Milestones for a young academy can be as subtle as a USL bench being filled out by youth products, or a local talent getting meaningful time within the first-team squad. The Portland Timbers have seen both of those things happen over the last year, with Carlos Anguiano and Lucas Cini appearing for Timbers 2 last Friday while Marco Farfan continues to have an impact on the MLS squad.
This week, however, marks a different kind of milestone for the Timbers Academy, one that’s born from the U-17 team’s results on the field. Starting Friday, March 23 in Frisco, Texas, the Timbers U-17s will take part in the Champions Division of the Generation adidas Cup – the premier competition for Major League Soccer’s academy teams.
“It’s going to be a very tough competition,” Portland general manager Gavin Wilkinson said. Both he and Ned Grabavoy, the club’s Director of Scouting and Recruitment, will be on hand at the tournament, which, in its Champions Division, also features MLS academy teams from D.C. United, FC Dallas, LA Galaxy, New York City FC, Sporting Kansas City and Toronto FC.
“It’s a collection of some of the better academies in the U.S.,” Wilkinson explained. “For our academy to be in that mix is a positive for our academy. It shows the great work our staff has done with a less populated region and a smaller player pool.”
The Timbers Academy competes in the broader Generation adidas Cup qualifying on an annual basis, but this year marks the first time the U-17s have qualified for the Cup’s final, top level. That success gives the team a chance to, over the next week, compete against some of the top prospects from Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Japan and Spain, with academies from all over the world convening this week in Frisco.
The Timbers’ group stage draw guarantees games against Flamengo, Independiente del Valle, and Atlanta United. Real Madrid, River Plate, Pachuca and Monaco are also among the foreign clubs that will send teams to Frisco, part of a field that will give Timbers’ players five games against some of the top youth prospects the game can offer.
“This is going to be a valuable test for our academy players,” Wilkinson said. “On an individual basis, we will able to compare our players to some of the quality academy players from around the world.”
That the Timbers are even in this position shows the virtue of time, when it comes to developing a successful academy. Though the team has yet to have a pronounced Academy presence at the MLS level, that appears close to changing. Farfan’s emergence was the first sign, but the emerging talents for T2 also speak to a greater contribution going forward.
“I think what we’re seeing is a lot of hard work from many people in our organization that’s starting to come together,” Wilkinson says. “I know there is a very open approach from the T2 staff to bring in academy players. There’s an open approach from the first-team staff, too, when it comes to providing opportunities for our Academy talent.”
Over the next week in Texas, that talent will get an opportunity that can’t be replicated back home, one it earned by winning its first three (of six) games in October’s regional qualifying tournament.
That kind of success is part of the vision for players’ development. While every player needs to be imbued with good skills, strong habits, and the right mindset, you also need to translate those things into results.
“Ultimately, we have to compete,” Wilkinson says. “We have to win at every single level.”
How realistic that standard is over the next week will depend on the team’s schedule – who the U-17s end up facing over their final matches in Frisco. Regardless, the mere opportunity for players to measure themselves against some of the best from Argentina, Brazil, and elsewhere is part of the Generation adidas Cup’s appeal.
The U-17s will feel the full brunt of that on Friday at 12:30 p.m. Pacific when they open their tournament against Flamengo, with matches against Atlanta United (Sunday, 12:30 p.m. Pacific) and Independiente (Tuesday, 12:30 p.m. Pacific) closing out their first phase of this year’s competition.