In the most competitive version of the Generation adidas Cup to date, the Real Salt Lake Under-17 Academy team was able to advance out of the Champions Division Group Stage for the first time since 2015.
The team drew, 1-1, with NYCFC in its first match of the tournament on Sunday, April 14. Later that same day, the team kept French side, Olympique Lyonnais off the scoreboard and earned three points in a 1-0 win.
“We wanted to get further then we did, no question about that,” said coach Juan Fresquez. “Our first goal was to get out of the group. As things played out, playing against River Plate with a chance to win the group, we were exactly where we wanted to be. Unfortunately we lost, 1-0, but I was happy with that performance. We created a couple of very good chances.”
In the quarterfinal round, RSL drew what Fresquez considered to be the top squad at the tournament, Valencia CF, who had won Group D with a record of 2-0-1.
“Teams like River Plate and Valencia, these are world class teams... world class,” said Fresquez. “Our plan was to go and play hard, to press them and play to win. We wanted to shut teams down. A few years ago, we played Real Madrid. After that game, we felt we had too much respect for them.”
Having allowed just two goals in its first three matches, RSL looked poised to contain the Spaniards, but Valencia broke through and found the back of the net twice to advance to the semifinals and eventually the tournament final vs. Seattle.
“Every time we step on the field, we want to represent our club well,” said Fresquez. “We wanted to make sure we were in every game and we were. We work hard as a team defensively. When we have the ball, we want to get numbers up. We want to outwork other teams to have a numbers advantage both offensively and defensively.
I got a chance to talk to the coaches from River Plate and Valencia. They were very complimentary. They know the RSL brand. They recognize us as a tough, tough team. They talked about how MLS academy teams are getting much better and more competitive on the international level.”
With 12 former academy players currently on its first team roster, international tournaments like the GA Cup and the development it provides are where future Real Salt Lake matches in Major League Soccer are won or lost.
“Tournaments like these are so important to the continued growth of these players,” said Fresquez. “I wish we could play in more international tournaments. It's vital to the development of players, just to see where the rest of the world is, not the MLS. We get a chance to compete against MLS academies a lot. But to have the opportunity to participate in a tournament where you play against world class competition, there isn't a price you can put on that in terms of player development.”