Three weeks ahead of the USA’s first match at the FIFA Under-17 World Cup, two of its key players lined up against each other with a trophy on the line at the MLS Next Pro Final. The championship match between Austin FC II and Columbus Crew 2 capped off the second season for the league, designed to pave the professional pathway from the academy ranks to first division Major League Soccer.
Austin forward Micah Burton and Columbus midfielder Taha Habroune squared off in the final, but they were just two of 13 players on the U.S. U-17 Men’s Youth National Team to take the field in the league this season. Burton lifted the trophy with Austin, one of several U-17 players to make big strides at the club level since the U.S. punched its World Cup ticket in February. Now, the USA’s MLS Next Pro contingent will look to use its growth experiences at the professional level on the world stage in Indonesia.
“This season was another step,” said Burton. “When you’re playing your age group and not in a professional environment, everything’s a little bit easier. This gives you an open mind to improve a lot. It’s the intensity and the little details, how important it is to do the little things. You learn a lot from the older guys because they’ve been in your shoes.”
Nine U.S. U-17 players logged more than 1,100 minutes on the year in MLS Next Pro, while seven made their pro debuts this season in the league. Despite the difficulty for young goalkeepers to break into the professional ranks, U.S. netminder Adam Beaudry took over the starting spot for Colorado Rapids II midseason and was named one of four finalists for Goalkeeper of the Year.
“The pathway is built out in a way where it’s easier to be able to make that jump to the professional level,” Beaudry said. “For me, it was just getting in that group, getting the trust of my teammates and overall, just taking in the experience to keep growing as a player. Playing at that level with the speed and things like that, everything improves.”
While the league aims to complete the professional pathway, it’s still not an easy task for young players to cement themselves as regulars. The U.S. U-17 contingent had to prove to older, veteran players that they could hack it at the professional level.
“The biggest thing for me was being able to learn how to gain trust from older players, build that relationship with them, really how to be a pro and to become a player that people can rely on,” Beaudry said. “The goalkeeping culture that we have at the Rapids is built upon being a leader, being confident and really controlling your team and your back line. Jumping into a team with older guys, the biggest thing was building those relationships and gaining that trust.”
As they proved they belonged, the young Americans in MLS Next Pro needed to improve day-in and day-out to earn meaningful minutes, raising their game as the season progressed. Habroune didn’t start consistently for the Crew until late July, but then earned the nod for 12 of 16 matches down the stretch, including the team’s final three playoff games.
“It was pretty difficult at first, but the more I played, the more I understood how to play against bigger, stronger guys,” Habroune said. “The level is a lot different from academy and playing against guys my age… To play at a higher level, you have to be creative. You have to be able to create chances and be different than everyone else, bring something different to the table.”
The playoffs provided an opportunity for high-stakes, win-or-go-home matches. The U-17s got a taste of elimination soccer during the knockout rounds at the Concacaf U-17 Championship earlier this year, and the MLS Next Pro playoffs provided another proving ground for the young players. Burton’s Austin FC II squad rattled off four straight road victories to lift the trophy.
“A lot of these games have helped me with the speed, the intensity, the pressure,” Burton said. “Pressure is a privilege. I’m kind of used to it now and I like it. We were kind of underdogs in the playoffs. It gave us a little bit more motivation to play our best because we know people doubt us and it’s making a statement that we’re here to play and we’re here to try to win it all.”
Now with the World Cup on the horizon, more than half of the U-17s have their first full professional campaigns under their belts. It’s a big step going from the academy ranks to the pros. Playing against the world’s best 17-year-olds will provide another massive challenge. The experiences gained from duking it out all season in MLS Next Pro should pay dividends in Indonesia as the USA looks to make a deep tournament run this fall.
“It’s very important, getting a lot of minutes with older guys, playing against older, stronger guys,” Habroune said. “Taking in as much information as I can get from all the guys on the team, from the coaches, now that we’re playing against guys our age, I can show what I’ve learned.”