While City2 was one of the top teams in MLS Next Pro, the MLS development league, City’s two academic teams also succeeded. City’s Under-17 and Under-16 team will compete in this weekend’s MLS Next Championships in Dallas. The U-16s opened the 32-team singles elimination tournament on Friday against the Boston Bullets and the U-17s face FC Delco of Philadelphia on Saturday.
City sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel said, “I think it’s a special situation, putting two teams on the field last summer, only two of our teams, and both qualifying for the Nationals. I would call it impressive, something you wouldn’t expect.”
The teams took different paths to the championship. The U-16s qualified by finishing second in the division, while the U-17s, who were fifth in the five-team division, won the MLS Next Flex qualifiers, defeating the defending champions from Real Salt Lake 2- 1 day. A header from the start of the second half for defensive midfielder Mickey Lai of Florissant despite dropping to 10 men after an early red card.
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The City Academy teams were the first to wear the team armband in competition, and they started playing last year, and many of the Under-17 team’s players were promoted to play for City2.
The U-17 team will be recalling some of these players this weekend. Fritz Vollmar, Aaron Heard, Miguel Perez, Josh Maher, Nathan Ferguson and Anthony Vobel, who have been playing and training with City2, will return to join the club for the championship. These players also appeared occasionally for the Under-17 team during the upcoming season of Major League Soccer, including during the Flex Qualifying Tournament.
City2 coach John Hackworth said, “It’s a huge leap for academy players to play with pros and in pro matches, and what you have to do is have them step back and play in their age group more often and feel, ‘Well, I have that confidence, I can do anything,’ And I could be a universal racket at this age.” It doesn’t quite happen, but this process for each individual along their own growth path is really important.”
Players who remained with the Under-17 team also stood out: goalkeeper Owen Spur of St. Charles, left back Nathan Yao of Chicago, right back Nolan McGuire of Cape Girardeau, and quarterback Brian Franco of Omaha, Neb. Already making an impact outside of St. Louis is striker Caden Glover of Columbia, Illinois, who missed part of the season while playing for the US Under-15 team and scored a goal in a game against Belgium. He plays for two years with the Under-17 national team.
While development is the goal of these teams, at this point in the season a win can help drive development.
“Winning is only important because it allows you to play stronger games and to compete better,” said Del Shelly, director of City Academy. “The more games these kids play against that ad level where expectations are high, the better the chances for development. This weekend the games are a single elimination, so that group of 32, the next day it’s a group of 16 Only and the next round is only a group of eight. So the pressures are high, the margin of error is low, and getting scores is important because each of these games adds to the player’s development.”
City will add two academic teams next season, a U-15 team and a pre-college team, or an under-20 high school alumni team considering the next step.
As the City Academy team plays in the championship this weekend, the team’s success is mirrored in all of St. Louis youth football. These players may wear the City badge on their shirts, but they have learned to play against other clubs.
“One hundred percent,” said Shelley, who was with Scott Gallagher before joining City. “We have players from major organisations, a number of Scott Gallagher, in Missouri and Illinois, out of Le Foss, out of Sporting and other independent clubs. … There are some really outstanding coaches and the amazing work that the local clubs are doing to facilitate what we are trying to do. They are delivering and developing Really good players.”