For the Vancouver Whitecaps of Canada, joining the U.S. Soccer Development Academy was a way of separating the men from the boys.
For prior to becoming a member of the Academy, the Whitecaps played their games against local university and men's teams.
While the Whitecaps' programs found it to be a challenge to compete against older players than themselves, they're having much more fun and success against athletes who are their own age.
"The academy league has been fantastic for us, and I think that I can speak for every man among us as a group," central midfielder Bryce Alderson said. "It really allows us to play against high-level competition which is our age, and that's been nice."
In the 17/18 age category, the Whitecaps have outscored their seven opponents by a combined 28-7 with two shutouts.
"It's much more helpful in developing us quicker than than just playing friendlies against older university teams or mens' teams," Alderson said. "So in that respect, like I have said, so far, that part has been fantastic."
So has the Whitecaps' unbeaten mark, which leads the Northwest Division of the West Conference at 2-0-1 in the division and 6-0-1 overall.
Coach and program technical director, Rich Grootscholten of the 17/18 squad could not be reached, but Craig Dalrymple, who guides the division second-place under-15/16 squad, spoke on behalf of the program.
"We've had a massive evolution within the Whitecaps' program over the past 12 months," he said. "There's always ever been one pool of players, and they had typically been 17-to-20 years old. So that was our age group that we were centered around, except that over the last 12 months, we've expanded that. Now it goes down to as young as 12-year-olds entering our program as full-time players.
"We've been blessed with the opportunity to be part of the academy league and to form an under-15/16 and under-17/18 pool," he said. "So we've created a complete youth structure with close to 80 players within our system."
Dalrymple's under-15/16 squad is running at second place within its division at 3-0 with an overall mark of 5-1-1 behind top scorers Brody Huitema (five goals) and Ali Musse (three).
"We are pleased with the progress of all the players on the under-17/18 squad. As a team, we have performed at a consistently high level in the early parts of the season," Dalrymple said. "We’ve have good performances from all areas of the field that have contributed to scoring an average of four goals a game, and we're conceding very few goals."
The scoring distribution on the 17/18 squad has forward Caleb Clarke with 11 goals, followed by three goals each from Yassin Essa, Spencer DeBoise and Ben Fisk.
Alderson, Carlos Marquez and Westley Cain have two goals each, with one goal apiece from Ben McKendry and Daniel Stanese.
"We play with a fluid 4-3-3 system. We encourage the team to press the opponents high and attempt to win the ball back as early as possible. When in possession we move the ball quickly and attempt to implement a creative possession-based game," Dalrymple said.
"All the players are expected to be comfortable in possession and contribute to both the attacking and defending aspects of the team performance. Controlling the tempo of the game in possession is important to our playing philosophy while ensuring that our possession is purposeful."
The Whitecaps' defense is a rotation of Stanese, Jason VanBlerk, Tim Hickson, Deckan Rodriguez and Adam Polakiewicz, all of whom operate in front of goalkeepers Callum Irving and Sean Melvin.
"To be part of the academy league first and foremost provides us with a competitive platform for our teams and gives us 30-odd games against good competition," Dalrymple said.
"The American teams that we play against have different styles. Some the Hispanic teams are very creative and gifted in possession," Dalrymple said. "Then you have the physical teams that are full of athletes who are quite direct in their approach. That, for us, allows us to develop the players in a manner that we couldn't before."
The Whitecaps will be tested over the course of their next two games against FC Dallas and the Concorde Fire, respectively, on Dec. 2 and 3.
Unbeaten Dallas (7-0-1) has outscored its opposition 19-4 with four shutouts and leads the Texas Division of the Central Conference. The Fire (8-3-5) are is second place in the Southeast Division of the South Conference.
The Whitecaps, meanwhile, will continue to take each game one at a time.
"We understand that FC Dallas has had a tremendous start to the USSDA season," Dalrymple said. "Unfortunately we have not had the opportunity to watch them play. Most importantly to us is that we are playing a very competitive team that will provide a challenge for the Whitecaps FC players, and, thus, an opportunity for development."