Remember when Philadelphia Union faced Atletico Madrid? What about when they went toe-to-toe with Borussia Dortmund?
Alright, so the Union first team has yet to face those clubs, but last week the Under-14s went down to the International Champions Cup Futures tournament to face some of Europe's best. Philly could not knock off the juggernauts out of Spain and Germany, but they still competed at a high level, making it to the semi-finals of the "Bowl" competition before falling to an All-Star team from North Carolina.
The experience of facing top European competition will, the Union hope, galvanize their young academy players in the coming season. For Ryan Richter, who was named director of the Union's pre-academy last week, the trip to Florida was both an opportunity to see how Philly's players responded to high pressure situations and a chance to grow as a coach.
"It was, for me, the first trip like this I went on with the academy," Richter told me recently. "It was incredible. Some of the clubs that are there, you just don't get that knid of competition very often in the US just because of the way that it's set up. The best teams are kind of all over the place."
Richter drafted by the Union in the 2011 Supplemental Draft. He played over 1000 minutes for Toronto FC before Bethlehem Steel acquired him in 2015 from Ottawa Fury, making him the first captain of the reborn franchise. That natural leadership ability is something that appealed to the Union when seeking a pre-academy director, and it's clear that Richter understands how Philly wants to develop its players from the moment they join the organization.
"Something that I can't stress enough here," he said intently, "To try and play in our philosophy, no matter the team we're playing against.
"I think the challenge with kids at that age is that there are times in the game that call for... when you get nervous and your emotions are so high in some of these competitions that it takes your mind out of the game. And we're training these kids so that you're always thinking in the game.
"Building out of the back is a pillar for this club. And to see us on numerous occasions take the ball from the goalkeeper and play through the team and get a chance on the other end? That's nice to see. This is what we're trying to work on as a club, the kids are responding to it, and they're capable of it.
"The style that you're going to play, and the Union style, is an instinct, and it's not something that you have to think about. So I think you can see that we still have that work to do."
Another former Union man, Fred Da Silva, led the U14s down to the ICC Futures tournament, and Richter went along to assist, observe, and learn. And that dedication to learning, and the desire to instill it in others, is a big part of why the Union think so highly of the young coach.
When he could see anxiety in the eyes of his young charges, Richter would tell them: "You're nervous because it's Atletico Madrid, but I don't see Antoine Griezemann standing on that sideline. It's a kid who's 14 like you. So prove that there isn't a difference in the level between you. Enjoy it and learn something from the game. Every game learn something because playing against different cultures, different styles, there's so much to learn about the game."
Fred and Richter emphasized learning every aspect of the Union's model of play at the tournament, even if it put players in unfamiliar positions.
"A good example of what we're trying to build as a model of play throughout the whole club is players playing out of position or in different positions because that's what is needed from the team," Richter said when asked what impressed him from the U14s at the tournament. "A couple guys did that and I think that speaks to their game understanding and their 'Union way' understanding."
As the players adjusted to their roles, Richter sought themes that could inform his coaching going forward.
"One thing that I thought we have to try to bring out of our players more: More confidence," Richter said. "We have to improve, for sure, to get to that level. There's work for us to do.
"And it starts with our youngest guys in our pre-academy. And I'll take that... Can I train these kids, and can I make them love this game enough that they're going to want to touch the ball when they're outside of here so that, technically, they're at the highest level, at the world class level when they're age 14?
"For me, that starts at age six. Can we start that cycle with our youngest guys now? Can we take our ten year olds and train them so that they can get close to that level?"
Now, as director of the Union's pre-academy, Richter will have a large role in answering those questions. And he knows he won't get through to every young talent that crosses his path, but he will be ready to start the learning process.
"There could be a player that doesn't agree with me as a coach, doesn't agree with something I'm trying to give them," Richter reflected "And that's okay.
But as he goes on, he's hearing a similar message from the next coach. And a similar message from the next coach, and from the next coach. This can help him develop those things we're trying to teach the kids. The consistency of the message, even if, at first, he doesn't agree with it."