, but nobody was ever a prolific goal-scorer. They’ve done it as a group. That group finds ways to win games.”
The group went 18-3-4 overall in 25 matches before the playoffs began June 25, where they won tough matchups with the Columbus Crew, Empire United and DC United to reach the finals.
Jesse Klug and Ike Crook emerged as the team’s scoring tandem, netting 13 and 11 goals, respectively. It was the contributions from the rest of the group, though, that helped carry the Sounders to incredible heights, though. Whether it was the workmanlike effort of a player like Jordan Schweitzer in the midfield, who went on to be fourth on the team with six goals, or the incredible defensive duo of Ian Lange and Michael Gallagher, they found ways to get contributions out of the whole lineup.
Because of that growth and teamwork, Sawatzky has more than just the run to the finals to be proud of.
“You have to measure the growth of the players. Their mentality and approach to the game from the start of the season to today is night and day. That to me is as big a success as any of the results we’ve had,” he said. “We always want to win, but watching the growth of young players bodes well for the team and for those kids’ futures in the club.”
The Sounders will kick off the tournament Sunday against the Dallas Texans. Their group stage matches will continue against Real So Cal on Tuesday and the LA Galaxy on Thursday. The Galaxy handed Seattle one of their three losses on the season back in October, but the Sounders were 2-0 victors over Real So Cal in January.
Sawatzky says the team will be ready to face a tough task in Milwaukee, though.
“It’s the best of the best,” he said. “There will be no easy games. You have to play at your very best and we expect to see the best out of other teams.”