Over the past four years, the Houston Dynamo Academy has proven itself as one of the top youth development programs in the United States. Next month, the Dynamo will be given the opportunity to prove itself as one of the top programs in the world when they compete in the U-19 Super Group of the prestigious Dallas Cup tournament. The tournament will run from April 17-24 with a full schedule of games to be released in the coming weeks.
“We have a great history with the Dallas Cup,” Dynamo Director of Youth Development James Clarkson said. “It was the first tournament the Academy entered, and we have been to the finals three times in the past four years. It is something that is on our calendar from day one, and playing in the Super Group is something we have always strived to achieve.”
The Academy’s three finals appearances include championships in the U-17 bracket in 2008 and the U-16 bracket in 2010. In 2007, recent Dynamo signing Josue Soto helped the Academy reach the championship game of its first tournament, only to fall in a shootout. This year, for the first time, the Dynamo have entered teams at the U-15, U-17, and U-19 age groups all in the same year.
“We feel we have a really exciting group of players in the 15s that can be very successful and give us a good look going forward,” Clarkson said. “Previously we have only taken one team, so for us this is a huge undertaking. In terms of talent, we feel we have the depth to take three teams and represent well.”
Although all three teams will compete against world-class competition, only the U-19 group will compete in the tournament’s Super Group. This year’s group includes Arsenal, Barcelona, and Eintracht Frankfurt. Twelve other clubs round out the sixteen-team field, including three other MLS Academy programs – Vancouver Whitecaps, FC Dallas and Real Salt Lake-Arizona. Although the brackets have not been finalized, the Dynamo know they will face Brazilian club Coritiba in their first match. Brazilian clubs have won four of the last six Super Group titles.
“We are finally in it, and we just hope to represent Houston and MLS well,” Clarkson said. “These are the caliber of teams we feel we should be playing, and this is another opportunity for us to expose our players to the highest level of soccer.”
Having said that, Clarkson understands his team will have to perform at a higher level than normal if they want to compete against the teams at the Dallas Cup.
“Tactically, we are going to have to be sharper in terms of the way we defend our counter-attacking,” he said. “We are playing a different caliber of team, and we are not necessarily going to have a high percentage of the ball. We will have to work harder off the ball, as these teams will provide different challenges than we face week in and week out in league play.”
To help his squad compete next month, Clarkson has called upon a former player, Dynamo first team midfielder Francisco Navas Cobo, who represented the U.S. U-20 squad at last year’s Dallas Cup. Navas Cobo does not turn 20 until November and is therefore still eligible to compete in the U-19 bracket. Clarkson said he approached head coach Dominic Kinnear last month about the possibility of Navas Cobo joining his squad for the tournament and, much to Clarkson’s delight, Kinnear was open to the idea.
“He is genuinely excited to play with us," Clarkson said. "We hope he comes in and has a professional attitude, on and off the field. He was a great asset to us when he played with the Academy previously, and we think this will be a great test for him to play within his age group against top teams in the world."
With the Academy’s spring season set to resume on April 30, the tournament will also serve as an opportunity to play competitive games as the squads head into the home stretch of the season. Currently, the U-16 and U-18 squads sit on the outside looking in of the USSF Development Academy playoffs, and a strong showing at the Dallas Cup could be the push they need to make a late-season run.
“The timing is great,” Clarkson said. “It really sets us up for our preparation to hit the ground running when the academy league starts again. Our main focus of the year is still to be successful in our season, and this tournament serves as ideal preparation for our 18s. The experience of playing against the first team was a great start to the year, and now with this experience added on, I expect 2011 to be a great year for the Academy.”