A week from today, the group stage of the US Soccer Development Academy playoffs will get underway in Westfield, Indiana. The 32 best U16 and U18 squads from around the country will pit themselves against one another in four team groups, with each group winner advancing through to the quarterfinals in July. In this special edition of the prospects recap, we get you up to speed on everything you need to know about both of Atlanta United’s playoff-bound squads and their group opponents.
The U18’s enter the playoffs as, statistically, the best youth team in the nation. With a stellar 23-2-5 record, the #1 overall seed in the playoffs, the second-most goals scored in the U18 bracket, and a +64 goal difference, this team has obliterated nearly everything in its path to this point. They’ve also been in excellent form of late: in their last 11 matches, they’ve got 10 wins and a draw, outscoring opponents by a whopping 42-3. For a group of players that had never played together before August, what they’ve already been able to accomplish is absolutely remarkable.
This team has talent everywhere on the pitch, but their real strength is in the attack. Lead striker Patrick Okonkwo was already known as a fearsome goalscorer before joining Atlanta United, and 26 goals later, good for 2nd most in the country, he’s only increased that reputation. Lagos Kunga is back from the U20 World Cup in Korea and ready to wreak more havoc on defenses. He’ll likely line up on the wing opposite Wake Forest-commit Machop Chol, a big, lanky winger who might be even tougher to defend 1v1 than Kunga. Laurent Kissiedou joined the squad in January and is the closest thing this team has to a #10; 6 goals in 16 games shows his ability can create for himself as well as others. Somewhere in this picture is Clemson-commit Mike Ille, another youth national team-quality player who has the second-most goals on the team and can play anywhere in the front four.
Victor Pereyra-Zavala is the team’s possession pacemaker and a vital part of their success; he’s paired in midfield with Sierra Leone-native Alhaji Tambadu, an old-fashioned #6 destroyer who Academy director Tony Annan referred to as a “dying breed”. Center backs Bryce Washington and Edwin Figueroa have developed a solid partnership built on athleticism and cerebral understanding of the game, while fullbacks Kareve Richards and Aldair Cortes are versatile players who can defend 1v1 as well as help launch attacks. The only non-graduating senior in the starting XI is goalkeeper Russell Shealy, who’s already committed to Wofford.
LA Galaxy - June 22nd, 5:30 pm
The Galaxy were the very last team to make the playoffs as a wildcard, which is unusual for one of MLS’s academy royalty clubs. LA’s academy has, by a large margin, more top talent than anyone; the issue is, its almost all in the U16 age group. Most of their stars play up with the 18’s (and they’re a big reason they qualified at all), but until the tournament starts we won’t know who’s with which team. Two players that will play for sure are Ian Lonergan and Aristotle Zarris, both high-quality players with USL experience.
FC Boston Bolts - June 24th, 5:30 pm
The Massachusetts-based club responsible for producing Atlanta United center-back Miles Robinson made it here by finishing 3rd in the Northeast Division. This year’s team is led by another highly-rated defensive prospect: former DA Eastern Conference Best XI selection and soon-to-be Duke Blue Devil Wilhelm Jacques.
Sporting Kansas City - June 26th, 5:30 pm
One of MLS’s up-and-coming academy programs, SKC qualified through the highly-competitive Frontier Division, finishing second only to defending champions FC Dallas. This is a talent-rich squad, complete with several players who are regularly getting minutes for Swope Park Rangers in USL. Most of them should be available, as well as the US U17’s starting right back Jaylin Lindsey and fellow national-teamer Grayson Barber.
Atlanta United are the #1 overall seed in the playoffs, which would have made them the de-facto favorite in nearly any group they could have drawn. That being said, this group will be a massive challenge for the U18’s, and if they’re going to get out of it and advance, they will need their high-powered offense in top gear and everyone playing their part.
The younger of Atlanta United’s competitive academy teams had a very impressive season in their own right, going 19-4-7 and securing both the Southeast Division title and the #3 overall seed in the tournament. Also among this team’s accomplishments was finishing atop East Region Qualifying for the Generation adidas Cup. Their overall record against MLS competition is a strong 6-2-3, showing this group has the quality to perform against the highest levels they can face.
Academy director Tony Annan coaches this team himself, and his match day philosophy mirrors the academy’s overall developmental goals. Annan often will play his guys out of their usual positions and take them out of their comfort zone, creating more learning opportunities for his young squad. Unlike the U18’s, this group has never really had a best XI to turn to in big games; however, a few guys have proven themselves indispensable to the team. 15-year old left-back George Bello is probably their brightest star, constantly terrorizing defenders down the flank and creating chances with his dribbling and movement. Striker James Brighton has 19 goals on the year, but his best strength might be holding up play with his back to goal. In midfield, Dylan Gaither and Alessandro Castro can control entire matches with their skill, work rate and understanding with one another. As the season has gone on, several of the younger guys have stepped up as well, with the likes of Kendall Edwards, Thomas Toney, Jackson Conway and Liam Butts all now important players in the squad.
The U16’s already have depth and versatility, but they’re about to get another injection of quality in the form of U17 national-teamers Charlie Asensio and Zyen Jones. Both have been with the US U17 Residency program in Bradenton, Florida, meaning neither of them have spent much time with United’s academy to this point. Now that they’re both back in Atlanta, the biggest question facing the team going into the playoffs is what to do with them, since several players have staked their claim to playing time in their absence.
Montreal Impact - June 22nd, 3:30 pm
L’academie de l’Impact are here after a 3rd place finish in the Northeast Division. The French Canadians don’t have the best reputation in MLS or in Canada when it comes to producing young players, but they’re clearly getting there. Their best prospect by far, Jean Arnaud Tano, is still their leading scorer with 11 goals in 11 games, but he hasn’t played since December and no one quite knows why. We’ll have to see if he shows up in Indiana.
Chicago Fire - June 24th, 3:30 pm
The Fire qualified as the highest-ranked wildcard after missing out on the top 3 in the Mid-America Division on goal difference. They enter the playoffs having won ten of their eleven matches since December, including six straight. Goalkeeper Damian Las is the most-likely starter for the next US U17 World Cup cycle, while Nick Slonina looks like the next in a long line of high-quality Fire defensive midfield products.
Players Development Academy - June 26th, 3:30 pm
New Jersey-based PDA finished an impressive second place in the Atlantic Division, ahead of both the Union and the Red Bulls. They have a history as one of the best independent DA clubs in the country and a long list of professional products, most recently Werder Bremen striker Isaiah Young. This year’s U16 squad features US U16 international Dominic De Almeida and a very good goalkeeper in Hunter Pinho.
Overall, the draw was slightly more kind to the U16’s than their older counterparts, but winning this group won’t be easy. It will be up to coach Annan to find the right balance between youth vs. experience and returning vs. established talent to book a place in the quarterfinals.