And just like that, it’s over. From April 1 to April 9, MNUFC’s U15 and U17 Academy teams represented the club at the Generation adidas Cup in Bradenton, Florida. Both squads played a total of seven matches, gaining valuable experience against the best-of-the-best in their respective age groups.
Though neither squad advanced beyond the group stage, this year’s tournament gave both sets of players and coaches a chance to learn more about their global competition and what it takes to compete at the highest level. Some gritty showcase displays from both squads made the latter days of the tournament more than worthwhile, making for a week of irreplaceable learning and growth.
For the U15s, the tournament began with a wake-up call. A 4-0 loss to FC Nordsjælland reminded the squad that they would have to fight for every result, putting the tournament into perspective. Head Coach Peter McDonnell wanted his team to understand that while the loss stung, there was more soccer to be played.
“The first game we performed below expectations with the U15s, so it became a learning experience for the next ten days there,” he said. “How do you react to that? Same thing if you’re in first-team preseason and you have a poor game, or if you’re an Academy player that has a bad session when you’re in first-team training. How do you react to that? It’s continuously going to be a learning experience.”
Next game out, McDonnell’s squad held Houston Dynamo to a 1-1 draw, unfortunately losing the ensuing shootout. They rounded out the group stage with a narrow 2-1 loss to Orlando City, ending their chances of lifting the trophy.
Though the pursuit of silverware was over, the GA Cup Showcase provided teams that had been eliminated with a chance for more game time. The U15s earned two wins outright in the showcase against international opponents Club Bolívar and Arsenal FC. A shootout win against DC United showed that the boys had learned from their first round of penalty kicks, while a 2-1 loss to Nashville ended up being the only low point of their post-group stage performance.
After the final whistle, the U15s ended their tournament with a 3-4 overall record, both a shootout win and a shootout loss, and managed to get on the scoresheet in six of their seven matches. They faced off against three international opponents, hailing from Denmark, Bolivia, and England, ultimately proving that they belonged on the same stage as these household soccer names.
Unlike the younger group, the U17s began their tournament with a win. Their 2-0 victory against IMG Academy replaced their scheduled game against Boca Juniors, who unfortunately had to withdraw before the tournament started. With a win under their belts and two games left to play, the Loons had their eyes set on advancing from the group.
Game two was always going to be tough, with Philadelphia Union’s academy program carrying a reputation as one of the nation’s best. A 2-0 loss to Philly left MNUFC needing to pick up points from their final game, but a hard-fought 1-0 loss to Houston ultimately bounced them from the tournament.
In the showcase, the U17s won three consecutive shootouts, showing an ability to grind out results and deal with pressure. Their shootout win against Liga MX side PUMAS was their only international matchup of the week, but their experience against MLS clubs was nonetheless valuable.
Head Coach Justin Ferguson and his team earned a 4-3 record overall, recording three clean sheets and fighting for every result.
GA Cup in Perspective
This competition is both unique and incredibly important in the Academy calendar. It offers young players a fresh look at the game, showing them new ways to approach all aspects of the sport. Even after their own matches end, there are opportunities to soak in the beautiful game from new perspectives and learn about people from different walks of life. To Coach McDonnell, this tournament serves as an introduction to the world’s game.
“The GA Cup is kind of the pinnacle of youth soccer events in the United States,” he said. “We have a number of events that occur, tournaments and playoff tournaments towards the end of the year, but as far as competitive and pinnacle events are considered, GA Cup is the one that all the players talk about. This year, there were a record 49 clubs from 12 different countries. That’s beneficial because it’s the first time, first exposure, for our U15 players to play against international competition.”
But why is that beneficial? Well, they say that if you see it, you can be it. For these MNUFC Academy players, the opportunity to go head-to-head with the academy team of Premier League giants Arsenal can inspire them to believe that they are capable of reaching such heights. They can play with anyone, any day, so long as they believe and work hard towards their dreams.
At the end of any youth player’s career, success isn’t measured in trophies or goals scored. While these achievements are valuable goals to shoot for, the end goal goes beyond that.
“We say that GA Cup is the pinnacle of the experience, but realistically over an Academy player’s life, the most important pinnacle is whether he moves on to first team or second team football or comes back to the club as a staff member or a lifetime fan,” McDonnell said. “If you’re looking at key performance indicators for us at the moment, that’s where we have to look.”