Last season, the Seattle Sounders Academy joined the Development Academy and took the league by storm. Both the U16 and U18 teams won their divisions, and the younger side ended its inaugural campaign with a fifth place finish at the national Finals Week in July.
Some wondered if it was just beginner's luck, but this season’s U16 Sounders team is proving that it definitely was not just a flash in the pan. The Rave Green youngsters are off to a 10-2-2 start through the first half of the year and look like a force on the national scene once again.
“Comparing teams to me is apples to oranges,” Sounders Academy Technical Director Darren Sawatzky told TopDrawerSoccer.com on Monday. “We strive to get better every year.”
The Sounders U16 returned a few of the younger players from last year's squad for another season with this age group. Sawatzky specifically talked about the play of Jalen Markey and James Nosack amongst those who are back with the team.
U18 Sounders vs. De Anza (Photo by Chris Coulter)
“When I talk about players, I always want to talk about the individual first,” said Sawatzky. “And I am extremely proud of [Markey]. His growth as a young man is astronomical.”
Markey is the starting center back for the club and was recently called up to the U.S. U18 Men’s National Team. Sawatzky also highlighted the play of winger Isidro Prado-Huerta who has five goals in 14 games.
“Prado-Huerta got a little interest from the national team,” said Sawatzky. “He is silky, he is going to be good long term.”
There have been many other contributors to the early season success for Seattle, but this is only the tip of the iceberg for this group.
“Lately, we have done very well result wise,” said Sawatzky. “They haven’t hit where they are going to get. It is a very special group of players. They are very driven and work hard, we are pleased but not content.”
Chasing Seattle in the standings is Northern California side De Anza Force, which is seven points back with two games in hand.
“We had a really good preseason,” said head coach Shaun Tsakaris. “It was a fantastic start to the season. We started winning and created that atmosphere.”
The team slowed down a bit though in recent games, as it was hit with a rash of injuries. “With eight starters out with injury, we picked up a couple losses,” said Tsakaris.
One of those injuries was to star striker Jason Romero, who leads the division in scoring with 10 goals in six starts, but has been setback with a hernia injury.
Even though Romero has carried the scoring load, the coach said it has been a combined effort from many players that put De Anza Force near the top of the division through the first few months of the season.
“I wouldn’t say this is a group of 3-4 all-stars, more of a strength in numbers,” said Tsakaris. “It has created a true team environment in training.”
Level on points with De Anza Force is local rival San Jose Earthquakes. The Earthquakes Academy is a perfect 3-0-0 through the opening few games of division play.
“This team’s success is built on a culture of hard work,” said Earthquakes Academy Director Fred Wilson. “I give a lot of credit to coaches Marquis White and Stephen Wondolowski.”
The MLS team from the Bay Area is taking a proactive approach in finding the best talent regardless of the birth year. For instance, the two goalkeepers that regularly start for this team were born in 1997, meaning they have two more years of eligibility at the U16 level.
Wilson specifically highlighted the play of James “JT” Marcinkowski and added that the club is expecting ‘big things’ from the young netminder.
“We want the best players on this team regardless of age,” said Wilson about the amount of players playing up a year or two on the U16 side. He added that it also gives the academy a measuring stick for development when players join the club at an early stage of their playing career.
The Academy Director said it was hard to highlight just one player responsible for the fantastic start to the season and attributed a lot of the success to the chemistry of the team.
“At some point during the Showcase (in December), we had seven ‘97s on the field and they were doing as well as the starters,” said Wilson.
Wilson said that a couple players, specifically Christian De Luna, would be making the move to the U18 team in January after playing so well in the first half of the season.
He also talked about the stellar play of Padilla Elisama, Andy Perez
, and Roberto Mendoza, but did add it has been a team effort through and through to get to this point.
Seattle, De Anza, and San Jose all return to the field for Development Academy action on Saturday. It will be the first game in weeks for each club, but they all seem confident in the preparation during the winter break.
“They had some light fitness work during the break,” said Wilson. “After seeing training this week, we definitely look ready.”
The Earthquakes travel to face the Santa Cruz Breakers, while De Anza Force heads east for a showdown with Cal Odyssey. Force coach Tsakaris gave his players 10 days off to recharge the batteries, but felt good about the team heading into the second half of the season.
As for the division leaders, Seattle flies down to Arizona for a clash with fellow MLS Academy, RSL-AZ.
“It is a little difficult to prepare to play in Arizona when you are ice skating,” said Sawatzky about the current snowy conditions in Seattle. “There are no excuses though. They will get our best.”