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What does GA Cup title mean for Sounders?

It’s a huge accomplishment, but its importance will be determined by how these players perform as professionals.

Max Aquino/Sounder at Heart

Since it was started, the Generation adidas Cup has evolved considerably. Back in 2007, it was conceived as a way for MLS academies to measure themselves against one another. Some international flair was added in 2014 when the tournament invited three foreign-based cubs.

In 2015, the tournament turned into more of a measuring stick for MLS academies to compare themselves against their foreign contemporaries. The tournament was split into two divisions — Champions and Premier — with fully half the field of the top division featuring academies tied to foreign teams.

Notably, since that expansion, no MLS academy had even qualified for the finals, let alone won the tournament.

The field for this year’s tournament was as strong as any, with massive clubs like Club America, West Ham, River Plate, Lyon, Valencia, Dinamo Zagreb and Flamengo all represented.

That the Sounders won the tournament and beat three of those teams while allowing just one goal over six matches — and didn’t give up a goal for more than 350 minutes to close it out — was impressive in its own right. That many of these same players also won last year’s Premier Division title, the 2018 USSDA Championship and the 2017 Youdan Trophy suggests this is a particularly special group.

But what, exactly, does it mean? Only time will tell.

When Garth Lagerwey joined the Sounders before the 2015 season, one of his first orders of business was revamping the academy. It can probably be overstated just how much work needed to be done — he took over an academy that had already produced two USMNT-caliber players and plenty of other professionals — but Lagerwey deserves credit for thinking bigger and convincing ownership to dramatically increase their investment. At the very least, he professionalized the academy in ways that it previously wasn’t. He added full-time staff in the form of coaches, analysts and trainers. He even brought on a head of education to oversee the academy’s extensive online curriculum, allowing top academy players to train during the day.

Lagerwey understood that for the Sounders to remain competitive that they couldn’t simply rely on outspending teams on foreign signings or striking gold in the SuperDraft. Instead, the Sounders Academy was going to have to reliably churn out quality players who were capable of filling spots up and down the roster.

To do that, Lagerwey created extensive partnerships with clubs all over the region and started aggressively recruiting players from other parts of the country. The fruits of that effort could be seen all over the Sounders U-17 roster, where seven players came from outside the state, including five of the starters in the championship game. Beyond them, the bulk of the roster came from various regional partner clubs like Seattle United and PacNW.

Those partner clubs enjoy the benefits of shared coaching principles while allowing the Sounders to get first-hand experience with an even larger pool of players. By supplementing them with players from outside the area, the Sounders hope to be able to create a continuous pipeline from the academy to Tacoma Defiance and finally to the Sounders.

While all these trophies suggest progress is being made, it should be said that we don’t yet know how successful the academy is. The Sounders have followed through on their promise by giving dozens of academy players professionals minutes, and five of the players on this GA Cup team are already signed to professional contracts, including First Teamer Danny Leyva. Providing those types of opportunities while also pointing to things like the GA Cup trophy will undoubtedly make recruitment easier.

But we’re still at least another year or two away from finding out how many of these players are capable of turning their potential into MLS production. As it is now, Leyva is the only current academy player who already looks perfectly comfortable playing against grown men. Even someone like Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez — who won the GA Cup’s Golden Boot with six goals and a title-winning assist — has yet to score a professional goal in seven appearances for Tacoma. Ray Serrano, who scored the GA Cup-winning goal, has yet to even make his 2019 Defiance debut.

None of that is meant to diminish the accomplishment or potential of this group. The GA Cup may be the most prestigious tournament that MLS academies compete in. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the success or failure of the academy will be judged by how many quality professionals it turns out, not how many trophies it wins.

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