CARSON, Calif. – LA Galaxy Under-18 head coach Alex Yi knows that his players have been through a lot this season.
The team underwent a coaching change earlier in the year that saw Yi replace longtime U-18 head coach Eddie Soto. The changes didn’t end with the coaching staff, however, as LA saw plenty of roster turnover with new names like Brian Iloski added to the squad while star prospect Paul Arriola departed for Mexico, signing with Club Tijuana.
Through all the trials and tribulations of the last year, the Galaxy U-18’s did not falter as they qualified for this week’s U.S. Soccer Development Academy Playoffs in Frisco, Texas with a 19-5-4 record to top the Southwest Division. The young charges were placed in Group 8 and will open the competition on Monday night against the San Jose Earthquakes before facing the Dallas Texans on Tuesday night and the New England Revolution on Saturday morning. Only the top team advances from the group and qualifies for USSDA Finals Week, which will be held in Houston in mid-July.
Yi admits that it hasn’t been easy to cobble together a team that is a mix of veteran U-18 players as well as some of the top U-16 eligible players, but he believes that the “growing pains” are over.
“In terms of how they of how these guys have come together, I couldn’t be happier about where we are now compared to any point in the season,” Yi told LAGalaxy.com. “Even appearing at Dallas Cup, even in the first half of the year with Eddie Soto as the head coach and having only lost one game in the first half of the season. It’s been growing pains throughout the whole year and these guys have come together and I think right now is the best moment that we’ve had heading into these playoffs.”
Led by Raul Mendiola, who Yi confidently labels as the “heart and soul” of his team, the Galaxy were able to squeak past Real Salt Lake-Arizona to win the Southwest Division. But the confident, young midfielder isn’t the only weapon on the LA roster. Leading scorer Justin Dhillon found the back of the net 17 times for the Galaxy and he’ll likely be joined up top by Steve Martinez, who was recently promoted from the U-16 level and finished the year with 18 goals for both squads.
Add in talented young prospects like Willie Raygoza, Sebastian Velasquez, and Jaime Villarreal – the younger brother of Jose Villarreal—and the Galaxy enter the tournament with one of the most explosive offenses in the nation. However, ever the leader, Mendiola admits that the squad won’t qualify without a little old fashioned hard work.
“Everybody starts fresh and we know that we have to win every game, but we need to focus on the first game before everything else,” said Mendiola. “Whoever is playing has to focus and respond well and we need to play well as a team.”
To prepare for the tournament, the team trained for three days in the sweltering weather of Visalia, Calif. Nestled in the San Joaquin Valley, the central California town provided an analogous environment to the one that LA will face in Texas. After struggling in the heat in prior tournaments, Yi and strength and conditioning coach Jonathan Brooks perfected a training plan to test his players in a new environment and allow them to come together as a team before ahead of the playoffs.
“We sat down and came up with a program for these guys to get the maximum amount of endurance, cardio and strengthening before we go to Dallas,” said Yi. “The heat was one of the main reasons that we went up there because it was almost identical to Dallas, so we thought why not? We went out and scouted steep hills for short sprints and then we trained in amazing facilities.
“I wanted to bring these guys together similar to a time frame that we’d be in Dallas. They’d be around each other all the time. We did trivia night, we split the group into three and did skits while we were there,” added Yi. “The boys had a blast, they worked hard, and they interacted and got closer when we were off the field. I’ve been telling everyone that the Visalia trip was an absolute success and I think that it will show in Dallas.”
Villarreal didn’t specify what role he played in the skits or how he did on trivia night, but labeled the trip a complete success for the team.
“It was a cool experience because we did a lot of running and fitness,” said Villarreal, “but also for our team to come together, it was very good.”
Yi has already outlined what success is for his Academy team—winning the group and qualifying for Finals week. Advancing in the group that many tab to be the “Group of Death” won’t be easy, but Yi is confident that his side can reach their goal.
“It’s going to be really tough, but these guys have a lot of confidence in themselves and within each other and I think that they can get it done,” said Yi. “It’s going to be a test no doubt.”
Adam Serrano is the LA Galaxy Insider. Read his blog at LAGalaxy.com/Insider and contact him at LAGalaxyInsider@Gmail.com