Four young men are on their way back to the bright lights of Los Angeles after another enthralling rendition of the U-17 Concacaf Championship.
Kobe Hernandez-Foster, Adam Saldana, and Mauricio Cuevas, having represented the United States at this year’s tournament, will return with silver medals in their luggage. Hernandez-Foster will also hold the consolidatory achievement of being named in the team of the tournament. Efrain Alvarez, however, boasts the coveted first place medal that he helped Mexico snatch from the hands of his LA Galaxy teammates.
International football has the tendency to cause these awkward confrontations between players from the same club while representing their respective countries. Despite Alvarez being the only member of this Galaxy quartet, each player can hold their head high given their decent showings throughout each stage of the tournament.
The stalwart of Raphaël Wicky’s defensive unit, Hernandez-Foster’s inclusion in the U-17 Concacaf Championship team of the tournament was not awarded out of pity.
A simplistic, no-nonsense style of defending meshed with an impeccable ability to read the game is precisely what Hernandez-Foster delivered across his six starts at center back. Aside from a nervous first half display in the tournament opener against Canada, he proved to be the glue that solidified a near impenetrable backline throughout the knockout stages of the tournament.
On top of the relentless pressure from his offensive teammates, Hernandez-Foster asserted his dominance over Panama and Canada in his own defensive third. His pace and strength were too much for either side’s forwards to contend with whenever they broke on the counter, and their midfielders struggled to provide quality service with his quick reading of their passes’ intended destinations.
The young defender showed his tendency to be swayed out of position, but it rarely ever resulted in the opposition producing a goal or clean-cut opportunity. His and Tayvon Gray’s lack of chemistry did surface in the final against Mexico, but his individual attempt to guide a relatively unfamiliar defense against a formidable Mexican front line was an admirable one and boded well for his stock within the squad for October’s U-17 World Cup in Brazil.
Saldana was very much so the unsung hero of Wicky’s first competitive squad and a key figure in implementing his style of play on this young group.
It was evident that the main points of attack for the U.S. would come from their wingers breaking down their respective flanks before serving the ball back inside for either the striker or central midfielders to finish off. As the deepest lying central midfielder of the three, Saldana was responsible for providing the wingers with possession in order to make those darting runs to the goal line. His arrowing diagonal balls not only permitted possession to his wingers, but they also momentarily destabilized the opposition’s marking and freed the center midfielders to make runs into the ensuing gaps of space for a return ball.
His assist to Griffin Yow’s goal against Guadalupe epitomized the exact reason as to why Wicky made him the pivot point to his team. Saldana picked out the winger on the right side of the box with a floated ball that sat perfectly for Yow to finish off the team’s second goal of the day.
Mexico’s tactical shift in the second half of the final pushed Saldana mentally in that his diagonal balls were no longer disrupting the opposition’s defensive shape. In recognition of this, he dropped deeper to give his defenders an outlet from El Tri’s high press and to open space for either Gianluca Busio or Giovanni Reyna to receive the ball and expand the game with their own creativity from midfield.
Of the four Galaxy players in Florida this month, Cuevas saw the least amount of time on the field with just two starts at right back.
His contributions did not go without reward, however, as he left a subtle impression as to what he can offer offensively and tactically from right back. Cuevas’s performance against Guatemala in the group stage showed that he is more than capable of providing width and service with his lung-busting runs down the line.
In that same match, it seemed almost as if Wicky had deployed Cuevas in the inverted right back role Gregg Berhalter has begun to implement with the senior side. It would come as no surprise if such a crucial tactical component were implemented within each age group, but Cuevas seemed surprisingly comfortable playing as hybrid right back-center midfielder for 90 minutes.
Much of his defensive ability went untested as the relative dominance by the U.S. over Guatemala in the group stage and Canada in the semifinal provided a small sample size to properly analyze. Given Wicky’s preference to play Joe Scally at the position for the majority of the tournament, it can be inferred Cuevas has work to do before he can claim the starting role.
The sole champion of the Galaxy’s tournament representatives, Alvarez’s short stints on the field for Mexico ultimately pushed El Tri to their eighth U-17 Concacaf Championship title.
Alvarez admittedly played a modest amount of time on the field. He started just three of his six appearances at the tournament and did not play the full 90 in any of those appearances. Yet, the Mexican-American midfielder made the most of his two starts during the knockout stage scoring the winner against Haiti in the semifinal and assisting Mexico’s equalizer against the U.S. in the final. His affinity for stepping up when the stakes were high was an impressive attribute of his mentality, but the sheer class Alvarez exhibited at certain points was jaw-dropping.
Until the final, there never seemed to be a point in which Alvarez looked completely in sync with the rest of his teammates. His substitute cameo against Jamaica, for example, made it incredibly evident that Alvarez’s vision did not align with the rest of his team’s approach to the match. Over the course of the tournament, however, Alvarez’s fluidity with his teammates cultivated into an impactful first half performance in the final.
Every time he picked up the ball in transition, Alvarez looked for an immediate ball forward into the path of his forwards. His range of passing was on full display, leading up to the wonderfully lofted chip ball that evaded the heads of Hernandez-Foster and Gray to find the head of Santiago Muñóz for Mexico’s first goal of the match.
In terms of minutes played, the productivity despite the lack of genuine game time may have provided his stock the boost it needed at both international and club level. With another tournament of experience under their belts, the Galaxy Academy products will be looking for more than just a spot on their respective country’s U-17 World Cup roster.
Alvarez has already begun his integration into the first team squad and is backed heavily by the players and coaching staff to have a breakthrough year. Hernandez-Foster will at Julian Araujo’s ascension to the starting lineup as added encouragement and motivation to be the next academy graduate to make a name for himself in MLS. Cuevas and Saldana will likely be in and amongst Los Dos’ match day squads as they look to continue their personal development as well.
Four representatives at the U-17 Concacaf Championship not only emphasizes the talent emanating from the Galaxy’s pipeline, but it also serves as a statement of intention from the Galaxy to not only attract the world’s best players but to also produce them as well.