The future is bright in Atlanta! After a stellar tournament, the Atlanta United Academy was crowned MLS NEXT Cup champions in the U-16 division after defeating California-based Strikers FC 3-1 in the final.
The 5-Stripes started off hot in the championship game with two first-half goals that went unanswered. Cooper Sanchez put Atlanta up with a fantastic long-range shot from just inside the box after 15 minutes before Rocket Ritarita doubled the lead from the penalty spot in the 23rd minute.
The momentum would shift to start the second half. Strikers FC netted an early goal to cut the lead and Sanchez would be sent off with just under 10 minutes to go after being shown a second yellow card. In stoppage time, after some strong defensive actions, the 5-Stripes launched the decisive counter where Joseph Gonzalez put away the final goal of the match to bring the title back home to Atlanta.
The U-16s, led by former ATL UTD midfielder and 2018 MLS Cup champion Kevin Kratz, capped off a brilliant MLS Next Cup Playoffs with the title. The squad entered the tournament as a No. 2 seed and defeated Florida Rush 1-0 in the first round before besting Real Colorado 5-3 in penalties after a 0-0 draw in the Round of 16. They then went on to beat Florida-based Weston FC 3-1 in the quarterfinals and then fended off Texas-based Solar SC 2-1 in the semifinals.
Ashton Gordon, who represented Jamaica earlier this year in the Concacaf U-17 Championship, led the team with four goals in the Playoffs. Goalkeeper Dillon Griner took home the Best Goalkeeper award, conceding just three goals all tournament. Rocket Ritarita was named the Best Player of the tournament.
Atlanta’s U-16s qualified for MLS NEXT Cup in dominant fashion by winning the nine-team Southeast Division with a regular season record of 22-1-1 (69 points).
This is the first title for the Atlanta United Academy in MLS NEXT since the league began in 2020.