It’s the biggest event of the North American youth soccer calendar.
The GA Cup is underway in Bradenton, Florida with 40 teams competing in both the U-15 and U-17 age brackets. Each team will play seven 60-minute matches between April 1 and April 9 with the first three in the group stage determining which sides will enter the winners bracket.
Toronto FC, and the rest of the MLS academies, are sending teams in each age group.
“It's one of the top international youth tournaments out there,” said TFC Academy U-15 coach Arman Mohammadi on Wednesday. “An opportunity for all MLS teams to really showcase themselves and play against some top dog academies in Europe, in South America, and from Africa as well, which is really good exposure for our guys.”
“To be able to play against academies from Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, etc., this opens their eyes to the different tactical elements that exist out there, the different styles of play, the different qualities of players,” he continued. “And hopefully it propels every single one of them to have more and more of these games as they continue their careers.”
Terry Dunfield will lead the U-17s in Florida.
Asked to sum up the competition, he looked to one of his charges: “Lazar Stefanovic was there last year. He's put together a video to calm the nerves of everybody that we're going to use for our matchday presentation.”
“[It] says it's an incredibly high-performance environment, there's nothing to fear, this is the best team we’ve had go at U-17 level in a while, and our objective is to get out of the group,” Dunfield relayed. “Players hearing from their peers, it's powerful.”
The GA Cup comes in the middle of the MLS NEXT season, which resumed at the start of February following a winter break. Planning for the tournament is a year-long endeavour, but ramps up as the date draws closer.
“Focusing on ourselves, maintaining our fitness, and making sure that everybody's sharp from a physical standpoint, from a tactical standpoint, from a psychological aspect as well,” outlined Mohammadi. “It was good that we had a week to buffer without games. You can start shifting the focus a little bit, managing the body, managing the mind. And then just training and getting geared up and ready for it.”
For the U-17s the 2023 Concacaf U-17 Championship in February, where TFC had nine players in the Canada squad, presented a wrinkle.
“It was difficult for the guys coming back from World Cup Qualifying. It was such a big experience, probably the biggest in their careers, and they were a touch emotionally and physically drained,” said Dunfield. “We gave the group lots of time off where we could, prioritized freshness for the GA Cup, but then also really challenging the players to help develop their games.”
“We had Lazar go out with the first team. We had Theo [Rigopoulos] with the second team,” he highlighted, both have featured in TFC II’s opening matches this week. “We tried to find the right balance of time off to re-juice and then also really challenging them with our training sessions.”
There is always an overarching plan, but preparations must be adaptable.
“We roadmapped the season out into three parts,” laid out Dunfield. “From the end of August to Christmas was the league and then the last three months have really been preparation for GA on the back of Canadian World Cup Qualifying. In this middle part we’ve prioritized really living our ID, which is intense, fluid, connected football.”
Each squad will consist of 20 players, whittled down from the larger groups at each academy.
“Really difficult decisions,” said Dunfield of the selection process. “We feel like it's important that some of our top ‘07s U-16s are involved as well, so that they're going to get a double GA opportunity. We have an ‘08 that could play with the 15s as well as.”
“It's a deep group; a group that have really come together over the year. They're beginning to drive the training sessions,” he outlined of the U-17s. “And it's a hungry group as well. They love winning: matches, training sessions, whatever it is, they just love winning.”
Of the U-15s Mohammadi said: “One of the things that both I and my assistant coach Taylor [Lord] are really proud of is the resiliency of this group and the togetherness. Those are two big things that we prioritize.”
“When they take a hit, they get right back up and it doesn't really faze them, they're on to the next action. If one guy goes down, the other guys are right there to pull them up and push through,” he continued. “And then we've got really talented kids, so it's a perfect blend of the three.”
The U-15s were drawn into Group 5 alongside Toulouse FC, Real Salt Lake, and FC Cincinnati.
“It's a really enjoyable group,” said Mohammadi. “As competitors we want to have these quality teams in our group. It's also good that it's a different look – it's not a team that we've played a couple times already in the season.”
“Without going too much into our team secrets,” he hinted, asked about getting the guys ready for the challenges. “We do our homework.”
They beat Cincinnati 1-0 in their opener and will play Real Salt Lake on Sunday and Toulouse on Monday.
The U-17s are in Group 6. They face Atlas FC on Saturday at 2:30 pm, Charlotte FC on Sunday, and Sporting KC on Monday. TFC’s match against Atlas will be streamed on Apple TV.
“We’re pretty dialed in on what we feel Charlotte and KC will be like,” said Dunfield. “Atlas are a pretty direct team, with quality and they're pretty pragmatic. We’re excited to take them on and represent.”
Both coaches' messages echoed.
“Just go in with a fearless mindset,” said Dunfield. “That whoever we play, we're going to go get after it and live our ID. It won't be perfect in game one, but we're going to challenge the guys to grow as individuals and as a team.”
And Mohammadi: “Really embrace the moment and the opportunity.”
“Go out there and enjoy what this event means and what it is, but understand that this is not just some type of vacation and holiday,” he continued. “These guys don't have that mentality at all, but it's always to refocus and say, ‘We're going to this event, there's going to be some great teams to play, but our job is to get all the way to that final and win playing our style and our way of football and really enjoying every step of the way.’”
There are trophies on the line. The results are important, but they aren’t everything.
“Having them showcase themselves, put a good step forward, get exposed to these types of competitions and players,” listed Mohammadi of the goals for the U-15s. “It's about building the foundations and preparing them for what might come down the road, but also having them know that they belong on this stage. They are capable of being on the stage, regardless of which opponent is in front of them. That's what they need to remember when that first whistle blows.”
The big takeaway for Dunfield?
“It's a simple one: that they've grown as people and as players and they're better for this experience,” he replied. “That they're able to take on all of these learnings and they’re better people and players for it.”