Ask a head coach from the U16 SoCal Division which divisional opponent was the most difficult to play against, and you will likely receive a handful of different answers. It is not just the coaches being civil; there are four or five teams at the top of the table in SoCal that could easily be considered among the best 10 teams in the nation.
“It is a very, very tough division, and there are some fantastic teams,” San Diego Surf head coach Mike Nicholson told TopDrawersoccer.com. “Our division is excellent.”
Nicholson’s team leads the region with a 4-2-1 record in division play, but the advantage is miniscule as Real Salt Lake–Arizona is only one point behind Surf with a perfect 4-0-0 record.
Nicholson, who is also the assistant coach with USD, said he missed a couple of games during the college season, but added that his fellow coaches told him that RSL-AZ and LA Galaxy were quality teams.
“I thought Arsenal had an immense amount of talent,” said Nicholson of the teams he coached against. “They have some great players.”
Arsenal coach Steve Lucey talked about RSL-AZ and Surf as the toughest competition through the first half of the year. The Chula Vista club has only played three divisional opponents this season, but faces a very tough test this weekend against defending U16 Development Academy National Champions LA Galaxy.
With the amount of quality teams in the SoCal division, it makes getting to the top of the table tough and staying at the top even more difficult. Nicholson attributed his team’s standing to having a young team in the U16 Development Academy last year, and combining with the very talented U15 team.
“We have a good bunch of players with a good chemistry,” said Nicholson. “The essence of it is that we have players who understand the game and like to play good soccer.”
Nicholson is in a peculiar situation. Surf is one of two clubs in the division that is allowed to play high school soccer this season [Nomads is the other team], next season all nine SoCal clubs will be on a ten-month schedule.
“We are going to have to come out of high school and do well right away,” said Nicholson as he contemplated the disadvantage for his club with a three-month break for high school soccer.
The coach highlighted a handful of players who stood out from this season including forward Brian Iloski, center back Eric Holt, midfielder Michael Turner, midfielder Zach Salado, and goalkeeper Adrian Zendejas.
Juarez gave credit to the returners to the RSL-AZ residency program for his squad’s perfect start.
“Last year we had quality players, but it was their first year,” said RSL-AZ coach Freddy Juarez. “Our backline for the most part was all 1995s last year. Now they come back this year, and tell the new players these are the standards. They have all quickly bought into it.”
Juarez went on to highlight the play of forward Andrew Brody, goalkeeper Cesar Cobos, and forward Jose Navarro.
“If you talk about the heart of the team, it would be [Jose Navarro],” said Juarez. “He is quiet, hard-working, and never complains. His characteristics are exactly what this team is about.”
Trailing RSL-AZ and LA Galaxy in the standings in fourth place is Chivas USA, which is 6-5-1 through the first half of the season.
Head coach Mike Munoz described the season as inconsistent.
“We can be the dominant team in games, and somehow find a way not to win them,” said Munoz. “We are a very young team so there are going to be growing pains, but that is our club’s philosophy. We want to challenge them against bigger, faster players. We do it with this team, the U18s, and the reserve team.”
The top two scorers on Munoz’s team are Romario Lomell and Jorge Ruiz. The latter of which is only 14-years-old, but looks like he easily belongs at this level with four goals in six starts.
“We are excited with our younger players,” said Munoz referencing Ruiz among others. “We do feel that we have some very good talent coming through.”
In the middle of the table is Lucey’s Arsenal side, which on paper is perhaps the best team in the division, but has been setback by the inopportune timing of injuries to a few crucial players.
The main star of the Arsenal roster is U.S. U17 World Cup veteran Paul Arriola, who has 10 goals in nine games this season. Arriola is tied with Pateadores’ Brian Pacheco for second in the division in goals scored. They both trail LA Galaxy Academy’s Jamie Villareal, who has 13 goals in 10 games.
For the non-San Diego clubs, Development Academy play continues this weekend with important clashes between LA Galaxy - Arsenal and Real So Cal - Chivas USA. With a ten-month schedule, the fight for one of the top spots in the division never really stops.