"We're excited to connect."
John Thorrington's enthusiasm was palpable. A week after LAFC's inaugural season came to a close, I had asked the LAFC EVP and GM what he's looking forward to in 2019. The connection he was referring to was that of the LAFC first team and its Academy.
"We started with 12-year-olds and now those 12-year-olds are 15-year-olds. They’re getting closer and closer to becoming professionals," Thorrington continued in our State of the Club interview. "We’re already connected philosophically, but actually having them graduate and connect our Academy with players that are stepping on to the training field and stadium with our first team is incredibly exciting."
Standing at midfield as the Academy U14s and U15s defeated their Galaxy counterparts 2-0 and 4-1 under the lights at Cal State LA on Saturday night, I saw up close and personal that promising connection. Here are my takeaways from the two "El Trafiquito" matches:
Whenever I get a chance to watch the Academy in person, I have to remind myself these players are still years away from even a driver's license. Maybe it's just the players coming up to introduce themselves and shake my hand before matches like proper gentlemen. But it has to be said, it's the quiet confidence on the pitch that stands out as well.
Youth soccer is at times all exuberance and energy with little substance. Too often, superior athleticism takes center stage. And that's not to say the LAFC Academy isn't full of exceptionally athletic and skilled players. But when juxtaposed with its competition on Saturday, the cerebral demeanor of LAFC was in stark contrast to the more physical style of the opposition. The ball moved across the pitch in measured and calculated ways. Players gestured and articulated movements to one another as opposed to shouting the usual platitudes of encouragement. The vibe was more a professional side intent on making the ball do the talking and having the results speak for themselves than a group of kids focused on winning at all costs.
That being said, it wasn't all impassive cool out there. Once that ball hit the back of the net for LAFC, as it did on numerous occasions, the players knew exactly where the cameras were and had no trouble celebrating a job well done.
Elegant Center Backs
It's rare to walk away from matches at this level with center backs on the forefront of your mind - and in a good way.
Too often it's a matter of who gets the better of the physical side or makes the least mistakes at the back. But after both matches, I couldn't stop talking about the elegance of the LAFC center backs.
They rarely looked troubled on Saturday night. The recognition of their opponent's patterns of play was almost uncanny. Attack after attack was quietly brought to an end well in advance. The angles they took to cutout Galaxy attacks meant they almost never had to engage in actual 50-50 challenges with attackers. And I'm not sure I saw more than a couple of balls played long out of the back.
The Academy is definitely grooming center backs in the modern mold: able to eliminate danger early and play out the back to give their side a platform to get forward.
Volume Of Opportunities
Throughout both matches, there were numerous parallels that an observant LAFC fan could draw between the first team and the Academy. Both sets of players enjoy the ball at their feet, look to combine passes to get forward, and they even set up in similar formations, but it was the sheer volume of chances created that I kept going back to in my notes.
The Academy's use of the ball is always with a purpose. They moved through the levels on the pitch with almost telepathic precision at times and the moment they breached the final third, the focus turns immediately to generating scoring opportunities. The high volume of chances LAFC had drastically outnumbered their opponents in both matches. At one point in the U15 match, the score was 1-1 but the chances were nearly 6-to-1 LAFC.
Feeling The Pressure
If you are committed to playing with the ball, you've got to find space whenever possible on the pitch. One of the things Bob Bradley likes to talk about with the first team is something he calls a player's radar. At the highest level, players need to be spatially aware, not just the way they are facing but in full panorama. To do this, the best players are constantly looking over both shoulders, taking in mental pictures in the process.
It was encouraging to see numerous Academy players glance behind them before receiving the ball. By having a clear picture of the surroundings in advance, they assessed pressure before it arrived time and time again. As the pace of play ratchets up with each age group, finding space in these ways is paramount.
Honorable mentions to Adrian Wilbowo who slotted a difficult volley from close range into the upper corner for the U14s and Dylan Presto with a bullet header off a set piece to bag his brace and give the U15s a lead they wouldn't relinquish. The goals of the night without a doubt went to Alixson Soukup and Aldahir Rua.
Soukup was up first in the U14 match. It all started with the pass. Fullback Diego Rosales drove a pinpoint diagonal 40 yards to the opposite flank. Soukup corraled the ball with one brilliant touch out of the air and a second into the back of the net. The finish was tidy but the control to get the shot off had us all buzzing on the sidelines even well after the match finished.
In the U15 match, Rua's second goal was the capper for the night. With his side up 3-1, the forward received a pass with a pair of Galaxy defenders between him and the goal. In a sequence of individual skill, Rua took the shortest distance into the box with a deft windmill between the two defenders before coolly rounding the Galaxy goalkeeper and firing into the empty net.
Two goals that wouldn't have been out of place at the highest levels. Well done, boys.