En Route: RSL-AZ Academy wants to suprise the world at Dallas Cup

Paired with top academies from all over the world, RSL-AZ’s U-18 team and coach Mike Munoz are out to prove doubters wrong with a strong showing in the Super Group

Real Salt Lake’s residential academy based in Casa Grande, Ariz., more aptly named RSL-AZ, has already shown well in its first year in the Development Academy. The U-18 team is in fourth place in the very competitive SoCal Division and in the top 15 nationally in terms of points per game. Although, the early season success in U.S. Soccer’s preeminent national development league is nice, RSL-AZ has a bigger target on its mind in the near future – a semifinal berth in the Super Group at Dallas Cup.

Dallas Cup is widely regarded as the best youth tournament in North America as many of the world’s top players [Raul, Wayne Rooney, Robinho, etc.] have played in the tournament at one time or another. This year will mark 32nd installment of the historic competition, which takes place April 17-24 at Pizza Hut Park and Richland College.

The Gordon Jago Super Group, named after the long-time executive director of the tournament, is the most competitive bracket at the event. With storied European academies like Arsenal FC and FC Barcelona sending their top youth teams this year, the competition will be as fierce as ever. However, the big name opposition is not dampening RSL-AZ’s hopes of putting on a good performance.

“It would be fantastic to make a statement all over the world,” RSL-AZ U-18 head coach and Academy Director Mike Munoz told Goal.com last Saturday about his club’s goal for the tourney. The coach was aware some had already written his team off, but he was confident his side could emerge from a very tough group to make the semifinal round.

RSL-AZ’s competition at Dallas Cup is not going to be easy as the club was paired with two previous Super Group winners, SC Corinthians [Brazil] and Tigres [Mexico], and fellow MLS residential academy, Vancouver Whitecaps, in group play. The winner of each group advances to the semifinals.

The U-18 team enters the tourney on a low-note as the squad suffered its worst defeat of the season in its final Development Academy tune-up game last weekend against Southern California based Arsenal FC.

“I think we are going to need to work on our defensive shape,” Munoz said about his plans for preparing for the tournament after the game. “It is very important that we stay organized.”

“When we are playing against good teams like Tigres, we cannot get spread out,” he said. “And we cannot go chasing all over the field.” Munoz knows the opposition will be challenging, but he is confident in the capabilities of his team.

“Normally, this team is very good in possession,” the coach said about his U-18 side. “Today just was not our day.” Part of the reason RSL-AZ struggled so mightily in its final game before Dallas Cup was a crowded schedule. A handful of players had traveled to Utah on Tuesday for a MLS reserve game just to bus out to California a few days later for a weekend youth academy game.

RSL has another reserve game scheduled a few days before first kick at Dallas Cup, but the youth team had not yet been informed whom the full team was pulling up.

Munoz called it team management to make sure he does not overwork the players. One player who was especially hit hard by the travel and weather was Nico Muniz who sat out most of last Saturday afternoon as he was battling an illness. The Georgetown-bound midfielder was sorely missed, as RSL-AZ never gained control of the ball against Arsenal.

“I am glad we have two weeks to prepare,” the playmaker told Goal.com after the loss. The 18-year-old also emphasized that it will be on the team to bounce back after the defeat.

Despite the loss in their final warm-up game, both player and coach were enthusiastic about the opportunity of participating in Dallas Cup.

“It is a fantastic opportunity for the players,” Munoz said. “Just to play in Super Group, not many teams get that chance.” The coach also mentioned his team was honored to be the only American side from outside Texas to be accepted into the top bracket.

There is an extra bonus for RSL-AZ, as they open up play inside Pizza Hut Park Stadium on Sunday at 1:30 PM (CT) against Tigres before fellow MLS academy FC Dallas takes on Spanish giant, FC Barcelona.

Barcelona and Tigres are just two of the youth academies at the event that have been around for decades and established a repertoire as a perennial powerhouse, which is one of the reasons Munoz believed people were over-looking his U-18 team.

Despite Munoz’s confidence, the cards are stacked up against RSL-AZ U-18 accomplishing the goal of winning their group and advancing from pool play. American teams have not faired well in recent years, as the Dallas Texans [in 2006] is the only domestic team to progress to the semifinal round in the last five years. That Texans team also earned the distinction as the only American team ever to win Super Group in the twenty-year history of the elite invitation-only bracket.

RSL-AZ’s academy is also bringing the U-16 team to compete in its respective age bracket. The younger side is grouped with Cedarbridge Academy (Bermuda), FC Correcaminos (Brazil), and Solar SC Red (Texas).

Both teams begin play on Sunday, April 17. For more information about Dallas Cup or to purchase tickets, visit www.DallasCup.com.

J.R. Eskilson is the Youth Soccer Editor at Goal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NCAAsoccer.