Both teams have star players, but the key for the thriving Earthquakes under-16 and under-18 academy teams this weekend will be depth.
Academy technical director Chris Leitch says everyone will need to contribute in back-to-back showdowns against the Seattle Sounders FC and Portland Timbers at the Earthquakes Practice Facility. Action starts Saturday with the U-18s taking on the Sounders at 10:30 a.m. The U-16s will follow at 1 p.m. Sunday’s matches against the Portland Timbers are at the same times.
“It’s going to be a really tough test,” Leitch said in advance of the Northwest Division battles. “Playing back-to-back games in the weekend is tough, but then playing two MLS sides, where the quality is always a little bit higher, is going to be especially hard.”
San Jose’s U-18s are 5-0-0 with a plus-14 goal differential, while the U-16s are 3-1-1 with a plus-five margin.\
Overall, there's a positive vibe in the franchise after the Earthquakes senior team earned a MLS Supporters’ Shield before bowing out in the Western Conference semifinals.
Consider the academy teams "Goonies" in training. The teenagers have embraced the club’s never-say-die persona and its emphasis on depth and unity. This weekend will be like a midterm exam. “We’re going to need everyone on the team,” Leitch said. “This is where your depth comes into play, for sure. Playing two games back-to-back is going to be pretty strenuous. We’ve got to make sure that we’re putting fresh legs in there when we need to.”
Players know pretty much what to expect against Seattle, Leitch said, but Portland, which has a relatively new academy program, is more of a wild card.
“The Seattle Sounders are historically a very tall team that plays a little bit more of a direct style,” Leitch said. “So what we’ve done is try to replicate some of things that the boys may see: Last night, that included some longer balls into our back line and kind of how we deal with that, with one defender challenging for the ball and the other defenders being in good supporting positions.”
Moreover, the Quakes are working on having the midfielders collapsing on the back four to be in positions to collect any loose balls. The Quakes focused more on their opponents in the beginning of the week and on their own objectives later in the week.
"The boys know it’s going to be a tough weekend," Leitch added.
The U-18s feature co-captain/midfielder Jesse Garcia, who paces the team with six goals in five games and is a leader by example. Garcia, ala Chris Wondolowski, also puts in extra work on defense, a much-improved part of his game. Defender Trevor Long, a Cal commit, keys the back line, and Elisama Padilla is a handful up top.
With the U-18 team ' s regular goalkeeper out with an injury, U-15 keeper JT Marcinkowski, a youth national team player, may get the call-up to the U-18s.
“He can play at that level,” Leitch said of Marcinkowski.
The U-15s also feature versatile Alex Liua, a big body battler up top, and a handful for defenders, ala Steven Lenhart. Nicholas “Nico” Perez has three goals and shows good promise.
With the Earthquakes senior team’s successful season now finished, there is an increased focus on the academy teams. They are enjoying kicking it on center stage, so to speak.
“I think they understand that this is their time to shine a little bit,” Leitch said. “Hopefully we can continue on with what the first team has done this year. They’ve set a pretty high standard, so that’s the gauge. They set the tone for us, and they’ve set the bar very high.
"So that gives our boys extra motivation to know that this is now where the bar is, and it’s where it’s gonna be year after year."