Academy Update: Preseason Friendlies, Lifting Trophies & More

The LAFC Academy kicked off the 2018-2019 US Soccer Development Academy season on Labor Day weekend with all levels in action, including the newest age group: Boys U-15.

The Academy enjoyed a great start to the new campaign with a clean sweep of the results from the weekend. The U15s continued a strong start to the season against Strikers FC on this past Saturday, before all levels return to the pitch on Sept. 15 in Carson against the Galaxy Academy.

But prior to the start of the new season, LAFC took part in a multitude of preseason tournaments and friendlies, most notably the CONCACAF Champions League in Mexico and a friendly tournament hosted by the Academy at UCLA.

Here’s a more in-depth look at those two tournaments with the help of LAFC Academy Manager Tony Vigil and Director of Coaching Enrique Duran:

LAFC Friendly Tournament At UCLA

During the last weekend in August, the LAFC Academy hosted a series of friendly matches featuring some of the best academy sides from the U.S. and Mexico. Taking part in the tournament were Liga MX sides Tigres and Atlas, MLS sides Atlanta United, Sporting KC, Real Salt Lake-Arizona, and LAFC, in addition to the well-respected De Anza Force Academy from Northern California.

Starting in 2017 with just one side from Liga MX and one MLS side, this season’s friendly match weekend, in addition to being held at UCLA, was a success both in terms of the teams participating and the professional environment the tournament created.

“In our first year in 2017, we were able to get Xolos and San Jose Earthquakes to come in. Then we added a couple of local quality Academy teams because it was our first year,” said LAFC Academy Manager Tony Vigil. “I think a big focus for us this year was to increase the competition, and we had a very big focus on bringing in other pro clubs. Especially for our U15s, they’re heading into an age where things are getting more competitive. The reality of signing professional players is a little closer, so we wanted them to experience a higher level of competition.

“To be able to bring in another MLS club like Atlanta and RSL, and then add two Liga MX teams in Atlas and Tigres, was huge. It allows us to widen the competitive perspective for all of our players and staff, and sharpens our ability to evaluate our work thus far at the Club. The focus on that professional environment really trickled down to the younger age groups. I think we actually exceeded expectations in those age groups with having SKC and RSL come in, and then have a club in De Anza that’s done really well up in Northern California. It gives our players a unique challenge that will complement the next 10 months of the DA season.”

In a weekend in which the LAFC Academy fielded teams from the U12, U13, and U15 levels, LAFC showed well with a stellar record across the weekend, including a pair of victories over the Liga MX sides for the U15’s, and a 3-0 victory for the U13s over Sporting KC.

While the results for the LAFC Academy were memorable, it was the impression left on the visiting academies that tell the bigger story of the weekend’s importance.

“I think the all of the visiting clubs, especially the MLS and Liga MX sides, were very pleased with the level of professionalism we displayed during the weekend. The visiting U15 clubs were all staying on campus at UCLA, had an entire weekend of top level competition, and found some time to explore Los Angeles.  The Liga MX teams I think went home very pleased with their trip because they were such good games,” Vigil said. “We were able to play against top competition, which is an important piece of developing players for us. I think we took some important steps with the event this year that will allow us to continue to effectively grow our Academy.”

With the second edition of the friendly match weekend a unanimous success, in keeping with LAFC’s efforts to continue to grow the game in Los Angeles, Vigil said he has further expansion in mind for year three.

“When we talk about other teams that we want to include, we want to expand to a bigger MLS pool, we want to expand to a bigger Liga MX pool, and we want to tap in to other continents like Europe and South America.

“Again, competitive experience against MLS and international clubs is so valuable for our players, as it creates heightened opportunity for them to evaluate themselves, and widens their perspective on how many players are in the world trying to become pros.”

Concacaf U13 Champions League

The Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League hosted the top academies from across North America, Central America and the Caribbean for an international tournament to crown the best in the region. As the only participant from the U.S. at the U13 level, the LAFC Academy defeated Juniors Tampico of Mexico 2-0 to bring the trophy back stateside.

The tournament win was the second of 2018 for the U13s and their coach Enrique Duran – the U13s also hoisted the Manchester City Cup at the end of May.

Now back and beginning a new season with his team, Duran took some time to talk about the experience with the LAFC Academy at the CONCACAF Champions League tournament:

What Did The Opportunity To Compete Against Other Teams In The Region Mean?

Duran: As a coach, I think that this is one of the great opportunities that we can have to see what is the level of our players competing against different teams that they are not used to, playing against different styles that give us challenges that we are not used to playing against. I think also, it gives a different perspective of the soccer in Concacaf and the level of the players that will be competing against our boys in the next seasons.

What Were Some Of The Challenges Of An International Tournament?

Duran: Especially seeing the different profiles that other countries have is one of the challenges. When I talk about the style, we think that all teams play a beautiful type of style. But when we go to these kinds of tournaments, you can see that the teams are playing to win, and they are going to be doing whatever they can to win the game. We are talking about long balls, physicality, the second balls, things that we are not used to playing against, situations that we are not competing every weekend. It was a real challenge and interesting to see how the players were reacting to these situations.

What Were Your Impressions Of The Team In The Group Stage?

Duran: We had the group stage with three games. In the first two games, we had good scores. But we were not satisfied with the level of the players. We were feeling that we got good results with 4-1 scores in the first two games, but we had a feeling that the players were in a bit of a comfort zone. Players felt it was a bit easy for them and the tournament was not tough enough for them. After these two games, we had to the chance to play against one of the toughest teams in the tournament and we got a bad result. We lost 4-1. But that was maybe the best moment of the tournament. It was kind of a wakeup call for all of us, starting from the coaches and ending with the players. I think it brought us the extra energy we needed for the rest of the tournament, to continue working, to work hard, and to fight for the spot that we wanted to get in this tournament.

What Was The Biggest Change In The Team After The Loss?

Duran: I think after that loss, we started to play better. But that was something that I really expect from the players because I am used to seeing them play really good soccer. What I really liked from the players was the way they reacted mentally because we are not used to losing as many games as maybe other teams. They showed a very mature response. They took responsibility for the bad game they had. And they were trying to prove themselves in the quarterfinals against Toronto FC. For me, that was the most positive response I had gotten from the group since I started coaching them a year and half now.

What Was Different In the Knockout Rounds?

Duran: To be honest, after the game that we lost, the team meeting that we had that night changed the approach completely from the players for the rest of the tournament. We talk with them a lot about the importance of not only winning but winning by playing good soccer. Because in the end, we need to teach them the style that we would like to implement in all the LAFC Academy players. I spoke with my assistant coach and I said, ‘Look, I think that we can win or lose the tournament, but for sure tomorrow we are going to play a good game. And you can see in the players’ faces that they are going to be giving us a good time.’ They bounced back with a very good performance against Toronto, and I think that helped them to build their confidence after the bad performance against Plaza Amador of Panama. And hey, they were building a new story for the LAFC Academy.

How Did The Team Deal With the Pressure Of The Tournament?

Duran: At the end, we want them to feel that pressure. We want them to feel that they are in an environment that only the best players will make it to the objective that all of them will have in mind: that is playing for the first team one day. They need to feel that responsibility and they need to feel that they want to be a part of a professional environment. If they want to accomplish their dreams, they need to be facing these situations. LAFC, just like many big clubs in the world, they are always going to be asking that of the Academy players, too.

What Were The Nerves Like Before The Final?

Duran: I was more than nervous, I was very focused. I think we had like two days to prepare the final. We were expecting a different opponent, that change our plans a bit because we were changing all the scouting that we did. We needed to then watch more and more games of the team we were facing in the final. But we tried to just give the players a few points that could be interesting for them to know regarding the opponent.

During the pre-match talk, we saw that the players were a little nervous. They were moving around a lot, asking a lot of questions. And we tried to do the opposite thing from our perspective, just trying to calm down the players. We showed them the importance of the game but that they needed to enjoy. They needed to perform well and bring in all the confidence that they deserved after the good performance that they had in the last two games before playing the final.

What Were Your Emotions When The Team Raised The Trophy?

Duran: Being a new Academy, being a new Club, we were feeling a part of the history of the Club. At the moment we were getting the trophy, the players were kind of feeling out all this pressure that they had during the previous days. It was a really good moment. Of course, they are just kids, 11, 12 and 13 years old, but it is very good that they will start to experience that winning mentality and they will start to get the kind of opportunities where they are going to be succeeding during a tournament. At the end, that is what we want. We want to create good, full soccer players, but they also need to have the right mentality and the right personality. That tournament is going to help them to build their confidence, their personalities, and to have the winning mentality that we would like to establish in the Academy.

What Did It Mean To Have The Support Of The Club While In Mexico?

Duran: That was an amazing thing. I want to talk about the support from John [Thorrington] because when John came into the locker room for 10 minutes or 15 minutes before the kickoff, for the players it was a boost just to help them see how important it was for the Club. The videos from the 1st team players and staff that were sent to us also provided some energy for the players for the final. They didn’t realize how the people from LA were supporting us. When John made the trip just to support us, it was very important for all the Academy staff and for all the players, of course.

Now That The New Season Has Started, Have You Noticed A Difference In Your Team?

Duran: It’s a bit tough because they had an amazing experience and they had an amazing tournament. But the first thing I said to them when they came back for training was, ‘Guys, I feel sorry for you because this trophy that you won is not going to be helping you to win any tournaments during the season. We need to forget about the good things that we did in the last 10 days, and we need to start building our story again.’ That’s tough because they are kids. It’s difficult for them to understand because they are thinking, ‘Wow, coach. We are the best team, the Concacaf winners.’ But they need to understand that winning or losing at this moment, at this stage for the players, is just part of their education. Of course, they need to be positive and this experience is going to help them. But like I said at the beginning, it is not going to be helping them win any games this season and it is not going to help them accomplish the goal that is in their minds of becoming professional players.