Justin Garces and George Acosta grew up playing youth soccer against each other at parks all over South Florida — Garces with Kendall SC, Acosta with Miami Lakes United and Weston FC.
Now, at age 17, they find themselves together in Panama as teammates and roommates with the U.S. Under-17 National Team, which opens play Sunday against Jamaica in the CONCACAF U17 Championships.
The U.S. team will also face Mexico April 26 and El Salvador April 29. The top two teams from the group of four advance to a playoff for a spot in the U17 World Cup, being held Oct. 6-28 in India.
Garces, a goalkeeper, and Acosta, a midfielder, were among 20 players selected for the national team out of thousands who attended tryouts over the past few years. Both have given up traditional school to live and train full-time at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, where U.S. Soccer houses its residency program for the most promising young players in the country.
“It was hard to leave my friends and family, but it was a fairly easy choice because I knew this is what I wanted to do, and this was the only way to get there,” said Garces, who left Ferguson High during his sophomore year. “It’s great being around other guys who play at such a high level and are equally committed to the sport.”
Acosta made the full-time commitment even earlier. He went to Argentina at age 14 to play for the youth team of professional club Estudiantes de la Plata, and also trained in Germany. He lived in boarding houses and had to grow up in a hurry.
“It wasn’t easy because I had so many friends in middle school, and moving away took the social component out of my life,” Acosta said. “But I don’t think I’d be the player I am today if I had not made that sacrifice. I needed to travel and compete at the highest level possible. I’ve been playing soccer since I was three, and I fully realized at age 13 that I wanted to dedicate myself to this dream.”
Acosta’s father, Arturo, is Colombian and a diehard soccer fan. He said he and his wife fully supported their son’s decision to leave home for soccer.
“The process is grueling to make a national team, but it is what George dreamed about,” Arturo said. “To get really good, it helps to go abroad and test yourself against the best players from other places. It’s been nice to have him back in Florida at IMG, because it’s just a drive away, so we can see him a lot.”
U.S. coach John Hackworth said the experience of playing in the CONCACAF U17 championships is “invaluable” from a developmental view.
“It is a competition that presents challenges both on and off the field,” Hackworth said. “It exposes them at the earliest age possible to the demands and difficulties of qualifying for a FIFA World Cup in a CONCACAF event.”
Garces is the son of a Venezuelan mother and a Cuban-Ecuardorean father. He said he and his family take great pride in his wearing a USA jersey.
“It’s a huge honor that only 20 guys my age get to experience,” Garces said. “At the moment, we are so focused on the upcoming games that we don’t think too much about the bigger picture. But representing your country has such great meaning, and I will cherish every moment I’m on this team. It is a fantastic experience.”
The U.S. team is loaded with talent, and a favorite to win the CONCACAF title — with Mexico the toughest team in the way. In 2016, this group became the first American team since 1992 to win the prestigious Montaigu tournament in France. The U.S. U17s also went on to beat Brazil, Turkey and Portugal to win the Nike International Friendlies.
Among the players on the team is winger Timothy Weah, son of Liberian legend George Weah, the 1995 FIFA World Player of the Year and one of the greatest African players of all time. Timothy plays professionally for PSG in France.
The U.S. matches are Sunday at 1:30 p.m. vs. Jamaica, Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. vs Mexico, and Saturday at 3:30 p.m. vs. El Salvador. All the games will be streamed on the CONCACAF Facebook page, and the Mexico match is also being shown on Univision.
▪ Game of the Day: El Clasico 2017 — Real Madrid vs. Barcelona, 2:45 p.m., BeINSport USA. These teams will meet again in an exhibition match July 29 at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium as part of the International Champions Cup.
EPL: Chelsea (75), Tottenham (71), Liverpool (66), Manchester City (64), Manchester United (60).
La Liga: Real Madrid (75), Barcelona (72), Atletico Madrid (65), Sevilla (62), Villrreal (54).
Serie A: Juventus (80), Roma (72), Napoli (70), Lazio (61), Atalanta (60).
Ligue I: Monaco and PSG (77), Nice (73), Lyon (54), Bordeaux (52).
Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (69), Leipzig (61), Hoffenheim (54), Dortmund (53), Hertha Berlin (43).
MLS: East — Columbus (13), Orlando (12), Chicago (11). West — Portland (13), Kansas City (12), Dallas (11).
NASL: Jacksonville (7), San Francisco (5), Miami, Carolina, NY Cosmos (4).
Sunday: Burnley vs. Manchester United (9:15 a.m., NBCSN), Liverpool vs. Crystal Palace (11:30 a.m.), El Clasico Real Madrid vs. Barcelona (2:45 p.m., BeINSport), LA vs. Seattle (4 p.m., ESPN).