“We have a target on our back” | Academy teams travel to Nashville as U-19s seek third straight MLS NEXT Cup title

Gabriel Chavez goal celebration Academy

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – The 2024 MLS NEXT Cup kicks off in Nashville later this week, and the New England Revolution Academy has qualifying teams from two age groups that will be competing for their respective championships. The Under-15s, coached by Michael Milazzo, are returning to the playoffs for the second straight year, while Brad Knighton’s Under-19s are seeking to become the first MLS NEXT team in any age group to win three straight national titles.

Knighton, who was a goalkeeper for the Revolution for 10 seasons across two stints during his playing career, took over as coach of the U-19s last year, and led them to their historic repeat title. Looking ahead to this year’s tournament, he said his players were excited and ready for the challenge ahead of them.

“Not many professional teams, or academy teams, have been able to go and do something three times,” Knighton said. “It’s going to be more difficult than the first two, obviously, because you have a bullseye on your back, but I think the group of players that we have and the camaraderie with the guys, and the leadership that we have within the group because multiple players have been there the previous two years – it’s a great collective group.

“We’re looking forward to the opportunity. We know it’s going to have its ups and downs and challenges, but I think we’ve laid the groundwork the last couple years to set the precedent for what to expect.”

Peyton Miller Academy National Championship

Forward Gabriel Chavez reiterated the same ideas as his coach, saying he remained confident in himself and his team despite the emotions leading up to the Cup.

“Everyone’s excited,” he said. “I mean, there’s some level of nervousness, of course, like we have a target on our back – we had a target on our back last year – but everyone’s just looking forward to it.”

Chavez added that he personally relished knowing that everyone would be coming to stop the Revs from making history.

“If anything, having a target on your back is everyone knowing who you are,” he said. “They’re intimidated. Everyone knows what a bear is because they’re the most dangerous in the forest. So we’re going into these games – five games in seven days, it’s going to be a lot – but we’re hoping to win all five.”

Chavez is one of several returning players who have been a part of both title-winning sides, including teammate Steban Lopera. The defender said that his experience of lifting the trophy twice has only made him hungrier to get this third in a row, and to act as a leader in helping the team get there.

“It’s a great feeling,” Lopera said. “It’s nice to see everyone back home be proud of us … I’ve been there twice, so I know what it’s like. So, to be that guy that everyone can look up to in times of adversity, if we go down a goal, just having that experience is a good thing.”

Lopera made clear that he is not taking anything for granted, however.

“Job’s not finished,” he said. “Everyone’s excited, but that was in the past. We want to try to recreate that again.”

Lopera and Chavez 2023 Academy

As these players from both the U-19s and the U-15s compete in Nashville, they will no doubt be dreaming about how much farther their careers in soccer could go, and how many more trophies they could lift. Milazzo, who has been involved in coaching academies for a number of years, said that being a part of the Revolution organization helped these young players really believe in the possibilities for their growth, and that their motivation in turn drove him to do the best he can to help them achieve their goals.

“It’s a very clear pathway for these guys,” he said. “I think the moment you step foot into this building or you step foot onto the pitch, those ambitions and dreams that they have become reality because it’s right in front of them. It’s [tangible] … To have the opportunity to train in Gillette, now on our new turf field or on the grass pitch on Field 3, to walk into the first team locker room, to experience all the amenities, and then combined with playing with other like-minded, ambitious, driven, professionally-oriented players, it just escalates their growth. And so that’s what’s exciting for me every day, to be around that group, that collective group of players that have that dream of being at the professional level and representing the first team here at New England in Gillette.”

Knighton, too, appreciated that so many young people across the region could have something to look up to, to aspire to, all within their reach.

“It’s great for the region to be able to see how successful we’ve been collectively as a group,” he said. “And again, I’m just coming into this – what [Sporting Director] Curt Onalfo and [Academy Director] Rob Becerra and the rest of the Academy have laid the foundation for, it’s great for a kid that’s coming in at 13 or a kid that’s coming in at 17 or 18. So it’s great that they’ve built this culture that people can get here and feel like they’ve been here for years. Being able to carry that and transition that year after year is a thing that leads to better players coming in, and more guys coming through the pathway, and having more guys in our first and second team. And so that’s the ultimate goal, is to get as many guys through [as possible] and produce professionals in our own house.”

Under-15 Academy group huddle

The first opponent the U-15s will face in Nashville will be the Seattle Sounders on Saturday, June 15. Milazzo said his players were engaged and excited to get the win after a first-round knockout on penalties last season.

“We’ve historically had [our players] participate in the opposition analysis, especially at the young age groups, so it has more buy-in, they take more control,” he said. “[Seattle] are very similar to us in terms of their roster composition and their style of play. So, again, optimism, upbeat, eager to get that first playoff win … That message is, ‘Compete, represent the club, winnable game, do everything that it’s going to take to be successful, and get that elusive first playoff win.’”

Knighton, on the other hand, has familiar opposition in Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a team that the U-19s have faced in both of their previous two championship runs. That game is slated for Sunday, June 16.

“They’re very well coached, they’re very well organized, they’re a very determined group,” Knighton said. “It will be a very difficult game, as is any game in this knockout tournament; you’ve got the 32 best teams in the country competing for one championship and you’re the two-time defending champion. Our group will be ready to go, I know they’re excited – I think they’re looking forward to getting back in a competition that’s knockout because things start to come together and emotions start to come and get the juices going and everyone gets really ramped up for this tournament, which is really cool to see for a kid’s perspective.”