It’s hard to put into words just how far the Philadelphia Union Under-16 team has come in two short years. The progress has certainly extended further than the playing field, but the easiest number to point at is the team’s overall standing.
In the 2014-15, they finished 21-3-2, averaging a ridiculous 2.5 points per game en route to being the No. 2 overall seed in the upcoming U.S. Soccer Development Academy playoffs, held in Westfield, Ind., starting Tuesday at 2:30 p.m.
“Overall, we have to be pleased with the progress of the 16s,” head coach Jeff Cook said. “I don’t think we could have anticipated the season would be so positive overall. Not only in terms of pure results, which everyone judges yourself by that – to a certain extent. But particularly since the beginning of this year, since January, it has really developed rapidly.”
In 12 games during this calendar year in USSDA play, the U16s are 9-1-2, including a 10-game unbeaten streak to start the year. The only loss came recently against New York Red Bulls, the only team in the entire country to finish with a better record than Philadelphia.
Part of that success, Cook says, can be directly correlated to the team’s performance at this year’s Generation Adidas Cup.
“One of the key things was the opportunity the G.A. Cup provided,” Cook said. “I don’t think there’s anything else I can remember doing in my career that kind of catapulted the team as quickly as that. We were exposed, over the course of eight days, to five high-quality opponents – each with unique styles. I would really complement the players to their response to that.”
It wasn’t as though G.A. Cup was a total disaster – the Union beat San Jose Earthquakes in group play, but finished third overall in Group C and thus missing the semifinals. After all, it was a last-minute winner over New York Red Bulls in the second round of qualifying in February that launched the team into the finals in late March/early April.
There the U16s were humbled a little bit, but it served as a bit of a rallying point for a club that started to play even better once they returned home.
“It’s kind of that hard thing in youth development where you’re trying to separate performance from result,” Cook said. “In the first half [of the season], we got excellent results, but I didn’t necessarily think that the quality of our play, especially in possession, was that high.”
Perhaps that’s a good sign for Cook and his squad as they could be peaking heading into the playoffs. They’ll certainly be Group F’s favorite alongside Everton FC Westchester, Houston Dynamo and Weston FC. They open Tuesday against Westchester and Cook is putting his best foot forward.
“We debated rotating players, because you do want to manage the whole thing, but we do want to get off to a good start so we’ll put our strongest available team out in the first game,” he said. “We’re not going think too much beyond that first game. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t in the back of our minds and say if we get off to a good start, maybe we can make some changes and manage minutes.”
That is an area that suits the U16s well. Just up front, the team has four extremely reliable goalscorers in Justin McMaster, Tiger Graham, Alexander Soto and Raheem Taylor-Parkes. But it’s not just at the forward positions, Cook was able to rotate just about everywhere. In total, the U16s had 21 players enter at least 11 games.
And as much as this level is about giving opportunities, Cook was adamant about how his playing time is earned, not given. And that depth should come in handy for this tournament, where they’ll have three games in four days and little margin for error if they want to advance to the quarterfinals.
And that’s where the U16s have another advantage, as they’ll participate in their third knockout tournament of the year, something Cook says has positively influenced the group. He said the experience the team earned in previous similar competitions has created a better focus this time around. It’s also an area he said all youth soccer players need to experience if they want to become professionals.
“We’ve been talking about this from a curriculum standpoint at the academy,” Cook said. “One of the things we’re trying to do is teach these guys how to become professional soccer players. One of things you have to do is navigate knockout competitions. This is group play, but it’s this mental focus you need to have control of.”
And make no mistake, this team is planning on continuing their season.
“We know that if we get through, there’s an opportunity to host a [quarterfinal] game,” Cook said. “There’s a really good energy in the group – they want to keep the season alive. I think they’d be devastated if our season ended.”
How do you feel about Union academy teams and their chances this week as they look to extend their season?
Contact Union press officer Chris Winkler at firstname.lastname@example.org.