Much like their first team counterparts, the Chelsea under-18 squad have made the FA (Youth) Cup competition their very own over the last several years. Three finals in four years (two wins) and a semifinal exit courtesy of a Paul Pogba & Ravel Morrison-led Manchester United youth team is a record that speaks for itself.
In 2009-10, versus Aston Villa, it was Josh McEchran, Gokhan Tore, Milan Lalkovic, and Jeffrey Bruma, while in 2011-12, versus Blackburn Rovers, it was Nathaniel Chalobah, Lewis Baker, Lucas Piazon, and Islam Feruz who led the boys to glory. The latter group did it at such a young age in fact that they were back at it the following year, only to be upset by a classically English-style Norwich City in the two-legged finals. The same group experienced double heartache in Europe, losing the NextGen (U19) final as well. While they may yet get a chance to avenge their continental woes - a perfect performance in the UEFA Youth League group stages, the best in Europe, at any age level, is a great place to start - most of them will not have another chance at FA Youth Cup glory. And not because they're too old*, but simply because they're too good.
* over half the starting lineup from last year's final are still eligible and the likes of Baker or Feruz would be eligible for a third time, even.
The better structured youth competitions of this season have allowed Neil Bath, Dermot Drummy, Adi Viveash & Co to keep much more consistent lineups at under-21, under-19, and under-18 levels, unlike previous years when the same players were shuffled around to ensure the proper amount of minutes for their individual development. Constantly changing lineups resulted in inconsistent (even for youth level) and often subpar performances. Keen to try to limit those, the academy leadership made a decision this summer to draw a more obvious line between the various squads. Basically, this means that the names we've come to know under the guidance of Dermot Drummy in the U21 Premier League, Cup, and UEFA Youth League matches will most likely not feature for Adi Viveash in the FA Youth Cup. There might be a few exceptions but by and large, we'll be seeing brand new faces (and many for the first time, thanks to Chelsea doing a rather terrible job of broadcasting under-18 matches). Here are a few to keep an eye on:
BRAD COLLINS - goalkeeper
Chelsea are actually a bit thin at goalkeeper at the moment, following the departure of Ben Killip (now at Norwich, on professional terms), but Brad (16, first year scholar) has made over half the starts for the U18s in the league and will probably get a chance here as well. He joined Chelsea at the U13 level and is described as a good, confident shot-stopper who is comfortable with the ball at his feet as well. So basically, the modern keeper archetype.
JONATHAN MULEBA - left back
Born in Burundi but capped for DR Congo U20, the 18-year-old is the captain of the squad. He's been at Chelsea for half a decade now and holds much promise. He's already made his under-21 debut as well. He signed his first professional contract last month.
OLA AINA - right back
We saw Ola at the tail end of last season (including both starts in last year's final), so we kind of know what we're getting from the 17-year-old: a very fast, tireless, prototypical attacking full back. Born in London (apparently his actual first name is Josh and Ola is just the middle name), Aina has been with us since before age 11.
GEORGE BRADY - center back
With a name and pedigree like that (nephew of one Karen Brady), would you have ever guessed that he was actually born in France (Monaco, to be precise)? He's one of the more recent arrivals to the Chelsea setup, signing from the principality 18 months ago. The 16-year-old is described as a pacy, aggressive defender.
JORDAN HOUGHTON - midfielder
Was already a regular last season before suffering a bad injury, Houghton, 18, is ready to reassert himself. He's a true blue, having been at Chelsea all his life, starting at the U8 level. Can also play defense and defensive midfield and has been an England international at every age group so far.
KASEY PALMER - midfielder
His transfer from Charlton Athletic last season made the national papers, so we must be onto something decent at least with him. He's scored five goals from ten appearances in the league and also seems to be the designated penalty kick taker. The 17-year-old is described as a powerful, athletic, yet technical player. Sometimes seen paired with Charlie Colkett, whom you may remember from last season's NextGen campaign - by all accounts an exciting combination.
GEORGE COLE - right winger
It wouldn't be Chelsea without yet another Cole, would it? Almost 18, George has been with us since 2005. Watch for the red hair!
AMBROSE GNAHORE - left winger
Gnahore actually scored in Tuesday's UEFA Youth League match, so he may not be involved straight away on Thursday, but he's another one with oodles of pace, oodles of potential, and oodles of cool-name-factor. Has six goals in just eight U18 league appearances. He turned 18 yesterday and has been at Chelsea since under-14.
DOMINIC SOLANKE - forward
The U18 squad's leading scorer, Solanke joined Chelsea at the U8 level. He's described as having good movement and link-up play, contributing just as many assists as he does goals despite being only 16 and a schoolboy. Bigger, more powerful and direct options for Viveash include Tammy Abraham and Chike Kandi.
KYLE SCOTT - midfielder
Honorary mention because he holds dual USA - UK citizenship and has appeared for USA U18 already. He's made only four substitute appearances for Chelsea U18 so far, although at still just 16, that's nothing to scoff at.
The new faces will be joined by at least one, just as exciting familiar one: Charly Musonda, Jr. The third round match versus non-league Dartford kicks off at 19:35 GMT later today at Aldershot. And if you can't make it in person, come on out and hang with the cool kids in the game thread as we watch it on Chelsea TV.