It’s been a long road for the Houston Dynamo Academy U-16s, presented by Statoil, to reach the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Finals Week here in Houston with a chance to claim a national championship.
When the squad came together for their first practice of the year, head coach and former Dynamo defender Eddie Robinson wasn’t sure what he had on his hands.
“After about two minutes, I looked at my assistant coach and we were taken aback because every player on the field had no knowledge or tactical awareness,” he said. “Every single one of them was out of position. I’m thinking to myself ‘what have I got myself into here’.”
The team had plenty of individual talent, as they had won their division the year before as U-15s playing in a pre-academy league. But now the challenge for Robinson was taking that talent and creating an atmosphere where the sum was larger than the parts.
The team had a great start to the season, running through the tough Frontier Division undefeated in eight of their first nine games before dropping their final two games in 2012. They started 2013 on the right foot, however, winning the next eight games in a row en route to a 13 game league unbeaten streak.
But in the midst of the positive league results, the players received a jolt at the prestigious Dallas Cup tournament. After rolling in their first two group matches by scores of 5-1 and 6-3, the Dynamo crashed out of the tournament by losing their final match 2-1 to New Jersey’s TSF Ginga.
“The guys’ egos get up and then we get bounced by a team we should have beaten,” said Robinson. “It was a wake-up call. They needed it.
“When individuals start playing for themselves, the team doesn’t look good and that’s what happened to us at Dallas Cup.”
The squad finished the season with an 18-5-4 record, good enough for third in the division and a spot at the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Playoffs in Frisco, TX.
The true test would come there at FC Dallas Sports Park, as the Dynamo were grouped with top seed and defending national champions New York Red Bulls. Only one team would advance from the group to Finals Week, and it came down to a win-or-go-home final match between New York and the Dynamo.
“The guys were kind of nervous, but it was a good nervous,” said midfielder Daniel Rutter. “It was not a nervous in that we’re scared of the Red Bulls or that we feel we’ve gotten in over our heads. If we go out and we play like we can play with our heads up and are confident, we can beat any team.”
Those strategies paid dividends immediately, as the Dynamo raced out to a stunning 3-0 lead in the opening half hour behind two goals from Elo Ozumba and another from Christian Lucatero.
FINALS WEEK: Full schedule for the Dynamo Academy U-16s
“Three goals in 30 minutes was outstanding,” said Rutter. “They’ve only had eight goals scored on them the entire regular season. And second half all we had to do was go out there and kick the ball and sit behind it and wait it out.”
Although it wasn’t quite as easy as Rutter made it out to be. New York only lost one game in the 27 leading up to this match, and that was no coincidence. They pushed everything they had forward, claiming a goal in the second half to make it 3-1 and putting the Dynamo defense under constant pressure.
But goalkeeper Andy Rios had “the best game he’s played all year,” according to Robinson, and the Dynamo held off the advancing charges for one of the bigger upsets of the week.
“I ask the guys all the time to finish games out in a professional manner,” Robinson said. “And they did that day.”
What remains now for the young men in orange is to carry that performance and the lessons they’ve learned over the course of the season into their ultimate task: winning the Dynamo Academy’s first U.S. Soccer Development Academy championship on their home ground.
“It’s funny, I think that these last two days of training, these kids have been playing with a confidence that I’ve never seen,” said Robinson. “And I think that win over Red Bull and their accomplishment of making it into finals week is something they needed. They needed to know how good they were to get that confidence.
“It’s not overconfidence, it’s not ego right now, it’s just that they understand. They get it, and they’re starting to realize that all the stuff that we’ve given them, it works. It makes you a better team. So now they’re implementing it into their game. They’re insane. It’s fun to watch.“