On Monday, Red Bull Salzburg won perhaps the quietest youth soccer coup in world history.
For a half of their U17 CONCACAF Championship opener against Jamaica, it looked as though the U17 MNT attack had some wrinkles to iron out. By the full time whistle, those worries had dissipated entirely.
After a scoreless opening 45 minutes, the U.S. exploded for five goals in the final stanza, including four in the last 13 minutes to handily run away with a 5-0 win. Part of that was the inclusion of Timmy Weah, who came on for a struggling Andrew Carleton with about 20 minutes left and promptly got on the scoresheet. But a bigger part was TFC mega-prospect Ayo Akinola, who assisted on Weah’s goal and then scored two of his own to cement the rout.
The second of those goals might still be flying through the black void of space.
There’s no questioning Benfica’s ascendance to the Portuguese throne of fortified wine and caldo verde. After winning just two league titles between 1994-2010, Benfica’s won each of the last three Portuguese domestic titles, and they’re currently in pole position to win a fourth. After a long spell of dominance, Porto’s reign is clearly skewered.
Benfica’s done it by marrying shrewd signings from South America with a development pipeline that’s become arguably the best in Europe. Since 2010, Benfica have somehow pocketed more than $300 million on the sales of just 13 players. Renato Sanches’ $35 million blockbuster to Bayern Munich in 2016 is the latest biggie, but Nemanja Matic, David Luiz, Angel di Maria and Jan Oblak are also on that list. As far as talent identification goes, I’d venture to say Benfica is about as good as anyone on the planet at the moment.
If you’re looking for the next in the pipeline, you’re about to get another chance to see them. Because this just happened on Friday.
In 1991, UEFA entirely reordered the model of what had then become known simply as the European Cup. For years it had been solely a knockout tournament for the continent’s best teams, and the qualification format was an egalitarian sweep across the region. By the time the 1990-91 tournament rolled around, there were 31 teams representing 30 nations. The exception were the Italians, since Napoli qualified the year before and Milan was granted passage because it was the defending champion.
The next year, the 1991-92 season, a group stage was added, and after that, in 1992-93, it became known as the Champions League, and the race to modern day was on.
The group stage has its benefits of course, but it is also a massive boon to bigger clubs. American fans know this probably better than anyone. The MLS regular season is a slog, like most any other league in the world, but the playoffs? Now we split hairs. There is skill involved, of course, but the playoffs are a hat toss in the wind precisely because it condenses everything into a phone booth and more or less casts off seven months of work. What you’d done in May and June and August is largely immaterial in November. And the wonky, unpredictable path of results reflect the reality. You never really know.
But tack on a group stage to the mouth of that narrow knockout river upstream and you make life much easier for big clubs. It’s much more simple for an outsize payroll to overwhelm a more modest one over six games in lieu of one or two. It’s why only a few teams win NBA titles. And this, mixed with an ever increasing gap between the top 15 or so clubs and the rest, is why we haven’t had a what-just-happened European champion since Red Star Belgrade in 1991.
And this, also, is why the modern day Europa League is so much fun.
If you haven’t yet, I suggest you first read Noah Davis’ piece on Tottenham’s Cameron Carter-Vickers over at Bleacher Report. It’s a good primer for Carter-Vickers’ career to this point, and how it is that he’s become the most exciting and seemingly pro-ready teenager yet to really get a chance at his club.
In any case, by now it’s beyond obvious that Carter-Vickers has a USMNT career ahead. In fact, it rankled most everyone who’s seen him play that he isn’t already cap-tied. For reasons beyond the pale, Jurgen Klinsmann did not sub Carter-Vickers on during the embarrassment in Costa Rica during qualifying last year that ultimately cost Klinsmann his job. The game well over in the last 10 minutes, Klinsmann had the opportunity to lock up Carter-Vickers amid speculation that England was hovering, and a throwaway sub stint that would’ve done the trick. He did not.
All indications seem to point to there being little worry about Carter-Vickers’ American future. But we’ve also heard that before.
The US Club Soccer id2 process might be the single most underrated and under-covered event in the American youth game. For a glaring reason why, let’s go back in time, to the ye olde days of 2012.
For some background, the id2 tour is the culmination of an identification process encompassing some of the best U14 players in the country at that time. US Club Soccer, in conjunction with U.S. Soccer itself, conducts a battery of invitational scouting events for some of the country’s top identified youngsters, and from that pool coach Gerry McKeown and his staff pull a team to take abroad for a high-level string of matches. They’ve been to places like the Netherlands, Argentina and Italy, and the 2017 team trekked to Spain.
As for that 2012 team, allow me to drop the roster on you. You might recognize a few of these names.
If there’s anything obvious about CONCACAF these days, it’s that times have changed on the youth level.
There was a time not so long ago when the U.S. U17 MNT could expect a moderately difficult if eminently winnable pathway through CONCACAF to the World Cup. There was sweat, but very rarely anxiety. There’s a reason the U.S. has won this tournament three times and finished first in its group five straight years from 2001-2009. CONCACAF was slow in developing its collective youth apparatus, and the U.S. was a bully on the block. For decades, really.
CONCACAF has caught up, or at the very least it has narrowed the gap significantly.
What Real Salt Lake ultimately expected out of Brooks Lennon on a brief one-year loan, back from his heralded career track at Liverpool, was more or less revealed three games into the 2017 season. And again about a month later, on Saturday night.
Lennon didn’t return from CONCACAF U20 World Cup qualifying until the eve of the season, about a day before RSL’s first game, and as a result he sat RSL’s first two games while acclimating back to the practice climate. Lennon had been, with few critical exceptions, the U.S.’s most consistently dangerous attacker off the right wing in Costa Rica and ultimately was the U.S.’s top goalscorer. If a few players played themselves off the World Cup roster, Lennon thrust himself into the starting XI with no doubts.
In 2015, the FC Dallas U16 Development Academy side ran over the New York Red Bulls like a train through crepe paper. The 4-0 result left little doubt about the most holistically successful academy in the country at that age group at that moment. A year later, the FC Dallas U18 team recorded a 2-1 extra time win over the Whitecaps to win the same trophy at a later age (the U16s also won the natty title that month, but I digress).
On Sunday, the final continuation. FC Dallas’ U19 team – it was a collection of player ages, but under a U19 umbrella – became just the second American side to ever win the Dallas Cup Super Group with a hugely impressive 2-1 win over Monterrey on Sunday night in Frisco. It was the first time an American team had won this competition since 2006, when Omar Gonzalez’s Dallas Texans took home the event’s ultimate silverware.
The same FC Dallas age group, working its way up to older age ranges until pooling out here, just won three major trophies in three years, the last of which was an international trophy unmatched in American club soccer. There is no competition in the U.S. youth game harder to win and more prestigious to hoist than the one FC Dallas just won in Texas. There is the Gordon Jago Super Group, and then there are the others.
Among MLS clubs at the 2017 Generation adidas Cup in Frisco, few acquitted themselves better than the rising Philadelphia Union academy. The Union have been beefing up their academy apparatus seemingly exponentially since opening the YSC Academy in 2013, and the recent addition of GM Earnie Stewart seemed to finally wed philosophy to reality.
Since then, the Union U16 and U18 Development Academy teams have annually been among the country’s best. They’ve already pushed out a U17 youth national teamer in Rayshaun McGann, a U20 youth national teamer in Auston Trusty and a bonafide Union first teamer in Derrick Jones. So it should perhaps not be such a surprise that the Union managed to win their group at the GA Cup’s Premier Division level (ostensibly the second tier) and earned a spot in the third-place game against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Without question, the jewel performance of that run came against Monterrey, toting as they were one of the most lauded academies in Mexico and the prohibitive favorites to win the group. In that sense, the Union-Monterrey matchup was always likely to decide which way the group fell, and as we already know, the Union won the head-to-head.