By Jimmy LaRoue
Baltimore Bays Chelsea’s U-18 Development Academy team got off to a slow start opening its season last fall, losing four of its first five games.
However, after the winter break, Bays Chelsea have yet to lose, rolling off an 18-match unbeaten streak, which includes 16 wins and have a 17-4-2 overall record, and are 7-0-1 and in first place in the East Conference’s Atlantic Division. They’ve outscored division rivals 18-1, and all opponents 55-16 in 23 matches, getting scoring and key contributions from across their 23-man roster.
Though Bays Chelsea controls its own playoff fate, coach Steve Nichols knows it won’t be an easy task with back-to-back games over the next two weekends to close out the regular season.
The run is not surprising to Nichols, who recalls the same group at the U-16 level rolling off an unbeaten string of 27 games and went 2-0-2 with two, 0-0 draws in the academy championship event at the Home Depot Center, including a defeat of the eventual national champions.
Last year’s younger team still managed to finish fifth overall on four goals from Korrio Player to Watch Michael Gamble in a consolation game win against the New York Red Bulls despite what Nichols described as a rebuilding year.
But with an offseason full of training after the 1-4 start, Bays Chelsea has climbed from the bottom to the top of the standings.
“They weren’t a 1-4 group,” Nichols said. “We knew that. It wasn’t like we were questioning our personnel or anything like that.”
He said many of the Bays Chelsea players who came out of the high school season at McDonogh, which Nichols also coaches, in less than ideal condition. The quality of play, he said, “just wasn’t there.”
Add to that many academy teams not playing high school soccer because they were already playing a 10-month season, and it put Bays Chelsea behind.
“We just needed, number one, to get really fit because we like to high pressure and suffocate people defensively and go after people and we couldn’t do that because we were out of gas 20 minutes in,” Nichols said.
Also, Nichols was having to blend his veteran talent–some of the top 2012 players in the country, such as goalkeeper Andrew Harris and Gamble, who are set to play at Wake Forest in the fall, and Malcolm Harris, who is playing collegiately at Denver–with the younger group brought up to the U-18 team. Gamble, too, is only now returning to form after breaking the fifth metatarsal in his foot in the first Bays Chelsea game in the spring.
“We have a very, very talented senior class, but the better part for us is that we have three [Under-]16s that are starting for us right now, Nichols said.
They include Tanner Vosvick, a junior who captained the U-16 Bays Chelsea team until his callup and has committed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Jacori Hayes, another junior who has committed to Wake Forest, and Romilio Hernandez, a junior Louisville commit.
Hernandez will join the DeGraffenreidt brothers–Jeremy and Michael, who are also heading to Louisville.
Nichols considers Andrew Harris to be the best youth goalkeeper in the U.S., while Yaw Amankwa, who he said has a standing contract offer for German club Freiburg and Christian Porras, who is playing at Connecticut this fall, as well as Christian Morales, are all key contributors.
“We had to incorporate those young guys in, and that took some time, too,” Nichols said. “That January, February training time helped us. We’ve got a pretty good group. We’re dangerous offensively, but defensively, we’re very, very good as well.”
The team, he said, is young in central defense with Michael DeGraffenreidt and Vosvick, and in central midfield with Hayes and Hernandez. Nichols said it’s been a really good spring, but feels his team has yet to play its best soccer.
Nichols gives a lot of credit to another of Bays Chelsea’s coaches, Brandon Quaranta, who works with the club’s Pre-Academy teams.
“Brandon has them for three years and he doesn’t get enough credit for it,” Nichols said.
Nichols said that, in the beginning of the season, there was “a little bit of animosity” with the older players accepting the younger ones, but now, that’s no longer an issue as the team has come together and is primed to bring home a second academy title to Baltimore–the first one came in 2008.
“We usually win when it counts, and June and July is usually when we play our best soccer,” Nichols said.