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Academy Players Watch Teammates in U-17 World Cup

From Frisco, Texas, to Pachuca, Mexico, youth men’s soccer is in the midst of a busy summer schedule.

While the U-17 Men’s National Team prepares to face New Zealand in their final group game of the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup in Pachuca on Saturday night, some of their teammates are also playing some important matches of their own as the U-17/18 age group kicked off the Development Academy Playoffs at Pizza Hut Park.

A total of 15 players on the U.S. U-17 MNT roster hail from the Development Academy, representing 14 clubs, including five that are participating in the Playoffs: Arsenal FC, Cal Odyssey, Cosmos Academy West, Crew Soccer Academy and FC Dallas Juniors. Arsenal FC actually has two players with the national team – the only team to have more than one – in goalkeeper Wade Hamilton and forward Paul Arriola.

As those five teams compete for a coveted berth to 2011 Finals Week in Milwaukee, Wis., the players are also excited to watch their teammates on television as they compete at the highest level possible for their age group.

“They are amazing players and it was an honor playing with them,” said Arsenal FC U-15/16 midfielder Mason Klerks, a teammate of Hamilton and Arriola. “It’s cool because you actually see one of your friends, one of your teammates go to this World Cup and compete and do well. It makes me want to work harder.

“It definitely motivates you to try to be there with them,” said Arsenal teammate Jose Carrera.

Cal Odyssey U-17/18 forward Gregory Antognoli II has played with U-17 MNT defender Nathan Smith since 2004 and agrees that seeing his friend play at the highest level is inspiring. He also knows how fortunate he is to play against him on a regular basis.

“Playing with Nathan has helped me out a lot,” said Antognoli. “He’s a great player and deserves everything he’s getting. [Playing against him] pushes me, but I think we push him too. He’s a little bit younger but plays like he’s a couple years older. He tells us what’s going on in practice, in the locker room, and it sounds exciting. He tells us stuff they do and we try and integrate it into what we do. It definitely gives us a goal to keep in mind.”

Cosmos Academy West sent Esteban Rodriguez, better known as “Stevie,” to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Mexico.

“Stevie is a fantastic player,” said Cosmos Academy West U-17/18 midfielder Zev Taublieb. “He’s always positive and I love playing with him. I’ve played with him a couple times at the Academy, and it’s fantastic seeing him at this high level with the U-17s. He motivates me because he’s playing at the highest level that you can play as a U-17 player and since a goal of mine is to become a professional, he’s leading the way and showing me what I can do to eventually become as best a player that I can be.”

“It’s inspiring to watch him in Mexico,” said forward Jose Dheming. “It makes me want to be on the national team. You just have to work harder and you’ll get called up. He’s doing great.”

Boyd Okwuonu plays on FC Dallas Juniors U-17/18, home club of U-17 MNT defender Kellyn Acosta. Okwuonu, who was part of the U.S. U-17 Residency Program in the Fall of 2009, compares the relationship between him and Acosta to that of a big brother and little brother, and the two have always helped each other out.

“The World Cup motivates me like crazy because it shows you that the sky is the limit,” said Okwuonu. “I’m proud of him and it shows everybody that he’s not the only one that can do it. There’s a bunch of our players that can get there. It opens the gate for us basically.”

When the U.S. U-17 Men’s National Team faces New Zealand tonight at 6 p.m. CT, the players’ teammates will be watching in the Athletes’ Lounge to cheer on their friends to reach their goal of qualifying for the next round. But at the same time, they know those 90 minutes will inspire them to achieve their own goal: advance to Finals Week and play for the Academy championship.