Two superb goals worthy of the setting at Home Depot Center concluded eight days of play as U.S. Soccer wrapped up the 2008-09 Development Academy season.
Carmel United (Indiana) attained a second milestone a year after its U-15/16 team won the inaugural edition of the competition last summer. Graduates of that team represented the U-17/18 squad in this year's tournament, which Carmel won by beating D.C. United, 1-0, with a spectacular goal by Nikita Kotlov, who knocked an opponent off the ball near the sideline and veered inside before drilling a shot into the top far corner.
SUPPORT FROM ENGLAND.A goal of similar quality earned Derby County Wolves (Michigan) the U-15/16 crown by the same score. Dzenan Catic weaved through several opponents to score in just the sixth minute, yet the No. 1 seeded Wolves had to fend off a determined fightback by Cal Odyssey (Central California), which had survived a rocky start to the season and pushed the top seed right to the final whistle.
The two champions epitomized the varying ways in which clubs around the country have adapted their policies in the wake of U.S. Soccer's launch of the Development Academy two years ago. Last October, Michigan Wolves-Hawks (based in Livonia) formed a partnership with Derby County, the owner of which is Michigan-based businessman Andy Appleby. He is a longtime associate of Roger Faulkner, who grew up near Derby and has a longtime association with soccer in Michigan dating back to his days as general partner of the NASL Detroit Express and president of the 1994 World Cup Detroit Host Committee.
"I don't think it could have worked out any better for our club," said Wolves' head coach Lars Richters, named one of the two Development Academy Coaches of the Year. "They pay for a lot of our costs, such as the uniforms, and just let us work with the players on our various teams."
PRIDE OF INDIANA.Based in Indiana, Carmel United doesn't face a lot of in-state competition when it seeks elite players, but that isolation also increases the travel burden and reduces the tough competition its teams face in the regular season. It pulled off a stunning win in last year's U-15/16 final and the scorer of the goal in that 1-0 victory, A.J. Corrado, represented the U-17/18 team in this year's competition, as did "graduates" Jon Dawson, Harrison Petts, Corey Fundenberger, Michael Wignot, Tyrone Martin, Jared Isenthal, James Vollmer, Tyler White and Austin Oldham. That is one-half of the 20-player roster that traveled to California for Finals Week.
"That success is a credit to our kids and our club, not necessarily us as coaches, though of course we do our part," said head coach Dave Costa, who led the U-15/16 team to last year's title. "We feel that we are representing our state as well as our club. The players take pride in that."
U.S. Soccer staged Finals Week, in which eight teams competed in the two age groups, at Home Depot Center in mid-July, ending a season of roughly 30 regular-season games that began in early or late fall, depending on the schedules played in the nine different conferences around the country.
In each age division, 32 teams qualified for national playoffs staged in Greensboro, N.C., the last week of June. They were seeded into eight groups, with each group winner advancing to Finals Week. The eight qualifiers were divided in two, and after round-robin play they met head-to-head with their counterpart from the opposite group: No. 4 vs. No. 4 played off for seventh place, the No. 3 finishers vied for fifth place, the runners-up landed in the third-place match, and the group winners met in the championship matches televised live on ESPN Classic July 16 and 17.
Three MLS teams sent teams to Finals Week. In addition to U-17/18 finalist D.C. United, the U-15/16 teams from FC Dallas and New York Red Bulls reached the elite eight. Only one club - PDA (Player Development Academy) of Zarapheth, N.J. - was represented in both age divisions. Last year, two clubs placed teams in both age groups: Los Angeles Futbol Club (LAFC) and Capital Area Soccer League (CASL) of Raleigh, N.C.
ODYSSEY REVAMPED.Cal Odyssey had gained a reputation as a defensive, counter-attacking team, and head coach David Armstrong - who took over the Central California club in August 2008 but was fired shortly after Finals Week - admitted he revamped the squad around a solid defensive core. Armstrong, the son of La Jolla Nomads co-founder Derek Armstrong, also shook up the roster by moving several 14-year-olds into prominent positions on the team during a rough start to the season during which Odyssey won just three of its first 13 matches and went seven straight without a victory.
Odyssey recovered from the bad start and reached the national playoffs as the 31st seed among 32 qualifiers with a 12-12-3 regular-season record. In Greensboro, though, it rolled past No. 2 seed Arsenal (Southern California), 3-0, in its first match, then beat L.A. Galaxy, 3-1, and FC Delco (Eastern Pennsylvania), 3-1, to win the group.
Wolves went to Greensboro as the top seed with a 20-4-4 regular season record in the Central Conference and in the playoffs blew through Columbus Crew, Texas Rush and BW Gottschee without conceding a goal. It won its first two games at Finals Week, then lost to Red Bull New York, 2-0, in the final group game to end a 13-game winning streak
After falling behind in the sixth minute, Odyssey controlled much of the play, spreading around the point of attack with midfielders Jesus Garcia, Jon-Paul Medina, Josh Alvarez and Jose Segura interchanging constantly. Right back Nathan Smith - at 14 the youngest player to appear at Finals Week - moved into central midfield to prompt several threatening sequences, and subs Ruben Chavez and Trevor Spurgeon stretched the Wolves' defense on a few occasions.
The equalizer, though, never came, despite Odyssey attackers pouring forward repeatedly. Minutes after the final whistle the tension etched into the face of Richters for the entire second half had barely eased.
"That was a close one," the Wolves coach said with as much relief as euphoria. "They pushed us all the way and they deserve a lot of credit."
BEST OF MLS.Winner of the Mid-Atlantic Division with a 20-4-5 regular-season record, D.C. United - coached by former United defender Judah Cooks - thumped its three opponents at the national playoffs with combined scorelines of 13-1 and, during Finals Week, rebounded from a 1-0 loss to Real Colorado in its second game to thrash PDA, 5-1, in the finale to advance as group winner.
United featured its own "underage" star, 16-year-old striker Andy Najar, who played most of the season with the younger team but stepped up during Finals Week to score four goals in three group games.
In the final against Carmel, an aggressive challenge by Dawson upended Najar in the penalty area yet no penalty kick was called, and he nearly scored an incredible equalizer by chesting a ball out of the air and ripping a right-footed volley that Dawson dove right to deflect the ball onto the post, then scrambled to cover the rebound.
"This group of players has guys that played together since they were 11 years old," said Costa. "These kids have great chemistry. There's a lot of character in the entire team. You mix in a couple of special players that have come along over the years, and I think you just get the right ingredients to make a successful team."
(This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)