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By Thursday night, I had my long weekend of football all laid out.
With an extra day gifted to us by the Presidents Day holiday, I planned to start my weekend with LAFC’s first team on Saturday. Then hopefully, I’d cap things off on Monday in Carson by watching the LAFC Academy secure qualification to the Generation adidas Cup finals.
At least, that was the plan.
As things would have it, the Academy had no time to spare for me. In fact, they clinched the top spot in Group A and subsequently a berth in the Generation adidas Cup finals around the time I left the press box at Banc of California Stadium on Saturday.
Starting the weekend with a victory via a penalty shootout against the Timbers Academy on Friday, LAFC downed the Sounders Academy 3-1 the next day. The two wins, coupled with LAFC’s three wins from three in October’s round of matches held in Utah, opened up a five-point gap with one match to play. Thus, making Monday’s match against Vancouver just a formality.
“A lot of credit needs to go to the staff and the players. This is the first group that we started three years ago, and to see them progress to this level, we know what work there is to be done to bridge the gap between this oldest age group and our first team. And that work is underway,” LAFC GM John Thorrington said of the importance of LAFC’s U15s qualifying for the finals of the Generation adidas Cup. “But the accomplishments speak for themselves. The job the coaches have done with this group, the scouts identifying talent, and developing that talent, they’re off to a great start.”
Against Vancouver, the LAFC Academy put forth the kind of first half you might expect from a young team that knows the top spot in the group is already in hand. A somewhat uneventful first half, in which it felt like LAFC spent a majority of the half building up from the back, resulted in a 0-0 scoreline.
Regrouping his side at the interval, LAFC Academy coach Cristiano Scapolo implored his team to play quicker and explore different ideas getting forward against a well-organized Vancouver team.
Scapolo’s team responded in the second half more like the team that, at that point, had scored 14 times while conceding just once in the tournament. Probing the central areas of the field, the U15s created better entry angles between the Vancouver lines and with more attacking options going forward. But it wasn’t until the introduction of right back Erik Duenas that the LAFC Academy found its breakthrough.
Coming into the match a few minutes after the restart, Duenas made an immediate impact via an energetic bit of play down the righthand side. Sprinting up the right touchline, Duenas turned pressure into an opportunity with a turnover of his Vancouver counterpart just past midfield. On the ball, the defender rushed towards the Vancouver penalty area and sent a low cross that initially eluded the near post run of forward Elmer Juarez. Luckily, LAFC still capitalized through the late run of Nathan Ordaz. The simple tap-in made it 1-0.
“Our philosophy in the Club is, of course, give them options to be successful but at the end of the day, we have to allow the player to be free to succeed in their own way,” Scapolo said after the match. “That can help if they are going to join other teams with a different style, like national teams. Here at LAFC, we very carefully make sure that we help them to achieve certain goals, but we let them have the freedom to find ideas and solve problems on the field.”
Now off the mark, LAFC ratcheted up the pressure on the Vancouver goal. A few chances went begging, but the raised tempo favored the Black & Gold. And the lead was doubled via another second-half substitute.
Dylan Presto was the beneficiary of Vancouver’s inability to clear an LAFC set piece. After failing to get the initial service beyond its penalty area, Vancouver could only chase as LAFC quickly moved the ball to Pesto in the center of the area. With an open lane to shoot, Presto made no mistake, putting his right-footed shot into the lower corner of the net.
The Whitecaps would find a consolation goal with just a few minutes to spare via a corner kick. But it only delayed the inevitable as LAFC won its fifth and final match of qualifying.
In total, LAFC earned 17 points on its way to securing qualification to the next round, the highest total of the 21 competitors in the U15 division. Along with the academies of Toronto FC, New York Red Bulls, and the Philadelphia Union, LAFC moves on to compete against four Liga MX sides in the Generation adidas Cup finals held in mid-April in Frisco, Texas. It’s an accomplishment that can’t be understated, especially given that this group of U15 players were the genesis of the LAFC Academy and looking to reach the finals in their first attempt.
“It’s super special. First try, being able to get to the final round, it’s very special,” LAFC Academy Director Todd Saldaña said when asked where this ranks with the Academy’s other accomplishments. “And it gives these guys more experience, which is important. But also, it sets the standard for the ones coming behind them too.
“We did what we had to do to get out of that round and give guys an opportunity to show what they could do against the competition here. But it’s going to be that next test. Now we start to look at how they rate against other MLS academies and which individuals look to be pro potential. So, the finals are another test but at another level. It will give us an even better filter of how our players are doing.”