ACADEMY PLAYOFFS PREP LA GALAXY U-18/19'S ULYSSES LLANEZ AND ALEX MENDEZ FOR U-20 WORLD CUP QUALIFYING

The 2018 Concacaf Under-20 Championship kicks off Nov. 1 in Bradenton, Fla. The date marks the earliest regional World Cup qualifying tournament in 15 years. For the U.S. U-20 Men's National Team, the fast arrival of the Concacaf Championship makes preparation this summer all that more important.

U-20 MNT hopefuls Ulysses Llanez and Alex Mendez have had the opportunity for some first-rate prep work as they've led the LA Galaxy U-18/19 squad to the Academy Championships after a dominant showing in the Playoffs' group stage and quarterfinals. They'll look to bring home a national title in Kansas City and their deep postseason run will serve as integral experience when they take on qualifying for the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland.

"The Academy Playoffs are perfect for us," Llanez said. "In qualifying, we're playing international teams, which is harder and more physical. Teams are hungrier. Here in the Academy, it's basically the same thing- we have to be mentally focused and mentally prepared."

Llanez and Mendez see the Academy Playoffs as an excellent simulation of what to expect in international competition. The Galaxy take on teams that they haven't played all season with the stakes raised. With a slate of new opponents, LA has had to adjust quickly and find a way to succeed against unknown competition. Starting with the DA quarterfinals, when every game forward meant win or go home, the intensity increased.

"When you're at the international level, you have to adapt quickly," Mendez said. "If you're playing against Mexico and you know they're going to be physical and technical, you have to match that level. This Academy Playoffs also brings it to you because there are other teams that play differently from us. We have to adapt to how they play and we have to find out how to break them down."

The Galaxy have had to handle a gauntlet of competition from far and wide in its postseason run. Vancouver Whitecaps FC, LA's semifinal opponent, will stand as the team's only opposition from its own West Conference. In the group stage, the Galaxy took on Montreal Impact FC, Atlanta United FC and Houston Dynamo. After getting out of its group, the Galaxy's quarterfinal game provided a cross-country clash with Philadelphia Union.

In each of these unfamiliar challenges, LA has risen to the occasion to earn a berth in the final four. The strength of their victories stands out from the other semifinalists- the Galaxy have put together a plus-11 goal differential, the most of any team still standing.

"You get to play teams that have different styles. They come from all over the country," Mendez said. "You don't just see the same style of play that you have in your conference. Every team has a different style of play and how they get through their conference. The Playoffs definitely help bring all of that together and we have to figure it out game by game."

That variety of competition has also included some of the LA duo's former and current Youth National Team teammates. The Galaxy's group stage featured showdowns with Atlanta's Justin Garces and Chris Goslin as well as Houston's Marcelo Palomino.

"They're great players and when we go to camp, you kind of know their qualities," Mendez said. "I know what Marcelo brings, I know what Goslin brings, I know what they can do. As a team, you have to talk through it and see how we can eliminate what they can do best. From there, that's how we try and stop them and their team."

The Playoffs also provide a venue for Llanez and Mendez to test themselves in a pressure cooker of a situation. Even in the group stage, only first-place teams advance, leaving little margin for error. From then on, knockout round play means that every team has to fight for its postseason life. There's no opportunity to take a game off.

"We just have to have the same mentality," Llanez said. "If we can make it to the Academy Final, it's a similar situation to qualifying. We have to be prepared."

The Academy Championships provide one more opportunity to replicate the World Cup qualifying experience. Llanez and Mendez take on Vancouver Sunday with a spot in the Academy Championships Final on the line. The stakes don't get much higher than they are in Kansas City.

"The pressure is always on," Mendez said. "You always have to play for the badge that's on your jersey. If it's your club or if it's your country, you want to make sure you represent it the right way. If you don't want to play and you're not full-effort, especially at the international level, you will not get by. Teams will just run you over. They don't care who they're facing. You have to make sure you match that intensity."