PHOENIX, ARIZONA When they say the atmosphere was electric they meant it literally AND figuratively.
Lightning delays pushed title games for the four youngest age groups at the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships deep into Saturday night, but when it was over, the titlists emerged from the highly emerged atmosphere to claim the crown "best in the nation." (Older age group title games will be played Sunday)
Following is our feature title game report followed by summaries of the others courtesy U.S. Youth Soccer
U15 GIRLS: PDA SLAMMERS (NJ) 2, SAC UNITED PREMIER (MD) 1
Though the night started off extremely slow with two hours of lightning delays during which the players were forced to cut their warm-ups short and retreat for cover, excitement only continued to mount in the hearts, minds, and bodies of the athletes as they anticipated what would be, for numerous players, the biggest game of their lives.
PDA’s Caroline Chagares explained that winning a National Championship was the goal for her team from day one. “We have been working all year to get to this point. We made it here, we knew we wanted to win it, not back down to anyone, not come in second, we wanted first place more than anything.”
In the midst of being almost dunked in a victorious “Gatorade shower” along with PDA Head Coach Mike O’Neill (well to be accurate, he actually hid behind me), I got a few words from the winning coach about the team chemistry of the National Champions.
“The team mentality [makes them special]. They have a commitment to each other, and they have a commitment to youth soccer… *girls approaching with 800-gallon jug of ice-cold water* … Oh no, no, no no, no no, no! *splash* … Sorry about that.” Obviously the girls were just as committed to winning a National Championship as they were to publicly displaying their affection for their beloved coach by covering him in water from head-to-toe. They accomplished both.
From the start of the game, the conditions were rough; wind, rain, and Arizona heat all combining to result in a slick and extremely fast surface that posed considerable challenges. Although it took a while for the teams to adjust to their surroundings, PDA was the first to figure out that playing on the ground to feet was the way to go. Midfielders Rachel Corboz and Caroline Chagares worked together to keep play under control and in possession for the PDA team. Their first attempt at goal came in the 10th minute by forward Natasha Ntone Kouo received a ball to feet and turned her defender using skill and explosiveness.
Kouo remained a constant threat to the SAC back line for the entire match. She was involved in the game both with the ball at her feet and at a teammate’s feet. When she had possession, she played smartly, drawing defenders toward her and using their own momentum against them. Without the ball, she stretched the field on the weak side and worked to cover the width of the entire field.
Other players for PDA showed up to play as well. Outside defender Madison Kenny succeeded in stopping SAC from playing down their left flank by excelling in one-against-one situations out wide and even as a covering defender in the middle of the field. She also involved herself in attack, getting PDA what they wanted most – goals. Christine Monroy in the center back position also performed, acting as a reliable covering defender to keep SAC attackers out of dangerous areas on the field, which was no easy feat. The SAC attacking line was a force to be reckoned with, as forward Margaret Purce was at the tip-top of the age group’s scoring list with five goals in three games.
“I think it was a good performance. We did what we needed to do to win,” PDA Coach O’Neill said. “We had two very good goals. We kept good possession at times, but also recognized when it was time to be smart and play to flanks.”
Again in the 23rd minute, PDA exploited the holes in the SAC defensive line when midfielder Alexandra Weyrauch found a seam feeding into the run of Lauren Jankowski. SAC goalkeeper Megan Hinz made a big save coming strongly off her line.
Less than 10 minutes later, PDA truly delivered. Kenny threw the ball in to Kouo’s feet and got the ball back, releasing a threatening cross that was headed straight for the six-yard box. When the ball landed, it was touched first by forward Julianne Minutillo, bounced, and then found the feet of forward Lauren Jankowski, who finished with confidence and accuracy to put PDA ahead 1-0.
Kenny attempted another cross from her right flank in the 34th minute, but runners simply could not get a touch to it, and halftime commenced with a score of 1-0.
The second half gained momentum much more quickly than the first, for the teams were now fully adjusted to the conditions. Three minutes into play, Lauren Dimes got the first shot off of the half. A goal was in the making.
Three minutes later, in the sixth minute of play, midfielder Anna Conklin served a ball in that was set to bounce right in between SAC’s keeper and back line. But if keeper Megan Hinz allowed the ball to bounce, it would skip over her head and out of her reach into the goal. She was forced to come forward for the ball but came up short, and the ball deflected off of her and to the feet of PDA midfielder Lauren Dimes, who shot the ball past the keeper who was now off her line. The score was now 2-0 PDA.
In the 10th minute of the second half, SAC got a chance of their own. The referee called an indirect kick inside PDA’s 18-yard box, approximately 12 yards from goal. The PDA team lined up on their goal line, ready to charge. The ball was set to midfielder Gracyn Bryant, whose shot missed just wide.
But SAC’s determination still remained. With seven minutes left in regulation, leading goal-scorer Margaret Purce pulled her team through once again. With a hard dribble down the right flank, Purce cut inside, catching defenders off guard, and finished. The score was evening out again, PDA 2 – SAC 1.
SAC got another scoring opportunity with five minutes remaining in play. Forward Danielle Hogarth took a free kick that forced the PDA keeper to make a save off her line. Everyone with the SAC logo on their chest poured their heart and soul into the final minutes of the game.
Forward Casey Martinez had a work rate that never slowed or even stopped to take a breath. She defended and attacked, won the ball and kept it, putting her team in very good positions offensively. Also forward Imani Dorsey made an impact on the game, posing a significant challenge to the PDA back line. She displayed very clean and accurate distribution in tough conditions and always moved dynamically, using her explosiveness to beat defenders and run at goal.
The 3-back SAC defense was also extremely successful. Meghan Holtz stepped out of her central position comfortably when extra help was needed, while Isabelle Kim led her team until the last minute of the game with her never-give-up mentality.
But the SAC team, despite their several opportunities to finish in front of the goal, could not pull through with the win. The whistle blew, and PDA’s celebration began.
Chagares attempted to explain the feeling of such a feat post their victory. “It is the best thing in the world; indescribable. I could never have imagined that we would make it this far and win the National Championship.”
But it was not only the effort on the field tonight that brought a national championship title to the New Jersey team. “I think what separates them is the team dynamic,” O’Neill said. “They’ve really put a lot of time and effort in and it’s a great group. Chemistry is massive, but it’s also the commitment, the dedication of all the time and effort put in away from the field. It’s a standard of excellence that we are looking for, and we got it.”
Chagares agreed with this statement. She described her team as relentless and determined.
“We work hard for each other on and off the field and we are really good friends on and off the field,” she said. “But we know when we should work harder for each other defensively and offensively. We get on each other to work harder when we need to so that we can win the game.”
“Do I enjoy winning? Sure. But I also enjoy all of this, their celebrations and them accomplishing things that they set out to accomplish," he explained. "I learn something from them every day.”
Other match summaries (courtesy U.S. Youth Soccer)
U14 Girls - Sting 97 2, Eclipse Select 0
Sting 97 (N-TX) and Eclipse Select (IL) played in front of passionate fans to determine who would lift the Elmer Ehlers Cup as national champions. Sting fans had something to cheer for when Chelsea Surpris found the net in the 31st minute, claiming a 1-0 lead. With Eclipse beginning to commit more numbers forward looking for an equalizer, Sting's Catherine Gasper finished a corner kick to double her team's lead and claim the national championship.
"We go to many tournaments as invitation, and this one you have to earn your place; you have to earn this," Sting head coach Kioumars Rezaie said. "And this national level is not anything easy. US Youth Soccer has definitely done a great job of providing a great tournament and we're playing against the best teams in the nation. It took four years of hard work for these ladies, and it's incredible the way they have performed. They wanted to do what it takes to become the best in the nation. So we're going to enjoy this moment."
The championship Saturday night is the tenth title for Sting, a club that won the first girl's National Championship in 1980. Sting will look to add to this tally when the Under-16 girls take the field in the championship final Sunday against Hurricane FC (OK).
U14 Boys - Fullerton Rangers 1, Chicago Magic 0
The Under-14 Boys Fullerton Rangers (CA-S) put a fitting end to a memorable season tonight as they captured the national championship with a 1-0 victory over Chicago Magic (IL). Fullerton, who also lifted the esteemed Dallas Cup this season, defeated Magic by the same score in yesterday's preliminary game, however both teams had already earned a spot in today's final. Dylan Smith joined teammate and tournament MVP Ricardo Ruiz as the top scorers in the tournament with the game-winning goal on an impressive strike from 20 yards out in the 11th minute, while Golden Glove winner Keith Murphy and the Fullerton defense kept Magic off the board.
Following the match, Fullerton coach Jimmy Obleda reflected on the win, "There's nothing better than this. To say that now you can put a star on your jersey and say you're the national champion, really, words can't explain the feeling. It just brings everything full circle. Dallas Cup is one of the most prestigious tournaments internationally, but to say that you're a national champion, to say we're the best in the country at our age, this is the highest that you can achieve. Regardless of how the game has changed and all this other stuff is going on, this is the pinnacle of youth soccer. This is it."
U15 Boys: Chicago Fire Jrs 3, Michigan Jaguars 1
Three goals in the second half, which included two in the final five minutes, led Chicago Fire Juniors (IL) to the Under-15 Boys National Championship after the Michigan Jaguars took the lead on a Griffin Parks goal five minutes into the game. Michael Catalano leveled the match for the Fire in the 59th minute before Christian Hanock-Berhanu netted the game winner with three minutes to play. Brian Werchek capped the game with Fire's third goal two minutes into stoppage time to give the club its first US Youth Soccer national title.
"For us it was tough to get a rhythm early in the season and to be able to turn around and get things right and play at the level we played really makes it special," said Fire coach Marc McElligott. "You want your team to progress and be better at the end of the season than you were at the start. I thought we really played well today and the team will take away an awful lot from this experience. It's tremendous."
Eclipse Select (IL) 0, Sting 97 (TX-N) 2
Sting: Chelsea Surpris (31:00), Catherine Gasper (57:00)
SAC United Premier (MD) 1, PDA Slammers (NJ) 2
PDA: Lauren Jankowski (35:00), Lauren Dimes (47:00)
SAC: Margaret Purce (73:00)
Chicago Magic (IL) 0, Fullerton Rangers 96 White (CA-S) 1
Rangers: Dylan Smith (11:00)
Michigan Jaguars (MI) 1, Chicago Fire Juniors (IL) 3
Fire: Michael Catalano (59:00), Christian Hanock-Berhanu (77:00), Brian Werchek (82:00)
Jaguars: Griffin Parks (5:00)
Team and Individual Awards
2011 US Youth Soccer National Champions
Under-14 Boys William J. "Billy" Goaziou Cup
Champion: Fullerton Rangers (CA-S)
Golden Ball: Richardo Ruiz, Fullerton Rangers (CA-S)
Golden Glove: Keith Murphy, Fullerton Rangers (CA-S)
Fair Play: Dallas Texans 97 Red (N-TX)
Under-14 Girls Elmer Ehlers Cup
Champion: Sting 97 (N-TX)
Golden Ball: Mimi Asom, Sting 97 (N-TX)
Golden Glove: Alyssa Palacios, Sting 97 (N-TX)
Fair Play: Eclipse Select (IL)
Under-15 Boys US Youth Soccer Cup
Champion: Chicago Fire (IL)
Golden Ball: Christian Hancock-Barhenu, Chicago Fire (IL)
Golden Glove: James Barkei, Chicago Fire (IL)
Fair Play: Michigan Jaguars (MI)
Under-15 Girls Kristine Lilly Cup
Champion: PDA Slammers (NJ)
Golden Ball: Caroline Chargaresk, PDA Slammers (NJ)
Golden Glove: Courtney Brosnan, PDA Slammers (NJ)
Fair Play: SAC United Premier (MD)
2011 US Youth Soccer National Championship Finals Schedule for Under-16 through Under-19
Sunday, July 31, 2011
8:00 AM - Field 18
Hurricane FC 95 Shubert (OK) vs Sting 95 (TX-N)
9:00 AM - Field 12
St. Louis Scott Gallagher (MO) vs NSA Premier Fury (IL)
7:45 AM - Field 17
FC Milwaukee (WI) vs Colorado Rush Nike (CO)
8:45 AM - Field 11
Real Colorado National 91/92 (CO) vs Dallas Texans 92 Red Dallas (TX-N)
7:30 AM - Field 16
Albion White (CA-S) vs Concorde Fire Elite (GA)
9:30 AM - Field 16
Penn Fusion Celtic (PA-E) vs Grand Rapids Crew Juniors (MI)
8:15 AM - Field 13
YMS Thunder (PA-E) vs Alpharetta Ambush 93 Red (GA)
8:30 AM - Field 14
Baltimore Bays Chelsea (MD) vs Chicago Fire Juniors (IL)