The Sounders FC Academy U-14s returned from San Diego, Calif., this week after finishing in third place at the prestigious Manchester City Cup.
Featuring world-class youth academies like Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, Club America and Club Tijuana, the young Sounders put on an attacking clinic with a series of impressive performances.
One of the most important aspects of player development is to test young prospects against elite competition. For the Academy staff, events such as this serve as a litmus test for the progress of player development in the Sounders organization, with respect to more established youth systems.
“We were able to play three top Academies from around the world in Club America, Man City and Tottenham,” said U-14 Head Coach Sean Henderson. “These experiences help the young guys learn so much in such a short period of time by competing against these other top academies from around the world.”
Since Sounders Academy’s goal is to be among the best youth systems in North America, matches against elite competition serve as a sort of benchmark for the club. Games against world-class opponents provide an opportunity for the staff to evaluate the strengths of the group.
“The biggest takeaway for us is that our group, and our academy, is far better than the rest of the world knows,” said Henderson. “Our players were as good or better than players that are in these other top academies.”
“We have some very good players coming through,” Henderson continued. “We scored the most goals out of any of the twelve teams in the tournament and we created a lot of chances.”
The young Sounders kicked off the tournament on a high note with a massive 3-2 victory host-side Manchester City. In the next match, they squared off against California-based Pateadores with a spot in the Semi Finals on the line. The Rave Green rose to the occasion and dismantled their opponents 5-0 with goals from Danny Robles (2), Ray Serrano (2) and Ethan Dobbelaere.
In the Semi Final against one of Liga MX’s most storied franchises, Club America, the Rave Green faced a stern test against a highly-skilled opponent.
A first-half hat-trick from striker Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, as well as a penalty kick scored by Robles, saw Seattle enter the break four-nil up. However, Club America led a spirited comeback and scored four unanswered goals. In the ensuing penalty-kick shootout, goalkeeper Jake Stone came up with two clutch saves but the young Sounders were unlucky to end up on the losing end.
After narrowly missing out on a spot in the Championship match, the Rave Green put in a heartwarming display in the third-place game against Tottenham. In an end-to-end affair with plenty of chances for both sides, Spurs looked to have won the match with a 2-1 lead entering the final minute of regulation. Needing to score to send the match to penalties, midfielder Josh Atencio provided the late-game heroics with a powerful headed goal from a corner kick in the dying seconds of the match.
The match went to PKs, and the young Sounders avenged their loss to Club America by scoring all five spot-kicks and earning a victory over Spurs.
“I think the guys more than proved that they belonged at the Manchester City Cup,” said Academy Technical Director Marc Nicholls. “This was a great event for us to learn and grow as an Academy.”
Ultimately, the goal of Sounders Academy is to develop prospects who can one day sign with the first team. Of the group that competed in the Man City Cup, six players are regulars with the U-16s, including 13-year-old defensive midfielder Sota Kitahara. Consistently playing above their own age group has accelerated the development of some of the top talents in the club, and it certainly showed in San Diego.
“Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez was probably the best striker at the tournament, Danny Robles was great as the No. 10 and Josh Atencio a holding midfielder, might’ve been the best player [on any team] in the tournament,” said Henderson. “Ethan Dobbelaere was fantastic in every game, and I think all four of those guys were as good as any player at the tournament.”
In addition to that group of players, guys like Kitahara, Serrano and center back Elias Katsaros have all impressed both within and above their own age group. So much so, in fact, that Henderson believes that this team holds a truly special place in the history of the club.
“The 2002 class (U-14s) is probably the best we’ve ever had,” said Henderson. “We’ve always had good players coming through, but in terms of the amount of players in one age group, it’s the best class we’ve ever had.”