U-16 and U-18 Academy teams make history winning matching SoCal Division titles

CARSON, Calif. — The talent in the upper ranks of the LA Galaxy Academy continues to impress and capture titles. After the U-16 group won a U.S. Development Academy National Championship last season, the U-16’s and the U-18’s made Galaxy history this season by both finishing atop their respective SoCal divisions for the first time in the same year.

“It’s a good feeling, both of us getting first place and going to the playoffs,” Galaxy U-16 captain Rolando Muñoz said.

Both Academy teams will surely get a high seed when the draw for 2012 U.S. Development Academy playoffs is held later this month.

“It’s exciting,” Galaxy U-16 Head Coach Craig Harrington said of the two squads winning their division. “We want to be one of the best academies in the nation. … It’s a good group of kids. They’ve really bought in to our coaching and played well together.”

The U-18 team is built on many of the players from last season’s U-16 championship club, while the U-16’s reloaded their squad for another playoff run.

“I think this year it was more of the team focus. A lot of the guys are leaving next year so they want to go out again with a win,” Galaxy U-18 defender Matthew Tilley said. “It’s that kind of collective drive to win this thing again, some of us won it last year, some of us didn’t.”

Entering the final weekend of the regular season, the U-18’s had locked up a playoff spot, but needed a win to clinch the division title. An impressive result was exactly what they got, finishing the regular season with a 5-0 win over Nomads SC. The Galaxy finished two points ahead of rival Chivas USA after racking up a 20-4-3 record. The first place finish comes just a year after the Galaxy finished on the bottom of the 10-team SoCal division.

“This team has a lot of talent and I think it was the collective drive and the collective focus on winning and everyone putting 100 percent in,” Tilley said about the turnaround. “There’s a lot of great players on this team, even that being said, if someone doesn’t show up then it kind of hurts the whole team. So I think it was the collective idea of working hard for each other, being a real team, and I think that’s what got us through the season.”

Scoring 75 goals in all competitions, the U-18’s finished the season with an impressive plus-51 goal differential. The offense was led by Drew Murphy’s 11 goals. Sebastian Velasquez (8) and Jose Villarreal (7) were the next two highest scorers. The U-18 defense kept 10 shutouts in the regular season and allowed less than one goal per game.

The U-16’s already had the SoCal division title wrapped up on goal differential going into their final game, but a 2-0 victory over Nomads SC made sure that the Galaxy were outright champions. The Galaxy finished three points ahead of second-place Real Salt Lake Arizona.

“There wasn’t a lot of pressure since we already clinched it, but we just worked hard and finished strong,” Muñoz said.

Forward Justin Dhillon led all Galaxy players with 20 goals while splitting time between the two squads. Jaime Villarreal also notched double-digit goals, scoring 18 times in 25 games. As a squad, the U-16’s averaged more than two goals per game, scoring 74 times in 27 contests.

Tactically, Harrington was pleased with the way that his side bought into the coaching staff’s plan and kept possession of the ball. He wanted his team to control the pace of the game and play sharp, quick soccer. Munoz echoed his coach’s sentiment, saying the key to the U-16’s play this season was that they kept the ball away from their opponents and played “one- or two-touch soccer.”

With more than 20 days between finishing the regular season and beginning the playoffs, Harrington said that they are focusing on keeping things fun and interesting for the players while also preparing for the competition and keeping up a level of fitness to combat the grueling heat of a Texas summer.

Leading up to the postseason tournament, Tilley said that the team will concentrate on “staying fit and keeping the mental focus that our job’s not done yet. We’ve done well so far, but it’s far from over so just keeping focused, keeping in shape so we can keep it going in the playoffs.”

Using the momentum carried forward from their SoCal division championships, both teams enter the playoffs on a roll. The U-18’s have won their last three games and five of six since the start of May, while the U-16s ended the season on an 18-game unbeaten streak that dates back to January.

The playoffs will be held in Dallas from June 25-29. The finals will be held in Houston early next month.