The Seattle Sounders U-17 team is the first MLS side to make the Generation adidas Cup Champions Division since the tournament’s inception in 2014.
Facing the prospect of elimination in the group stage after they lost to Valencia CF 1-0 in the first match, the young Sounders have rattled off four consecutive victories – and four clean sheets – against the Impact (1-0), Flamengo (1-0), River Plate (1-0) and West Ham United (4-0).
Seattle’s win in the semifinal against West Ham was particularly impressive, as the Rave Green not only held their own against one of England’s top academies but dominated as they grabbed four goals inside the first 25 minutes.
Center back Elias Katsaros celebrates his goal against West Ham
“In many ways it was quite an emphatic victory,” said Sounders FC Director of Player Development and Academy Director Marc Nicholls. “We were pretty ruthless with our finishing, and the group has the capability of dominating stretches of a match, where they can blitz the opponent. We hadn’t quite been able to do that in the previous games, which leaves you hanging on a bit at times. But when they take their chances like they did yesterday, you can almost win the game in a 15-minute spell.”
The roots of Seattle’s success in the 2019 Champions Division can be traced back to 2016, when the U-17s brought along a raft of youngsters from the U-15s to GA Cup qualifying.
Future pros like Danny Robles, Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez, Ray Serrano and Josh Atencio all played above their age group, turning plenty of heads as they narrowly missed out on a spot in the Premier Division quarterfinals to eventual champions New York City FC, who advanced on goal-difference.
That same core of youngsters went on to lead the Sounders U-17s to the 2018 GA Cup Premier Division title, where another set of U-15 standouts – Danny Leyva, Eric Kinzner and Sota Kitahara – played up an age group.
Those seven players, with years of experience playing above their age group at GA Cup, have been instrumental in Seattle reaching the 2019 Champions Division final.
So, when Seattle entered halftime up 4-0 against West Ham, the coaching staff decided to bring on two bright prospects from the U-15s – Oscar Rincon, a 2004, and Reed Baker-Whiting, a 2005 – to give them a taste of competing against the world’s best and brightest, thus paving the way for future success on the international stage.
“We wanted to reward Reed and Oscar,” said Nicholls. “A big part of what we’ve done, and how we’re here in the first place, is we’ve enabled young players to get samples of important experiences. So, there was no hesitation yesterday in putting on Reed and Oscar. I thought Oscar defended really well and was quite savvy with his movement, and Reed took up brilliant spaces.”
Seattle’s opponent in the final, Valencia, offers a chance at redemption for the young Sounders. They were disappointed with their performance in the opening match, as they strayed away from their identity and didn’t live up to the lofty standards they’ve set for themselves.
“This gives us additional motivation, not that you should need that for a final,” said Nicholls. “But more importantly, we didn’t do ourselves justice in that first game. We were very poor. So, for me, it’s more about, let’s see how the game goes like when we perform like we’ve shown we can. I think it has the potential to be a thrilling final. It’s two excellent teams. It’s a pleasure to be part of it, but we might as well go and win it now.”
By virtue of making the final, they’ve already accomplished more than any MLS academy in the tournament’s history. And with years of experience taking on the world’s best academies – they’ve enjoyed success at Youdan Trophy, Man City Cup, ICC Future’s Tournament and the USSDA Playoffs – they’re ready to rise to the occasion.
The GA Cup Champions Division final takes place on Saturday, April 20 at 4 p.m. PT. You can live-stream the match here.