With a long flight to Houston looming and late morning temperatures creeping towards the 90's, D.C. United's players headed straight for the locker room after a brief practice session this past Saturday. While his players turned their attention towards the Dynamo, Head Coach Ben Olsen momentarily focused on the club's future.
As the first team retreated to RFK, United's Under-16 team - days away from their own trip to Houston for this week's United States Soccer Development Academy National Championship - took the practice field. Olsen wanted to give the group one last look, and pass along a message of encouragement.
“For him to take time after his training session to come over and talk to the boys was pretty special,” said U-16 coach Tom Torres of Olsen’s impromptu appearance. “It lets our guys know that the first team head coach is paying attention to what they are doing and is always watching. That means a great deal.”“We’ve been watching them all year,” added Olsen. “The coaching staff has done a great job and the academy is very well-organized right now. Some new talent is coming through and we are really excited, hopefully some of these kids will be on the big stage at RFK soon.”
The ties between the first team and the club's Under-16 group are many. Andy Najar's younger brother Cristhyan has been a regular in the side this season, and Ian Harkes - the son of club legend John Harkes - is one of the group's most gifted players. Born in 1995, a year before his father would begin writing the opening chapters in club history, the younger Harkes now hopes to make his own contributions to United's impressive trophy collection.
“It does mean a lot to me, and all the history will definitelybe in the back of my mind,” Ian said on Monday. “It’s an honor to represent one of the biggest clubs in MLS. Hopefully we can represent the firstteam well.”
The Under-16’s reached the national finals thanks to adominant run through Group 6 of the USSDA playoffs. Facing a must-win situation in the group-play finale, they useda four goal second-half outburst to down western power Colorado Rush 4-2.
After emphasizing quality play overresults all spring, Torres was glad to see his team produce some substance togo along with their considerable style.
“As the push for playoffs starts in May, results become moreimportant,” noted the Under-16's coach. “All theplayers want to be on the field for these big games and you can see it intraining. The environment getsvery competitive.”
The U-16’s will open play on Tuesday night against the CrewSoccer Academy Wolves, before finishing the group stage with matches on Thursday(vs. PA Classics) and Saturday (vs. St. Louis Scott Gallagher Missouri). View the U-16 playoff roster.