ACADEMY SHOWCASE & PLAYOFFS PROVIDE KEY OPPORTUNITY FOR U-17 MNT HEAD COACH JOHN HACKWORTH

A month ago, U.S. Under-17 Men's National Team head coach John Hackworth stood on the sideline in Philadelphia to see two of his former players announce their arrival to the senior MNT. As an assistant with the full team, Hackworth had a front row seat to two impressive goals from Josh Sargent and Tim Weah against Bolivia on May 28. After a successful two-year cycle that culminated with a run to the FIFA U-17 World Cup quarterfinals, the pair of 18-year-olds graduated from Hackworth's squad to the senior team.

Now, Hackworth is roaming from sideline to sideline across the 22 fields at the Development Academy Summer Showcase and Playoffs. After the MNT's summer camp saw two of his alumni start to find success at the highest level, he came to Oceanside to continue to build his current U-17 MNT crop. As the team will begin to buckle down for World Cup qualifying prep this fall, the Academy Summer Showcase and Playoffs provides a key opportunity for the player pool and Hackworth.

"This is a really basic concept: put players in really hard games and it's going to challenge them in different ways. They're going to grow from it," Hackworth said. "That's what the Playoffs should do. We've seen some really tough games. From my perspective, when I take players out of the club environment and we go into qualifying or the World Cup, I want them battle-tested, I want them to be ready to play in those kinds of matches."

The Academy event represents the culmination of the season. Thirty-two teams from the U-16/17 and U-18/19 age groups qualify for the Playoffs, while every other Academy team competes in Showcase games that offer hand-picked, highly-competitive games. DC United's Griffin Yow made his U-17 debut earlier this year, and the chance to play against some of the nation's top talent has proved invaluable for him.

"There's added pressure, but it helps because it forces you to play under that pressure," Yow said. "At international events, there's going to be tons of pressure. It forces you to play under pressure so you have to get used to it."

The Academy Playoffs provide a challenging environment for young players. Teams duke it out in the standard format of an international competition, as eight group winners advance to the knockout quarterfinals. The event puts players through the grinder, and some U-17 prospects have already shown an ability to rise to the occasion. New York City FC forward Giovanni Reyna scored a stellar penalty kick goal in the Blues' U-18/19 playoff opener against St. Louis FC and netted NYC's first goal in a crucial group stage game against FC Dallas.

Not only has Reyna found the back of the net for NYCFC, but he's done it while playing up an age group. Several U-17 players have tested themselves against older players. The competition against more physically-mature athletes has paid dividends when they come into camp.

"We get to play with 2001s, and being 2002s, being with guys who are bigger and more athletic than us, it really pushes us to be our best," D.C. United's Bryang Kayo said. "When we go to camps, it makes it a little bit easier. I think everybody's always just trying to be our best, not just at the Showcase, but also during every game and practice."

"When players get pushed up, it's really valuable," Hackworth said. "I can say, 'Look, these guys are younger, but now they're playing against stronger, faster, more experienced players and I get a real good evaluation of where they are. That's excellent for our preparation going into qualifying or a World Cup."

Academy events also provide opportunities to face off against competition from across the country. At both the Playoffs and Showcase, teams take on opponents from every corner of the country. Kayo and Yow squared off with clubs from Colorado, Oregon and Canada in their three-game set. The variety of opponents prepare the pair for training with the U-17s, a collection of top talents from all over the U.S.

"Playing with the best of the best, week-in and week-out lets you go into a camp at a really high level," Yow said. "There's obviously a change in the level because it's the best players from each of the teams around the country, but it really helps playing each of the players on those teams during the season."

Perhaps more importantly, the unknown competition factor prepares players for international fixtures. In both friendlies and at next spring's Concacaf U-17 Championship, the team will face off against a variety of opponents and styles. The Playoffs and Showcase gives players a chance to simulate that situation.

"Here in this event, we see a lot of competition where teams are playing teams that they haven't seen all year," Hackworth said. "That kind of replicates what we go through with the National Team when we play qualifying or we play in a World Cup. It's always very interesting to see how players approach the unknown factor. That experience of dealing with it is very important."

As Hackworth continues to build his player pool early in this U-17 cycle, the Showcase and Playoffs also offer an invaluable opportunity for talent identification. He collaborates with scouts and the Academy's regional Technical Advisors throughout the season, but at the Showcase and Playoffs, everyone has come together in one location to watch and evaluate top talent.

Hackworth can compare notes with U.S. Soccer's vast network of scouts and TAs to find the best players for his squad. They have the chance to monitor the current U-17 crop in Oceanside, as well as uncover new potential players. The fall will bring the U-17s together more and more frequently as they prepare for World Cup qualifying, and this summer event serves to propel the program forward.

"Anytime you can get all the scouts and Youth National Team coaches in the same room and really have some open dialogue, I think it helps all of us," Hackworth said. "We all have different ideas and we all see the game a little differently, but at the end of the day, we're all trying to do the same job: to identify the best players that are here and help our national teams grow."