With teams in Kansas, Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, and Minnesota, the Frontier Division of the USSF Development Academy is a nightmare for travel agents.
Minnesota Thunder joined the Academy last season, and suffered through some of the difficulties of constant travel on the way to a four-win year in its debut. This season’s Thunder U18 has matured and learned from last season’s blues.
“The first year served a lot of lessons,” Thunder U18 head coach Jon Lowery told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “We have had a good start this year because there is a lot of the nucleus from last year’s U16 team back with the club. Now, they have that experience in the Development Academy.”
Lowery’s squad is off to a 3-0-1 start and tops the division, albeit, in the very early stages of the season. The coach added that he has turned those tricky situations with flights and back-to-back road games into teaching points.
“We try to move those realities into soccer and make it into game management situations,” Lowery said about flying to nearly every away game. “Despite being difficult, it makes the players approach the game in a more professional way. It gives them experience in game management and how to take care of themselves.”
“You have to go through a year of it to feel the rhythm out,” Shattuck-Saint Mary’s U18 head coach Tim Carter told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “It is helpful to have a year under our belt.”
Carter’s team is 4-1-0 to start the season, which the coach attributed to having a group with experience in the Development Academy. Carter highlighted the play of John Lujano, Jacob Gandarilla, Patrick Barnes, and Andrew Kendall-Moullin as the standouts from the first five games.
Chasing the two Minnesota clubs in the standings are the Colorado Rapids led by head coach Brian Crookham, which currently sit in third place with a 3-0-2 record.
“It is going well,” Crookham told TopDrawerSoccer.com about the Rapids U18 season so far. “A bit disjointed because we still had a high school season this year.”
Next year, all Academies are moving to a 10-month schedule thus eliminating high school soccer for Development Academy players. The Rapids got a jump-start on most clubs by training through high school with about 20 players from the Academy. The team played in a local adult league, where the coaches focused on technical development more than results.
MORE ACADEMY NEWS: Development Academy Recap - February 25
Crookham said it was the first season that the Rapids attempted to assemble a large group during the high school season, in previous years it has only been a handful of players.
“Makes our transition for next year easier,” said Crookham. “We are fortunate with our facility that we are outside five days a week too. The work is getting done right now. It has been a productive two months.”
The Rapids are excited to get back to Academy play on March 17, but Crookham’s side may have to deal with limited numbers, as MLS reserve games start that week.
“We will have a lot of players in reserve games,” added Crookham. “Oscar Pareja, the new full team coach, is a big believer in player development. Four or five players will definitely see time in reserve games.”
Crookham talked glowingly of the play of Dillon Serna, Shane O’Neill, and Andrew Epstein, who has occasionally played up on the U18s at goalkeeper.
“Shane O’Neill has been tremendous in dictating the play, and allowing us to be pretty bold going forward,” said Crookham. “He is an anchor for our midfield.”
Slightly behind the Rapids in the standings are the U16 division champions from last year, St. Louis Scott Gallagher Missouri.
Tim Leonard’s team came within a goal of qualifying for Finals Week last year, and said his group set its sights on trying to make it to that event this year.
“I think that is definitely within reach,” Leonard told TopDrawerSoccer.com.
Leonard did not think that the travel was much of a difficulty for his team, because “it is something where we don’t know any better.”
“The kids really responded well,” added Leonard about traveling to away games. “It does bring together the team being on the bus and in the hotel.”
After an extended period off, Leonard’s U18 team returns to play on March 17 against Chicago Fire.
“They are ready to go,” said Leonard.
Players to watch in the U18 Frontier Division:
Dillon Serna (Colorado Rapids, midfield) – “Dillon makes a difference,” Crookham said when describing the leading scorer for the Rapids U18 team. Serna is currently the only Rapids Academy player training with the first team during the preseason. His speed of play and vision were the two best attributes that his club coach highlighted. Serna is bound for the University of Akron in the fall.
Adama Keita (Minnesota Thunder, forward) – “Adama is a special player. He can score goals, he is dynamic, and he is very competitive. We are thrilled to have him,” said Lowery. Keita was born in 1995, which makes him eligible for the U16 team, and Lowery said it is a possibility for him to play with the younger team, but he fits in well with the U18s so that is where he is playing for now. Keita is set to play for the University of Wisconsin Green Bay in the fall.