The Union youth academy teams kept busy the last weekend in November with a trip to Bradenton, Fla. for the annual Winter Showcase. After finishing up its U.S. Soccer Development Academy fall schedule against Continental FC DELCO in Conshohocken on Nov. 22, the U-16s took their second best record in USSDA play to Florida to face three of the better teams in their age bracket.
“It was a real challenge going down there this time of year,” said Union U16s head coach Jeff Cook. “I’m not a coach who likes to make excuses but the heat was difficult to handle. And you saw the substitution rules impact the guys a little bit.”
Still, there wasn’t much need for an excuse. The U16s went 2-1-0 highlighted by a pair of 2-0 wins, including one over Seattle Sounders FC. Their lone loss came against San Jose Earthquakes, 2-1, which Cook thought could be used as a good teaching point.
“It was a hard fought loss,” he said. “I thought, in some ways, we played better than the game we won against Seattle, but that’s soccer sometimes. At the U16 level, they’re still learning to play the game tactically. And we actually played with a man advantage for the last 10-15 minutes and I think we could have done better. But these are the kind of lessons you’re trying to teach them in addition to the skills, the techniques of the game. It’s learning those situations and how you play in them.”
Despite the loss, there were plenty of positives for the club. Cook and his staff have been working hard on getting the team to create more chances and to be sound in the final third. Although the amount of goals wasn’t earth-shattering, Cook was pleased with what he saw.
“Some of the quality we saw on the trip was really good,” Cook said. “From an attacking point of view, we looked threatening all the time and probably should have scored a greater percentage of our chances, but we looked really solid. Some of our attacking play was creative and we’ve been strong defensively all year.”
Coupled with two more wins in Florida, which do count toward the overall standings, the Union U16s are now 12-2-0 and in second place (out of 77) in the league. In particular, as Cook pointed out, it’s been the team’s defense that has made such great strides in the second year of the program.
After allowing two goals in three games in Florida, they’ve now allowed just eight goals in 14 games overall – a mark of 0.6 goals allowed per game which leads the league. It was also their eighth and ninth clean sheets of the season.
“We talk a lot about the culture of the team, and we’re too young really to say we’ve established a culture – I think Jim Curtin has talked about this with the first-team,” Cook said. “But you want to be able to create successful teams. Certainly defensively, and being sound, winning individual battles, pressing to win the ball back early and that last part I think is something the players have really embraced.
“We’ve talked to them about this idea of being creative and possession oriented, but if mistakes are made, you have to react immediately and try to win the ball back. And I think that, in particular, has limited other team’s chances as much as anything. We’ve certainly had good play in our backline and with our goalkeepers, but I think it’s that whole team mentality that if you lose the ball, it’s on you to get it back.”
Overall it was a successful trip that should bode well for the team heading into the spring season. After all, the team’s furthest trip of the season was to New Hampshire prior to this past weekend. And with the second round of the Generation Adidas Cup just two months away in Orlando, Fla., it was a good bonding trip for the team.
“I thought the team’s ability to handle challenges is really growing – players are maturing,” Cook said. “And playing three games in four days is not easy, it’s mentally draining. It’s what we do and we love to have these opportunities, but it is challenging and I think their ability to handle the travel, and how they represented the club off the field versus last year, they’re much more mature. I was really pleased with that.”
Although the team is officially done with games that count in the standings, they will have one more friendly before they pack up for the winter, which Cook has stressed the importance of because of the depth of the squad. Their next competitive games will be Feb. 13-16 where they’ll meet up with New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC and D.C. United in Orlando.
Contact Union writer Chris Winkler at email@example.com