The Sounders Academy U-16s will head north of the border on Thursday to take on Vancouver Whitecaps in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy national quarterfinals. Having already faced their Cascadia rivals three times this season, the young Sounders will be well versed on the strengths and weaknesses of their opponent.
The first meeting between these two sides occurred back in October, with the Rave Green dismantling the Blue and White by a score of 3-0 behind a brace from midfielder Cam Martin and another tally from left back Connor Drought. Goalkeeper Sam Fowler earned a clean sheet on the day including saving a penalty kick just four minutes into the match.
After winning handily on the road, the young Sounders suffered two losses at home to the Whitecaps by the same 2-0 scoreline, though key players were missing from the squad in both affairs.
How They Got Here
The young Sounders advanced to the national quarterfinals by winning their group in the first round of USSDA Playoffs. In the first match, they toppled the winners of the Northeast Division, New York side BW Gottschee, by a score of 2-1 with Azriel Gonzalez and Sakari Carter providing the goals. Gonzalez scored the game-winner in the next match, a 1-0 win over the second-ranked team in the country, Sockers FC, off a defense-splitting pass from Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez. Needing only a point from the final group stage game, the boys battled New York Red Bulls to a 1-1 draw with Ocampo-Chavez heading home a Ben Huynh cross to send the Sounders through.
Ones to Watch
One key aspect of the young Sounders’ success this season has been their strength in depth. With a blend of experienced U-16s mixed in with hyper-talented prospects from the younger teams, the squad is incredibly balanced and filled to the brim with promising players. So much so, in fact, that a total of seven players in the U-16 pool have earned U.S. Youth National Team call-ups in the past year.
But if the young Sounders hope to advance to the semifinals, they’ll need Herculean performances from their center backs to keep the Vancouver forwards quiet.
Captain Khai Brisco, an intelligent and athletic defender, often initiates attacks by breaking defensive pressure on the dribble and laying the ball off to one of the midfielders, leaving the more creative players with time and space to run at a disorganized defense. Carter, who spent the second half of the season playing up on the U-18s, is a throwback defender who loves to mix it up with forwards. Look for him to get on the end of any set pieces, as he’s recorded four goals in his last 11 games for the U-16s and U-18s.
If You’re Good Enough, You’re Old Enough
One element of the U-16s’ success this season has been the stellar performances of players from the younger squads playing up. Ocampo-Chavez, for example, started the year with the U-14s and ended it as a consistent starter for the U-16s. Four more players from the U-14 squad — attacking midfielder Ray Serrano, box-to-box midfielder Josh Atencio, holding midfielder Sota Kitahara, center back Elias Katsaros and attacking midfielder Danny Robles — have all played important minutes for the U-16s.
Scouting the Opposition
The Whitecaps finished in first place in the Northwest Division and are largely comprised of players born in 2000, making them one of the oldest squads the Sounders have faced. They typically line up in a dynamic 4-4-2 with plenty of steel and grit in midfield complemented by creativity and goalscoring from the wings. But what really kills teams is their strike partnership of Jefferson Alade and Jose Hernandez.
Target forward Alade has size and athleticism in abundance, providing a physical presence up top to hold the ball up and bring teammates into the fold. He grabbed 10 goals from 21 starts in league play this season before catching fire in the playoffs and scoring three goals in three games.
Alade’s strike partner, Hernandez, operates as a goalscoring second forward who plays just in behind the target man. With an astounding 22 goals from 29 appearances, as well as four more during the USSDA playoffs group stage, his pace and innate ability to find the back of the net will provide a stern test for Seattle’s back line.
“I think it’s really exciting that we’ve sent two Academy teams to the quarterfinals for the first time. But I also think it’s important that we talk to the players and let them know that we’re a big football club, so making the quarterfinals isn’t something we should be over the moon about at the end of what we’re doing. We should be competing for national championships, just like the first team is competing for MLS Cup.” — U-16 Head Coach and Academy Coaching Director Chris Little.