On Thursday D.C. United’s Under-17 Academy side settled into their accommodations in downtown Amsterdam ahead of their participation in the 2011 Aegon Future Cup, and it wasn’t long before the magnitude of this weekend’s challenge was driven home to them.
United will face their counterparts from Bayern Munich in the third and final match of group play in Ajax’s prestigious youth tournament, and with the German superpower staying in the same hotel, D.C. got a daunting glimpse of the Bavarian giants they’ll likely have to defeat to advance to the tourney’s final rounds.
“They’re definitely the biggest team in the group,” noted United youth development coordinator Junior Castro – and he wasn’t talking about the reputation of the club.Aegon Future Cup represents the latest measuring stick for the United academy, which is increasingly utilizing overseas adventures to test their players and expose them to the finer points of elite international play. Entry in the competition was the U-17 team’s reward for winning the SUM Cup – the top honor in Major League Soccer academy play – in Houston last summer, and it builds on similar trips to South Africa and Brazil in January and December of 2010, respectively.
Those experiences were both humbling and encouraging, with some heavy losses interspersed by a few hard-fought wins and draws. Like other MLS youth sides, D.C. has yet to advance out of group play in these elite tournaments, where the opposition often shows savvy and professionalism beyond their years.
“The [D.C. United Academy] players come back knowing how to control the game a little bit more ... because they see how it’s done by the other clubs." explained Castro.
“So it’s good to see our kids line up against those guys who are actually training five days a week, when our kids are only training about three. It’s good to see how they match up against these guys from all over the world.”
The MLS academy system has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years. But top-caliber foreign competitions have offered stinging reminders of the system’s shortcomings and Castro has set his team’s sights on making a breakthrough in Holland.
“The level of competition is going to be very high. [But] I think we’re taking a pretty strong group that we’ve put together,” he said, noting that U.S. Soccer released United product and South Riding, Va. native Patrick Foss from the Bradenton Residency Program to join D.C. in Amsterdam.
“We think we’ll at least get some results out there. The teams that have traveled abroad for these tournaments, no MLS team has advanced out of the first round, so we’re looking to be that first team to get out of group play.”
Foss has spent time as a left back in the U.S. setup, but United hope to make the most of his attacking skills by fielding him on the left wing or up front. The U-17s will also rely on what Castro calls a “really good core” of Jalen Robinson, Collin Martin, goalkeeper Alec Dockser and Sulaiman Dainkeh, a younger player who has already spent time with the D.C. senior team’s reserve squad.
The squad typically lines up in a 4-4-2 formation, but is prepared to adjust to a 4-3-3 shape to cope with the crowded midfields often found in international play. In all, nineteen United players have made the trip from Washington.
United open group play against China at 1:00 pm local time on Saturday, then play Anderlecht at 4:00 pm before facing Bayern Munich at 10:00 am Sunday morning, with championship and consolation matches taking place on Monday. Aegon Future Cup matches are 60 minutes long.