The 2018 Development Academy playoffs begin next Monday, with the best 32 U17 and U19 teams in the nation descending on Oceanside, California to begin the process of deciding a national champion. Atlanta United’s academy won the U16 national title last season behind the brilliance of Andrew Carleton, and this year the Five Stripes find themselves once again among the favorites to be celebrating once it’s all said and done.
The 32 teams in each age group have been drawn into 8 groups, with only the group winners advancing to the quarterfinal stage, taking place the 25th and 26th in Oceanside. We’re here to preview each team’s path through the group stage, as well as the players who will need to succeed to get them there.
Atlanta United U19
With an 18-match unbeaten streak and zero losses in DA play since November, Atlanta United’s U19’s come into the playoffs in excellent form. The team won it’s second consecutive Southeast Division crown behind balanced, consistent attacking play from it’s front three. James Brighton leads the team with 19 goals, but after picking up a knee injury late in the season, his fitness is in question for the playoffs. Even without the Clemson-bound striker, the U19’s can rely on Chad Letts (16 goals) and Dawson Gideon (15 goals) to give them the attacking punch they need.
This team’s strengths go farther than just their scoring ability, though. Alessandro Castro and Dylan Gaither were key pieces of last year’s national champions and both have recently found their way into the match-day 18 with ATL UTD 2. They’ll be joined in midfield by Victor Pereyra-Zavala and Blake White. Captain Will Crain will be captaining the side in defense after his recent 4-game stint in the USL, and U19 international Justin Garces should start in goal. There’s also the possible addition of homegrown player George Bello, who hasn’t played with the U19’s since last fall. Assuming he’s healthy and available, Bello’s presence would be a massive shot in the arm for United’s U19’s and a big part of their potential success. If Bello is there, expect the versatile US youth international Charlie Asensio to play defensive midfielder; if he’s not, expect him to stay at left back.
The group stage draw was not particularly kind to the U19’s, who will be apart of only the second playoff group in history to feature four MLS academies. United are the 9th ranked team in the nation and second in Group B; here’s who they’ll need to take down to advance:
United’s first challenge will be the Dynamo, who qualified as a Wild Card entry out of the Frontier Division. The Dynamo are led by a pair of 2001’s playing up an age group, fowards Marcelo Palomino and Heriberto Soto. Palomino is a particularly dangerous player who is next in line for a homegrown deal in Houston, as well as in with a shout for the US’s U20 World Cup pool.
The Galaxy are the lowest seeded team in the group, but don’t discount this team based off of that. LA’s academy has as much talent as ever, including a trio of young superstars tearing up USL at the moment in Efrain Alvarez, Uly Llanez and Alex Mendez. All three could be with LA’s U19’s in the playoffs, but even if they aren’t, the likes of Jorge Hernandez, Jake Arteaga and Zico Bailey will make up formidable opposition.
L’Impact are the group’s top seed, topping the Northeast Division and winning 20 of their 26 matches this season. Vincent Lamy is one of the nation’s leading scorers with 21 goals, while Mathieu Choniere (younger brother of Impact first-teamer David) stirs the drink in the midfield.
Atlanta United U17
This is the age group where Atlanta United will look to defend their national championship from a year ago, although with the nature of academy soccer, this year’s challengers look very different to the ones from a year ago. Despite cruising to the Southeast Division title and the 5th overall seed in the nation, United finished the regular season winless in their final four matches, and will be looking to turn things around in Oceanside.
The U17’s back line is allowing less than a goal per game this season, led by the center back pairing of Kendall Edwards and George Campbell. Both have been superb over the last few months and have each risen their national profiles, with Edwards recently getting his first USYNT call-up in over 18 months. Another player who has had a breakout season is defensive mid Takuma Suzuki, an intelligent midfield anchor with incredible passing range. He’s joined in midfield by Victor Delgado and Remi Smith, two dynamic players that compliment each other well.
Up top, striker Jackson Conway is second in the nation with 27 goals in 23 games, but like the U19’s Brighton, he’s been out injured towards the end of the season. If he can’t go, expect USL signing Diego Lopez to lead the line. One big strength of this team is its depth, especially among players in the younger age group. 2002’s Josh Francombe, Juan Zuniga, Tarek Sirdah, Danny Mangarov, Jordan Matthews and Wasswa Robbins are more than ready to contribute where they’re needed.
United’s U17’s are the top seed in Group A, which includes two teams that they’ve already seen once this season. Here’s who they’ll be facing:
Vardar are a club based out of the suburbs of Detroit and qualified as a Wild Card from the Mid-America division. A Jackson Conway brace led United to a 2-1 win against them back in December. This team’s danger man is Canadian youth international Gianni Ferri, who actually signed with Swansea City last summer. For whatever reason, Ferri is back stateside and has scored 13 goals in 15 matches this season.
Blau Weiss Gottschee
The club from Queens that gave US international Tim Weah his start is back after a 3rd place finish in the Northeast division. This group is as solid as ever, with striker Jonathan Ford leading the attack with 11 goals this season. Midfielder Jack McGlynn, a US youth international playing two age groups up with the U17’s, will also be a handful.
The West Division champions played to a 0-0 draw with United earlier this season and pose the Five Stripes’ biggest group stage challenge. This crop of RSL kids is led by their national team keeper David Ochoa, who is generating European interest and even making the bench for the club’s USL team recently. Ochoa may or may not play with his age group, but midfielder Luis Arriaga, one of the best in the nation at his position, almost certainly will.
Once again, the playoffs kick off in less than a week, with the U19’s beginning their group games on Monday, June 18th. Keep your eyes peeled to US Soccer and the Development Academy’s social channels for official match start times and streaming information, and be sure to tune in to root the young Stripes on towards a title.