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Union U17s enter playoffs with big game experience

Philadelphia Union U17 team begins their playoff campaign tonight against Orlando City

Matt Ralph

One of the benefits of playing in the annual Generation adidas Cup for the Philadelphia Union U17 team is that by the time playoffs roll around, they’ve already had a number of high-pressure games against tough competition.

“They need that big game experience,” head coach Gary Lewis said of his team’s run in the GA Cup, which started off well in the first leg at home in the fall but didn’t go according to plan in the second leg in Atlanta or the finals in Texas. “Especially with a lot of younger players, it’s important for them to face that pressure.”

The U17s enter the playoffs — their first game tonight is against Orlando City — having secured their spot with a difficult stretch of games that included the New York Red Bulls, D.C. United and Montreal Impact. The team went 2-1 in those games despite missing many of their regulars who were playing up with the U19 team.

“We’ve learned that even through adversity we’re going to be fine if we stick together,” defender JD Wagner said. “There’s a lot of trust there.”

Wagner has played all across the back line this season and has also played minutes up with the U19s. Shaynder Borgelin, Nick Blacklock, AJ Cousins and Cole Turner are all part of the roster for the U19 team for the week in Oceanside, California.

“Every guy that fills in for those roles, we know there’s not going to be a drop-off,” Wagner said.

The Union technical staff refers to that as the “next man up” mentality which trickles down from the first team through all the age groups. For example, with Mark McKenzie earning regular first team minutes, that’s opened up a chance for U19 defender Ben Ofeimu with Bethlehem Steel FC, which has a ripple effect down through the other levels.

Losing some of his players to the U19 team — to fill spots from injuries and Steel FC needs — is a feature built into the DNA of the academy teams across the age levels. Lewis will be relying on a roster with seven players born in 2002 and one player — Dante Huckaby — born in 2003.

“They’re a year ahead and in some cases two years ahead in their development,” Lewis said. “It’s all good experience for them.”

Goalkeeper Kris Shakes, who traveled with Steel FC to FC Cincinnati for their midweek match last week, is back with his age group for the playoffs. The 17-year-old will be a key player both for his shot stopping ability but for his leadership on and off th for the U17 squad in California.

“We’re going to fight and do everything we can to get through,” Shakes said.

After tonight’s game, the Union U17s take on Barca Academy on Thursday and close out group play against the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday. The group winner will advance to the quarterfinals, also in Oceanside. The semifinal and final will be played in Kansas July 8 and 10.