To wrap up these previews we’ll take a look at the youngest full-time team in the Sounders Academy system, the U15s. This is the first year that the Development Academy Playoffs have included the U15s and it’s a great opportunity for the young Sounders to measure themselves against the other top teams in their age group.
The U15 squad comes into the playoffs as the No. 5 seed following an undefeated season that saw them go 16-0-3 (W-L-T) with a +46 GD, placing them atop their conference. It’s an impressive season, and it’s easy to look at it and have trouble understanding how that only earns them the No. 5 seed, but there were four other undefeated teams with either better goal differentials — Montreal had an identical record, but a +68 GD — or better records overall — Toronto went 19-0-1 with a +88 GD. The inaugural playoffs for the U15 age group will be a difficult test, to be certain, but the Sounders’ development system is built on the idea of challenging players at the highest level possible and this team will have already been tested in tournaments like the Youdan Trophy and Manchester City Cup. Still, facing Toronto, Montreal, as well as South Florida’s Weston FC is sure to be a challenge.
Playing in high-level international tournaments is just one way that the Academy players are pushed and tested. The system also takes them out of their comfort zones and really accelerates development by moving players up to the next age group and getting them playing time with the Tacoma Defiance as quickly as possible. The U15 side features five players who have made appearances with the U17s in regular season or GA Cup action. One of those players, striker Austin Brummett, became the youngest player to appear in a USL Championship game this season when he came on for 35 minutes with the Tacoma Defiance in a game against Phoenix Rising. A sign of the progress and development for the Academy system is recognition from the national team program. Among the Sounders U15s, seven different players have been called into a youth national team camp or the regional talent ID camps that were held earlier this year — that’s nearly a third of the roster for this age group.
While there’s always the possibility of players playing up in age for the playoffs, there’s a precedent for having players mostly play within their age group for these types of tournaments. With that in mind there are some players in particular to try to keep an eye on as the competition progresses.
The player on this roster most likely to open up a game and give the team a goal is attacker Oscar Rincon-Rodriguez. In 18 appearances with the U-15s Oscar put up 18 goals and 14 assists. He played up with the U-17s on their way to GA Cup glory this year, scores in bunches, and has the skill and vision to play a final ball for his teammates. Joshua Hardin, one of the four ’05 birth-year players on the team, is the only player to appear in every game for the U15s this season. In his 19 appearances, the winger tallied seven goals, demonstrating the skills and instinct that got him into the USYNT talent ID camp, as well as a notable durability. The cliché is that goals change games, and Hardin and Rincon-Rodriguez are a good bet to provide one, but defense wins championships (also a cliché, also true).
A likely key to the U15 side’s defense is another ’05, Angel Martinez. The centerback — and sometimes defensive midfielder — split his time between the U15s and U17s, making nine starts and 10 appearances with both teams. Martinez contributed to the U17 side that won the GA Cup, and earned a call to the U15 youth national team side that competed in the Torneo Delle Nazioni last month along with Brummett.
Hardin and Martinez, along with the other ‘05s on this U-15 team, anchored a team primarily composed of players from the Sounders Development Program as they finished third in the Manchester City Cup. Highlighting the team’s performance in the tournament were an impressive penalty shootout against LAFC to advance to the semifinals, and a brace from Martinez as they routed the LA Galaxy U14s in the third-place game. Reed Baker-Whiting and Antonio Herrera are the other two ‘05s on the team, and the four of them are part of the first group of players to spend a full three years in the Sounders Discovery Program, which has provided them an opportunity to be more fully immersed in the style and systems of play that the club wants to use even at the youngest ages. This tournament will serve as a good chance to see how the program stands up next to the systems in place at other clubs for this age group.
You can follow along as the U-15s start their inaugural playoff run on Thursday, June 20.