For the Houston Dynamo Academy U-18 squad, its first season as a USSF Development Academy team cannot simply be judged by wins and losses. By all measures, this year’s season – with Francisco Navas Cobo signing a Dynamo first team contract and Bryan Celis and Fernando Piña earning invitations to the U.S. Residency program – can be considered a success. This weekend though, the squad will look to build on that success when it travels to Greensboro, N.C., for the first round of the USSF Development Academy playoffs.
“Making the playoffs is great,” said James Clarkson, Dynamo Director of Youth Development. “The U-16s and U-18s have shown what our players and program are capable of. Ultimately though, we are judged on the number of players making the step up to the professional level, and with Francisco Navas Cobo signing a first team contract and making his MLS debut, we are very proud of this season.”
This season has been a rollercoaster ride for the U-18 squad. After a blazing start in the fall, the Dynamo entered the winter break as one of the top teams in their division.
“In the first half of the season we were consistent,” said assistant coach Scot Fraser. “We had a good team shape and organization. We had a system that suited the players, and we had the players to play the system. We went on a seven-game unbeaten streak. Then we had the break, which came at the wrong time for us. The high school season started, and some of the players got injured.”
As spring rolled around, the Dynamo could not quite regain the form that led to their fall success. With the departures of Navas Cobo, Celis, and Piña, and injuries to key players including forward Abé Matamoros (Strake Jesuit), Houston struggled to earn positive results.
“After the trip to Europe, the team was together and very confident,” Matamoros said. “When winter came along, we lost a couple players, and the morale went down because we were all so close. Our mentalities just weren’t the same.”
While a playoff spot seemed inevitable in December, a late-season collapse put those prospects in jeopardy. It took a herculean effort at the Development Academy Spring Showcase, in Sarasota, Fla., to ensure the Dynamo would continue playing meaningful games in June. With two wins out of three games in Florida and favorable results from other matchups around the country, the Dynamo finished with a points per game average of 1.62, which was good enough for one of the 12 available wildcard playoff spots.
“When Sarasota came along, we put the fact some players had left behind us and got our groove back on,” Matamoros said. “Now we are feeling ready to go to North Carolina and perform. Everything that has happened does not matter anymore, and we are just looking to start all over again.”
Midfielder Sebastien Ibeagha (Fort Bend Hightower) believes the team turned things around when players stopped making excuses for losing and began to look for ways to improve the product on the field.
“We were making too many excuses, like players leaving the team or other players getting hurt," he said. "Before Sarasota, we decided to stop making excuses for our actions and start doing what we had to do."
With Celis (Katy Mayde Creek) back for the summer, and many of the starters having recovered from their injuries, the Dynamo will look to carry their Spring Showcase momentum into the playoffs. The path will not be easy though, as the Dynamo, seeded 25th in the tournament, share a group with the Colorado Rush, D.C. United, and CASL from nearby Raleigh. To advance to the next round of the playoffs, the Dynamo must win their group, which is no easy task considering their opening match is against the third-seeded Colorado Rush.
“When you get to this stage in the competition, nothing is easy,” Fraser said. “We might think that some teams are better than others. You would expect MLS teams, when they play each other, would have a slight edge to the game because they want to prove something. All of the remaining 32 teams are quality teams.”
This coming weekend has added meaning to Clarkson and the Dynamo Academy. With 11 seniors on the squad, seven traveling with the team to Greensboro, many of the Dynamo players could be wearing the Dynamo orange for the last time before they begin their collegiate soccer careers.
“The current group of seniors have been outstanding, and many of them have been with us from the start,” Clarkson said. “They have really set the standard for all the young players coming through on and off the field.”
Matamoros believes it is important to play for hard for the seniors, because he not only considers them teammates on the field, but family off it.
“It just hit me that they were leaving,” he said. “I have grown up with them for so long. It’s weird that they are leaving, and this could be the last time I am playing with them. We have to play for them, because this could be their last time playing for the Dynamo jersey. We have to play for them and make them proud.”
Fraser said that many of the seniors have been crucial to the success of the program, pointing to defenders C.J. Odenigwe (Fort Bend Travis) and Ibeagha, who are not only defensive stalwarts, but are dangerous offensively on set pieces.
“There is no substitute for experience,” Fraser said. “People like C.J. and Sebastien are not only physically big, but also have a huge influence upon the team. If they are playing well, we play well.”
If the U-18s hope to play meaningful soccer past this weekend, Odenigwe, Ibeagha and senior goalkeeper Pat Wall (Strake Jesuit) will need to provide the same leadership and dedication that has carried the team all season.
Three games stand between a trip to Carson, Calif., for the Development Academy Playoff Finals Week and a long flight back to Houston. Fraser believes that Saturday’s game against Colorado is most important, because it will set the tone for the rest of the tournament.
“If we get a good result from the first game, it will take the pressure off,” he said. “It’s like anything else. We have to defend well, be able to keep the ball, and put teams under pressure. We have the players to do that. If we play well, we will be a very difficult team to play. Teams will not enjoy having us in their section.”