HOUSTON - A changing of the guard is in order for the FC Dallas U-18 Academy team. Of the 12 players who've gotten starts for the squad in its first two U.S. Soccer Development Academy Finals Week matches, 10 are in their last year of Academy eligibility, as is one other player on the Finals Week 18-man roster.
Goalkeeper Eduardo Cortes; defenders Mark Ashby, Aaron Guillen, Nick Rochowski and captain Mikey Ambrose; midfielders Flavio Guzman, David Robledo, Alonso Gallegos and Danny Garcia; and Homegrown forward Jonathan Top will all play their final minutes with the FC Dallas Academy this weekend. Of those 11, eight have been with the Academy for more than two years.
Those years have led to experiences and memories that will stay with these young men for the rest of their lives.
For Garcia, it's memories of the Academy's trip to Madrid in March of 2011, where he said he, "got to see a new place I'd never been before and got closer to my teammates."
"One of my favorite memories was when we played against Barcelona in [the 2011] Dallas Cup and won that game," recalled Ambrose. "That was one of the best victories we've had as a club."
And for Top, who is one of seven FC Dallas Academy products to have earned professional contracts with the first team, the bond he's developed with his teammates over the last three-plus years will leave a lasting impression.
"There's not many teams you can go to and feel a team chemistry and team bonding," the striker said. "That's the biggest thing I'll miss about being with this team."
But before the boys can turn the page on this chapter in their soccer careers, they have unfinished business to attend to. After coming up just one goal short in the championship match against Pateadores one year ago, the squad is hoping for another shot at the title this Sunday.
"Last year we had a chance to win it, but we were unfortunate to lose in the finals," said Garcia. "We're hoping we can win it this year."
As he prepares to complete the transition from the Academy to the professional level, Top also admits, "It'd be the ideal situation to leave the Academy team with the title."
In fact, Top and Garcia are so dedicated to the club's goal of winning the national championship that they both turned down U.S. Under-20 National Team call-ups to the prestigious Milk Cup in Ireland this month so they could stay with the club in Houston this week.
For more than glory
These players don't just want to win it all for the club that's helped them take their games on to the professional and collegiate levels, they want to win it for a fallen friend and former teammate.
Everything we do on the field is for you Jose!! #RIPJP10— Danny Garcia (@dannyyboyy11) July 19, 2012
Jose that was for you, we all felt your presence on the field. Thanks for the help— Victor Portillo❤⚽ (@Fcd25Victor) July 19, 2012
On a Tuesday morning just days before the start of this Development Academy season, FC Dallas Academy graduate Jose Perez was riding in the back seat of a BMW on his way to morning practice with three San Jacinto College soccer teammates when a car accident claimed his life. Five days later, a day after attending Perez's funeral, the U-18s dedicated their 2011-2012 season to Jose, starting with a 3-1 win over Classics Elite.
“Being on the field with [Jose] made you a better player,” Top said last September. “We all were just shocked and devastated by the loss. But we played for him [last Sunday], and we will dedicate this season to his memory and, God willing, this will be an even better season than last."
And so far, it has been. The FC Dallas U-18s won the Texas Division by a landslide, with a 15 point cushion separating them from second-place Solar Chelsea SC. The squad also posted an impressive overall regular season record of 28-4-4 before cruising through the Playoffs with three straight shutout victories to advance to Finals Week in Houston, where their group stage matches have been played just 15 miles from the intersection where Perez lost his life 10 months ago.
After posting a 2-1 comeback victory over Baltimore Bays Chelsea in its second Finals Week matchup, the U-18s face an all-important must-win match against Solar on Friday night with a place in the championship match up for grabs.
"It would just make the dream come true for this team," said Ambrose. "We've been working so hard for the last three years. Everything would be perfected if we won that national championship."