Although the Houston Dynamo had to wait three weeks for the official announcement, the USSF announced yesterday that the Dynamo Academy U-16 squad (14-7-2) is one of the 32 teams in its age group to qualify for the USSF Development Academy playoffs, to be played at Pizza Hut Park in Frisco, from June 24-28. The Dynamo were placed in a group with the IMG Academy, LA Galaxy, and Sporting KC.
Due to the Academy’s trip to Holland in June, the club rearranged its schedule so its last regular season match was May 28 against the Texas Rush. Houston played the Rush to a 3-3 draw to cap off a nine-game unbeaten streak which dated back to a 1-0 win over Texans SC on April 23. With a 1.91 points per game average, the Dynamo were able to secure one of the 12 wildcard berths given to teams across the country that did not finish in the top two in their respective divisions.
“The spring season has been incredibly enjoyable for the kids,” Dynamo Director of Youth Development James Clarkson said. “They have worked very hard and played really well and deserve everything they have gotten. It’s been a good run, and we hope to continue it into the playoffs.”
The Dynamo will kick off the playoffs Saturday morning at 9 a.m. against IMG Academy (14-7-4), a club based out of Bradenton, Fla. that finished tied for second in the Southeast Division. The Dynamo and IMG are familiar foes, having played in the Dallas Cup U-19 finals in 2007 and 2008. IMG defeated the Dynamo in penalty kicks in 2007, while the Dynamo returned the favor by winning the 2008 championship.
Sunday night, the Dynamo will take on Sporting KC (11-5-5), before closing out the group Tuesday morning with a match against the Galaxy (20-5-3). Although the Dynamo are riding a nine-game unbeaten streak, the Galaxy enter the tournament as the No. 4 seed in the country in the U-16 age group and are considered the presumptive favorite to advance from the group, having edged Real Salt Lake Arizona to finish first in the Southern California division.
“I’m excited about playing the MLS clubs,” Clarkson said. “When we play the MLS teams, they are usually more technical [than other developmental programs] and play the way we want to play. The fact that there are two other MLS teams in the group adds a bit of spice to the competition.”
Only the winner of each group will advance to the Development Academy Finals Week, to be held July 9-16 in Milwaukee, Wis. The Dynamo U-18s advanced to the playoffs in 2010 but fell one point short of advancing through to Finals Week.
“Reaching Finals Week would be great recognition for the players in terms of their development,” Clarkson said of the possibility of his club advancing to Wisconsin. “This group has been together for two years, and last year they struggled, but the improvement over the last 12 months has been incredible. It would be a great reward for them and would highlight how much progress they have made."
With three 80-minute games in four days, fitness will be key to the Dynamo’s success. To prepare the club for the rigors of the playoffs, Clarkson’s squad has been making weekly visits to Accelerated Bodies to work on fitness away from the pitch. Kenneth Hoerner, a strength and conditioning coach and sports performance specialist at Accelerated Bodies, is one of the trainers who has been working with the players over the past few months.
“A lot of the exercises we do revolve around explosive movements and working on increasing the speed of those first few steps,” Hoerner said. “With regard to weights, a lot of these kids are behind the curve, so we are trying to teach them the proper techniques with the various machines, so they can not only get stronger, but stay healthy throughout the process.”
Hoerner added that a key component of the work the trainers do revolve around injury prevention.
“A lot of these guys are playing four-to-five times a week, and invariably they pick up minor injuries,” he said. “We specialize in fitness and rehab, so when the players come to us, we can provide treatments and get them back on the field as soon as possible.”