Playing Against Older Competition Helps Academy Players Adjust to the Next Level
Still a few weeks shy of his 17th birthday, Miguel Lopez is one of the youngest players on his Lonestar Aztex U-17/18 Development Academy team, but you’d never know it. Lopez has been playing alongside older teammates for as long as he can remember.
“I’ve played up for as long as I’ve been playing,” he said. “I’ve always played with the 1992s so I know the guys pretty well and they tend to forget that I’m a little younger. We’re more physical than the U-15/16s are I think, and we play a little faster. That’s probably the biggest difference.”
Lopez has been rewarded for his quality performances with Lonestar, earning a roster spot on a Select Team at the 2009 Winter Showcase in Phoenix with multiple call-ups to the U.S. youth national teams, most recently with the U-18 MNT in December. During the Select Team match in Phoenix, Lopez played against players born in 1991 and 1992 under U-18 head coach Mike Matkovich.
“In that Select Team game, I felt like I was playing the same way as I would be playing with my own team,” Lopez said. “Playing against the older guys didn’t really feel like anything new to me, other than the level being picked up a bit in general. I definitely think it helped to have experience playing against 1991s and 1992s, it made me more comfortable in that kind of environment.”
According to Development Academy director of scouting Tony Lepore, it is crucial for players on the youth national team radar to play to the level of their abilities rather than age, especially those born in odd years.
“At this point in the cycle for the U-17s and U-20s, it’s important that the guys born in that odd year, in this case 1993, to challenge themselves,” said Lepore. “Of course, every player and every situation is different, but we have challenged clubs to look at ability versus age placement for national pool players and national team prospects.”
During the Academy Select Team match at the Winter Showcase, technical advisors and scouts took notice of the difference in the level of play between the players born in 1993 who were playing in the U-15/16 age group with their clubs compared to those playing U-17/18.
“We realized most of the standout players in that game were playing U-17/18,” said Lepore.
The national scouting network and youth national team coaches talked with the clubs about specific players they felt should be challenged in a U-17/18 environment. The talking point was a key part of conference calls that took place with every Academy club in January, and the technical advisors have been taking a specific interest in players who play up with teams in their respective areas.
“So far we’ve had a good response from the clubs, and they are really making an effort to put individual development ahead of the team’s needs,” said Lepore. “Every week on our scouting call, I’m listening closely and hearing more and more players being moved up. Miguel has been doing it from the beginning, and is a good example of a player who has helped his standing with the U-18 MNT by playing against older players every day. We’ve seen similar results from players born in 1995 who played U-15/16, a handful of whom are now in Residency.”
Three players on the U.S. Under-17 Men's National Team, which currently consists of players born in 1994 and 1995, are great examples of players who benefitted from playing against older competition. Academy players Kellen Acosta, Martin Arrieta and Zachary Pfeffer all played up in the U-15/16 age group with their respective clubs. They were soon noticed by national scouts and invited to train with the U-15 Boys' National Team before eventually making the jump to the U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla.
“We know that it’s not for everyone,” said Lepore. “But for so many of our national team-caliber players, it’s so important to be playing in a challenging environment. We want clubs to focus on individual player development ahead of the team’s needs. Sometimes we really feel that clubs are hurting their players’ chances for national team events in certain age groups because of hampered development.”