The small Clovis, California club has combined player development and on-field triumph on the way to building a successful youth program in less than a decade.In 2009, Cal Odyssey U-16 entered the Development Academy playoffs as the 31st of 32 teams in the end-of-season event. They defied the odds, went on a seven game unbeaten streak, and ended up in the national championship before dropping a 1-0 result to Derby County Wolves of Michigan.
Perhaps even more remarkably, Cal Odyssey U-16 was once again in the Development Academy playoffs the next year. And yet again, they stormed their way to the national title game. Although a step closer to the goal, Odyssey ultimately fell in penalty kicks to Chicago Fire after a 1-1 draw.
Consecutive trips to the national title game are a very rare feat in the rather limited history of the Development Academy. In fact, Odyssey and Carmel United (from Indiana) are the only two clubs to achieve that rare repeat run.
“I think it is because we have kept the same good core of guys throughout the last five years,” striker Villyan Bijev told Goal.com on Sunday about the club’s success the last two years. “We all know each other and how we play. I think that is what has done it for us.”
The long-term cohesion has created a familial bond around the team on and off the field. Many of the parents regularly travel all over the country with the team and look after fellow players like they were their own.
“It is a veteran group we have with the 18s,” head coach J.J. Wozniak said to Goal.com about his successful side. “And it is a good chemistry that we have always had.”
The coach also attributed the success of the team to the talent from the Central Valley region of California, which Wozniak referred to as a previously untapped resource.
“Coaches are only as good as their players,” Wozniak said. “There are some special players in our area that are finally getting the opportunity to be seen on the national stage.”
Leading the way is his striker, Bijev, one of the top goal-scorers in the Development Academy. The University of Washington-bound forward has 13 goals in 13 games in the Development Academy this year. He had 20 goals in 32 games last year. In high school, he scored every goal (16) for his team during his senior season while leading them to a playoff berth before departing for a U.S. U-18 camp.
“He is turning into a professional right before our eyes,” Wozniak said. “He has definitely taken his game to even higher level.”
“All the thanks has to go to my teammates,” Bijev said about his goal scoring run. “We have two very good central midfielders and most of the goals come from good setups from them.”
Bijev added that he has really enjoyed his experience with the U.S. youth national teams. As he pointed out, the playing style with the team is possession-oriented and really gels with his assets.
“Everyone has told me to get stronger,” Bijev said about the instructions he received from the national coaches. “I need to be stronger on the ball as well as make stronger runs off the ball.”
Bijev is not alone in showcasing the success of the club at a larger stage. Fellow forward Greg Antognoli burst onto the scene in a commanding way with 18 goals last year in the run to the Development Academy finals. He followed that up with seven goals in seven games as a guest player with SC Bayern at the Milk Cup last August.
Recently, center back Isaiah Trejo has drawn the attention of a few professional clubs. The University of Louisville-bound defender is newly returned from a two-week trial with Burnley in March. The 18-year-old showed well with the Football League Championship squad, but he does not qualify for a work permit.
“Come back and show us what you learned,” Wozniak said about his players returning from European trials. “I think Isaiah [Trejo] has come back and really tried to help the guys with the little things.”
Wozniak emphasized that he tries to keep the communication lines open between the coaching staff and the players. He felt, as a younger coach, that he could really relate to the players. The players felt the same way about their coach.
“J.J. is more of a players’ coach,” Bijev said. “He can get on us, but he likes to be friendly because he keeps a positive atmosphere.”
Cal Odyssey will look to keep their finals appearance streak alive, and of course grab a national title on the way, but the end goal is not lost on coach Wozniak.
“This is a development league,” he said. “Ultimately, that is how we have approached it for four years and that is why I think kids enjoy playing for us.”
J.R. Eskilson is the Youth Soccer Editor at Goal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @NCAAsoccer
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