Wilf Thorne/Houston Dynamo

U-18s qualify for playoffs in first year

In its first season in the USSF Development Academy league, the Houston Dynamo Academy U-18 team qualified for the playoffs thanks in part to a 2-1 record at the USSF Spring Showcase in Sarasota, Fla., May 28-31. The Dynamo are one of 32 playoff teams in their age group and will begin play in Greensboro, N.C., June 26. Although the groups have not yet been drawn, the playoffs consist of eight groups of four teams each, with the group winners advancing to the USSF Finals Week in Carson, Calif., in July.

Although Houston slumped in the second half of the season with a 2-5-2 record, losing its chance to win the Texas Division, the Dynamo entered the showcase with a chance to qualify for the postseason as one of 12 wildcard teams, based on overall points per game. After losing their opener to a strong New York Red Bulls team, the Dynamo defeated the Virginia Rush 3-1 and Arsenal (Temecula CA) 3-0, eventually ranking eighth in the wildcard standings.

Since the playoffs will be a similar format – three games in less than one week – Dynamo Director of Youth Development James Clarkson is confident his team, which was often beset by injuries and absences in 2010, will rise to the occasion.

“Now we’ve got three games,” Clarkson said. “Hopefully we can win them and get ourselves to the national finals. Our goal at the start of the season was to make the playoffs. We are the Houston Dynamo. We expect to win.”

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The Dynamo came together for their best performances of the calendar year in Sarasota, scoring six goals in three games while only allowing three. Forwards Martin Castillo (Pasadena Sam Rayburn) and Abe Matamoros (Strake Jesuit) both finished with two goals apiece in the showcase. The team also benefitted from the return of midfielder Bryan Celis (Katy Mayde Creek), who is so young he will still be eligible for the Dynamo’s U-16 team next year. Celis, though, joined the U.S. U-17 national team residency program in January and is only available to the Dynamo on breaks when he is not training with the national team.

“(Bryan) is a great asset and brings a lot of energy to the team,” Clarkson said. “Defensively, he is very good. He is good for the atmosphere and good for morale. We also had some players get fit that were injured; guys that had been injured for the majority of the spring season. It was good to get them back.”

Celis was not the only departure that the team had to deal with this season. In March, midfielder Francisco Navas Cobo became the second player in Academy history to be signed to a professional contract. Navas Cobo had helped lead the team to first place in the Texas Division by the end of November, scoring five goals and setting up numerous others.

“It didn’t help our record when Francisco signed with the first team, but that is what made the season successful, and that is what we are all about,” Clarkson said. “Regardless of how we do in the playoffs, the fact that we got a player on the first team this year is a huge success for us.”

The departure of Celis and Navas Cobo and injuries to key players such as Matamoros have forced the rest of the team to become more balanced and take on its own identity, a process that took some getting used to.

“We were thinking so hard that we lost those players and now we had an excuse to lose, and we shut down for a bit,” admitted Sebastien Ibeagha (Fort Bend Hightower), who has moved from midfield to center back out of necessity this spring. “We didn’t take our own responsibilities. Finally in Florida, we said that it didn’t matter, so we just took it.”

Ibeagha said the Spring Showcase demonstrated the team’s potential that had been on display sporadically throughout the season.

“It just came together and clicked,” Ibeagha said. “As a team we played well, and if we keep playing like that, we should hopefully win the whole Academy league.”

Reaching the playoffs in their first year in the USSF Development Academy league is a major achievement for the Dynamo’s seniors, including Ibeagha, defender C.J. Odenigwe (Fort Bend Travis), defender Benji Saenz (Aldine MacArthur), midfielder Steven Salinas (Katy Mayde Creek), and goalkeeper Pat Wall (Strake Jesuit), all veterans of multiple years in the Dynamo Academy. They want to go out in style before moving on.

“It means we are one of the best 64 teams out of 300-something teams in the country,” said Odenigwe, referring to teams in both the U-18 and U-16 age groups. “We have to set the bar as high as we can for the seniors’ first and only year they have to continue the trademark for the Houston Dynamo. Our expectations are to go all the way and win.”