FRESH OFF OF CONCACAF CHAMPIONSHIP, U-17 WNT TAKES ON ACADEMY PLAYOFFS

After a year of preparation, the U.S. Under-17 Women's National Team arrived in Nicaragua primed to perform at the Concacaf U-17 Women's Championship. With hopes to clinch a berth in the FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, the team got off to a fast start in a 4-0 opening victory over Costa Rica. But as the U-17s readied for their second group stage game against Bermuda, news came that Concacaf had cancelled the tournament, with no immediate plans for resumption.

The U-17 WNT returned to the United States without any indication of when World Cup qualifying would start up again. Responsibility fell on players, and their home clubs, to be ready to answer Concacaf's call whenever it came. For 14 of the 20-player roster, that meant a return to high-level club environments in the Girls' Development Academy. Coaches for club and country collaborated to make sure each player stood ready for peak performance.

When the tournament resumed play on June 6, 46 days had passed between group stage games. With the competition's irregular schedule, the consistency of world-class club environments proved vital in the intermission.

"When we get called into camp, we're ready to go. We've been training a lot. All of the competition and being able to play every weekend has helped us," said Astrid Wheeler, a midfielder with the U-17 WNT and Concorde Fire. "We get to practice four days a week in the Academy. It really helps us because it's just high-level competition over and over again with our club team."

The U-17s took care of business when the competition continued at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. earlier this month. A come-from-behind win over Haiti in the semifinal clinched a World Cup berth, and another comeback victory against Mexico in the final secured the confederation crown.

Just over a week later, several of the U-17 WNT's top performers travelled to Southern California for the Development Academy Summer Showcase and Playoffs. From an intense international tournament, several U-17 stalwarts leapt straight into fierce club competition as their teams battled for a national championship. For U-17 head coach Mark Carr, Academy events provide an invaluable opportunity for his player pool.

"Having so many of our U-17 pool here is a great opportunity for me to evaluate against like-minded players," Carr said. "This event has been incredible. Competition, passion, energy, excitement. It's just a great platform to have everybody in the same place."

In its first season, the Girls' Academy took the principles that fostered success in the first 10 years of the Boys' Academy and brought them to the women's youth game. Teams train a minimum of four times a week and the schedule emphasizes fewer, more meaningful games all with an eye towards individual development.

"It's about standards. It's about expectations. We know the philosophy at U.S. Soccer, it's about developing players and winning at the highest level," Carr said. "This program is a platform that allows coaches to build off that and work with their teams and improve their players. Ultimately, for the players that make it in the Youth National Teams, it helps us a lot for them to arrive into our environment with key messaging."

U-17 WNT forward Diana Ordonez has torn up the Academy this year with FC Dallas. The forward found the back of the net 26 times in 14 regular season games and has added two more this postseason. The opportunity to spend more time in practice and supplement on-field sessions with fitness training has helped her grow as a player this season.

"Being able to train more and having more practice to apply to the games has been good," Ordonez said. "It's been really high-level competition. It's been a lot better that we've been practicing more. It's prepared us a lot for the National Team level and going into the Playoffs."

With a focus on individual development, many U-17s have played above their natural age group this season in the Academy. The U-18/19 Academy Championship featured a showdown between two teammates from Bradenton, as LAFC Slammers' Kate Wiesner and Solar Soccer Club's Samantha Meza squared off. At just five-foot-two, Meza relishes the opportunity to play against heightened competition.

"Playing against older girls, they're much more physical," Meza said. "It's helped me a lot to adapt to how they play, and also it's helped me keep up speed of play. At qualifying, the games are really intense. They mean a lot as we're trying to win a championship. Coming here, it's the same thing. We're trying to win the national championship."

The Summer Showcase and Playoffs serves as another stern test for the U-17 player pool fresh off of World Cup qualifying. The Playoffs match up the country's best teams in tournament play to crown a national champ, while Showcase events provide three hand-selected, highly-competitive games. As the U-17s return from the Concacaf Championship, they have a target on their backs.

"They arrive here and they can set the standard of performance for everybody else," Carr said. "When you're a young player in our program, there's a stamp that goes on your back. Having those players here, having the level of competition, it's been invaluable. It's been not only good to see our current players, but it's been really good to see other players who are stepping up and improving and pushing themselves into those conversations for now the World Cup."

Carr's attention now turns to putting together the best-possible roster for the World Cup in Uruguay this November. At the SoCal Sports Complex, he has the opportunity to scout nearly two dozen fields of high-level action and take a deep look at a vast talent pool. In addition to the mass gathering of talent, Carr has the chance to collaborate with nearly all of the women's Youth National Team coaches, all of the Academy's regional Technical Advisors and the entire network of U.S. Soccer scouts. He also presented to every one of the Girls' Academy directors earlier this week to share the U-17s' experience at World Cup qualifying and hold breakout sessions to aid their clubs' development.

"For us right now, our goal is to open up the player pool and turn over every stone," Carr said. "High-level competition allows me and our staff and our scout to go from field to field and make sure we are identifying and selecting the right players in the 2001 age group that ultimately can help us build towards the World Cup."

The event serves as a similar platform for players as they vie for a spot on the 21-player roster for Uruguay. From one tough test to the next, Oceanside provides another chance for the U-17s to prove themselves.

"Once you come off of Concacaf, it's such a big high," Wheeler said. "You come into this environment and you get stuck right in with your club team, working hard again and it's great competition. Being able to play lots of games in a short amount of time will help us be ready for the World Cup. We need to be able to train at a high level and play games at a high level for a long period of time."

"We're all competing for a spot to go to the World Cup now," Ordonez said. "To keep the ball rolling and keep the high intensity, a lot of competitiveness is just really good for us and our development."