TAMPA, Fla. – The 2021 USL Academy Playoffs begin on Thursday morning at the Waters Sportsplex in Tampa with eight teams vying to advance to Sunday’s final at Al Lang Stadium, home of the USL Championship’s Tampa Bay Rowdies.
After competing in their regional divisions throughout the season, seven representatives from the league’s divisions and one wild card have earned a chance to claim the title. Here’s a look at the four teams that make up Group B.
A longtime member of USL League Two, AC Connecticut has built out an impressive infrastructure in its Academy program while also offering a clear path to the professional ranks through its partnership this year with the USL Championship’s Hartford Athletic. The collaboration between the two clubs – and between ACC’s League Two and Academy sides, which sees Antony Howard currently Head Coach for the program’s USL-A side and an assistant in League Two – has offered major opportunities for players making their way toward the professional ranks.
ACC was a beneficiary of that partnership this season as it saw Hartford forward Alfonso Vazquez compete for the side in the USL Academy League to further his development, but there are other players including midfielders Fisher Mills and Max Weiss that will be looking to impress after the side went 10-3-1 in the regular season to finish runner-up to Northeast Division winner Queensboro FC.
Having established and grown its standing in the USL Championship upon its launch in 2015, the Charlotte Independence added a major development arm to its organization in 2019 as it brought together the existing youth soccer clubs of Carolina Rapids Soccer Club, Discoveries Soccer Club, and Lake Norman Soccer Club under the club’s umbrella. The result has been a notable success, with the Independence having seen USL Academy signings such as Blake Pope compete in the Championship this season among a standout group of veterans that led the side to the 2021 USL Championship Playoffs.
In a talent-rich region of the country – current Independence players Enzo Martinez (Discoveries SC) and Brandon Miller were local standouts – the club now counts more than 12,000 players that compete in its programs, with players like Pope and Clemson commitment Noah Behrmann having earned the opportunity to train alongside Premier League veterans Christian Fuchs, Gabriel Obertan and Sylvain Marveaux this year.
When Indy Eleven joined the USL Championship in 2018, it also began to build the relationships that over the past two seasons have seen the club bring its own young local talent to the First Team as USL Academy signings and on professional contracts, with its work alongside the Indiana Fire youth program serving as the foundation for a fruitful partnership. This season, the club signed eight players to USL Academy contracts, following on from the professional signing of former USL Academy signing Josh Penn – now with Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami CF – to a professional deal in 2020.
The framework now established by the club has seen players that will be action this week, including attacking midfielder Alann Torres and wide player Diego Sanchez, get their opportunity to see First Team action this season and provide the pathway for future success. As the club arrives having edged out rival Louisville City FC for the East-Central Division title in the regular season, this week could provide a platform for that continued growth.
The San Antonio Pro Academy has been among the best in turning young talent into professional prospects since it launched alongside the club’s arrival in the USL Championship in 2016 with Academy Director Nick Evans having helped guide players such as two-time USL Championship Young Player of the Year finalist Jose Gallegos into San Antonio FC’s First Team.
The current group of players has shown similar promise, with young midfielder Leo Torres having spent time on loan this season with Real Monarchs SLC where he recorded his first two goals in the professional ranks. With others included in the squad such as Brad Dildy, Abraham Lincon and Rocky Perez having seen action this season in exhibitions against opposition from Liga MX, San Antonio’s young talent will be a squad to watch this week.