This summer, Juventus — now featuring Cristiano Ronaldo — and Bayern Munich will face off in a preseason friendly at Lincoln Financial Field. Meanwhile, the youth teams from those superclubs will go head to head with MLS academy competition in the International Champions Cup Futures tournament in Orlando, Florida. As one of the top youth academies in the United States, Philadelphia Union was invited to send their under-14 team to measure up against the best in the world.
The Union's first match is tonight at 7:30PM EST against a regional All-Star team from Florida. Philly's finest then meet Spanish powerhouse Atletico Madrid's under-14 squad on Tuesday at 5:30PM EST. Both matches will be streamed live the Union website.
A number of high profile young talents will be part of the squad that represents the Union in Florida. Brandan Craig has been a youth US national team captain, and he'll be accompanied by Nelson Pierre and Quinn Sullivan. All three players spent considerable time with the U-15s this season, challenging themselves against bigger and stronger opponents. "Those boys have demonstrated that they're ready to go to the next level," Union Academy Director Tommy Wilson said. "But the group overall, when Kevin Coleman took them at the start of the year, we went to the showcase in West Virginia, and they performed extremely well. They played against Atlanta and New York City, and they were excellent. So I'm hoping that they can take the good form from the year to this end of season event."
This is the first time the ICC Cup has included a youth tournament component. Organizers wanted to be able to both challenge the youth squads from clubs visiting the United States and show off the best domestic academies to those outside the country.
"When I was at [Scottish Premier League club] Rangers, we used to go to these events all the time," Wilson said. "What it did was it prepared our young boys for competition. When our young players made the step into Champions League and they looked across the halfway line to Manchester United player or a Barcelona player, they had played them as youths. So it wasn't like 'We're gonna lose 8-0 here...'
"It was like, 'I remember we beat them,' because, invariably, we were competitive. So I think our young players need to get used to not being intimidated when they go into certain environments. When they step onto the field at Talen Energy and there's 20,000 there, they need to be ready for that."
As Philadelphia's academy grows in prominence and begins pumping out first-team ready talent, Wilson knows those young players will need to step into big competitions without batting an eye.
"We were in the Generation Adidas Cup in Dallas," he remembers. "And Montreal [Impact] were staying in the same hotel as our players, and [Chelsea and Ivory Coast legend] Didier Drogba was there. And our boys... you thought Madonna had walked into the hotel. They were starstruck. And I said to them: 'Guys, one or two of you are going to be playing against him soon.
"Now, it's not him: It's Ibrahimovic or whoever, Jozy Altidore. But [Mark] McKenzie and [Auston] Trusty? Two years on, they are doing it."
Former Philadelphia Union players Fred da Silva and Ryan Richter will lead the U-14 squad to Orlando. Both men are former Union players and are still in the early stages of their coaching careers, so taking their charges on the road to face tough competition will be a chance to grow for them as well. "Ryan and Fred are both desperate to learn their new trade," Wilson said. "They've got good ideas. They bring the knowledge of a former professional, but that in itself is not enough. I think they're realizing that, and they're learning the coaching trade."
Regardless of whether they win or lose in Florida, the Union's U-14s and their coaching staff will bring back a wealth of experience playing against some of the best academies in the world. And if they do win, the later stages of the ICC Futures tournament will be televised on the ESPN family of networks.
Tune in today at 7:30PM EST for the Union U-14s against the Florida All-Stars, then come see former Union academy stars Auston Trusty and Mark McKenzie take on Dom Dwyer and Orlando City SC in the US Open Cup quarterfinals this Wednesday at Talen Energy Stadium.