It’s time to make some more room in the Atlanta United trophy cabinet! The MLS Next Cup tournament has been running full-force for the past week out in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas, and a handful of Atlanta United Academy teams have been participating in their respective age groups against teams from all over the country.
MLS NEXT 2023 Yearbook just dropped. U16 Atlanta United were voted Most Likely to Hoist the Hardware.— MLS NEXT (@MLSNEXT) June 24, 2023
The Georgian club become MLS NEXT Cup champions in a 3-1 victory. #MLSNEXTCup pic.twitter.com/uukrB9n2R5
Kevin Kratz’s U-16s, featuring the youth talent of Rocket Ritarita, Ashton Gordon, Benjamin Barjolo, and plenty of others, faced off against Strikers FC from Irvine, California at Toyota Stadium Saturday morning. The match was fast-paced from the opening whistle, and the U-16’s threatening style of play was immediately on full display.
Cooper Sanchez opened up the scoring early as Kaiden Moore sent a long ball through Striker’s midfield. Barjolo found space near the right side of the box and began to dribble before laying it off to Sanchez, who drilled a screamer into the top corner to make it 1-0.
Atlanta kept their foot on the gas from that point, working a few more solid chances before winning a penalty in the 24th minute. Rocket Ritarita took the spot kick and buried it low and left past Striker’s diving keeper to give the U-16s an early cushion - and one they would ultimately need to see out the match.
Very late in the first half, Ritarita and Barjolo swapped wings and Barjolo found himself with space once again. He played a perfect switch over the top to a waiting Rocket on the right side, who then chipped a ball to a waiting Ashton Gordon at the top of the 6-yard box. Ashton chested it down well while holding off a defender, turned, and struck a beautiful shot to presumably make it 3-0, but the ref called it back as a handball. On replay (no VAR, obviously) the video clearly shows the ball hitting Strikers’ defender’s arm, but the half ended with Atlanta up 2-0.
The second half saw Strikers come out swinging with a renewed energy, but Atlanta’s defense held strong - for a while. Strikers earned a corner off a relentless spell of possession and buried a header off the kick to make it 2-1. Ashton Gordon had a great chance a moment later as he found himself 1v1 against the Strikers’ keeper, but he banged the shot off the post, which rebounded off the keeper and cleared. The Strikers continued their attack, with a potential equalizer being called back for offside. Cooper Sanchez then earned a second yellow with about eight minutes left in regulation time, making for a wild end to the match.
The 10-man Atlanta U-16s held strong, though, even creating a couple of potential breaks that they couldn’t capitalize on. Nonetheless, Strikers held most of the possession and continued to push for the equalizer well into the four minutes of stoppage time.
Atlanta was able to spray a ball out to the right wing where Christian Watson beat his man and drew Strikers’ left center back out to help shut him down. He intelligently played the ball into a wide-open and on running Jesse Garcia, who then laid the ball off to Joseph Gonzalez on the other side of the box. Gonzalez calmly slotted it just past the keeper to drive the nail in the coffin in the last second, making the final score 3-1.
The U-16’s had a phenomenal season leading up to the MLS Next Cup tournament. Kevin Kratz’s team went 22-1-1 - earning 69 points - as they won the Southeast Division. Ashton Gordon and Rocket Ritarita have already seen limited time with Atlanta United 2, as well, so the talent pipeline is in full force.
In the same tournament, the U-15s fought to the Round of 32 and fell to Chicago Fire 2-1, while the U-17s rounded out the tournament with a three showcase matches where they won, draw, and lost.
The U-19’s, who play in UPSL, play tonight at 6 P.M. for the Georgia Premier Division title against Dalton United. It can be streamed on YouTube here.
Congrats to the U-16’s and the Atlanta United Academy as a whole, they’ve all had a great showing this season!