The Under-17 Boys have developed some intense rivalries over the first two years of league play. Region I heavyweights OBGC Rangers (MD), Lehigh Valley United 95 (E-PA) and SDFC Gauchos (NJ) have taken turns beating up on each other through National League, Regional Championship and Region I Premier League play, while Scottsdale 96 Blackhawks (AZ) and GSA 96 Phoenix Red (GA) claimed National League honors last season. However, the group is led by defending National Champion Michigan Jaguars 96 Green who, after winning the league in 10-11 and finishing as runner-up at the 2011 National finals, claimed the National crown in 2012 over fellow National League foe CESA 95 Premier (SC).
Those seven teams lead the pack of 16 heading into the 2012-2013 season, but there are plenty of returning teams that hope to parlay their past experience into a successful run this year.
"Just getting into the US Youth Soccer National League, honestly, is an amazing accomplishment," said GSA Phoenix Boys Director of Coaching Nuno Piteira. "You have to earn your way into the league. Whether it’s through the National League or ultimately being in the position to win the National Championship last season, you’re going to have to earn it. Every single game you’re playing against the best of the best and you have a chance to get exposed to different styles of play, which really makes for a challenge.
"That type of experience is invaluable, not only from the standpoint of competition, but more importantly in terms of what we do day-to-day from the standpoint of player development overall. The National League environment is going to make your heart beat a little bit stronger than normal and the anxiety level is going to kick in. Having to deal with those types of things, never mind the competition itself, those things in the big picture are really phenomenal."
Michigan Jaguars have shown solid team effort en route to back-to-back appearances in the National title game, and they’ll look to 2012 National Championships Golden Ball winner Zachary Bock and Golden Glove winner Jimmy Hague to lead them back to the big stage.
The 11-12 Blue division champion Scottsdale 96 Blackhawks took the title with a 5-1-1 record, led by speedy forward Sam Gleadle, Grant Galan and midfielder Alexis De La Rosa. The team stumbled as they entered National Championship Series play last year, but a potent attack will look to get them back for a second chance at Nationals.
Last season’s Red division champ, GSA 96 Phoenix Red, couldn’t put away their final game of preliminary play at the National Championships, just missing a spot in the final. This possession oriented team has a stable of midfielders which includes Eli Pinner and Ricardo Gomez, both Furman commits, who can pick teams apart with a controlled passing attack that went 4-0-3 last season with just eight goals scored.
"We gave up two goals and that cost us a trip to the National Championship game," said Piteira.
"It left a bad taste in our mouth and we’d love to have an opportunity to wash that bad taste out of our mouth and get back there and do it right. It would be awesome for us."
Also among the favorites are OBGC Rangers, who set the National League record for most goals scored in a season last year, led by Jeremy Ebobisse’s eight goals and Indiana commit Sean Cowdrey’s six. Ebobisse is the only player to feature on the top single-season goal scorers list twice, while Rangers are the only squad to land on the top team single-season goals list twice. Crafty winger Jony Karahbetyan and Jake Rozhansky control the middle, with former U.S. Residency member Bruno Scodari, Carter Manley and keeper Brendan Burke holding down the back. OBGC will miss the services of Gedion Zelalem, who took his talents to London and the Arsenal FC academy. Rangers have finished in second place and just one point from the top each of the last two years.
Region IV newcomers West Coast FC (CA-S), FC Golden State (CA-S) and Carlsbad Elite (CA-S) will hope to break up the old guard in their first season of league play.
"National League is key for us because of those competitive and high-level players that we have in our program, that’s what they’re looking for," said Piteira. "When we have an opportunity to say, 'Hey, we’re competing in National League and playing against the National champs at this event,' kids get excited and they see the value of competing for State Cups, Regional Championships, National League and ultimately the National Championship."
"In terms of a specific team we’re looking out for, we’re not really. We know they’re all great teams. Every team in the National League is a champion. Either you won your State Cup, you were Regional finalists or you won a Regional Championship, or you were one of the top two teams in National League last year. We know there are no gimmes, so it’s a "bring it on" type of thing."
More Players to Watch:
Esteban Reyes (Carlsbad Elite): U.S. National Pool member
Ethan Cowling (Carlsbad Elite): Region IV ODP player
Edgar Canseco (Carlsbad Elite): Region IV ODP player
Luke Spencer (Carlsbad Elite): Region IV ODP player
Matt Deemer (Carlsbad Elite): Region IV ODP player
Juan Tovar (Carlsbad Elite): Region IV ODP player
Jack Clark (CUP Crew Jrs): 3 goals in Region II Championships
Malcolm Singleton (Concorde Fire): Region III ODP player
Christian Duncan (Concorde Fire Elite): 4 goals led the Region III Championships
Jack Gayton (Concorde Fire Elite): 6 goals in 11-12 National League and Region III Championships
Everick Little (GSA Phoenix): Region III ODP player
Colby Thomas (Lehigh Valley United): 5 goals tied for Region I Championships scoring lead
Shaun Quinn (Lehigh Valley United): Region I ODP player
Ryan Brown (Lehigh Valley United): Region I ODP player
Daniel Busichio (Lehigh Valley United): Region I ODP player
Wyatt Fabian (Lehigh Valley United): Region I ODP player
Colten Habecker (Lehigh Valley United): Region I ODP player
Eric McWoods (Lou Fusz): Region II ODP player
Nick Jackson (OBGC Rangers): Region I ODP player
Spiro Pliakos (Waza FC): 4 goals in 11-12 National League season, Region II ODP player
Samuel Vinson (West Pines Strikers): Region III ODP and U.S. National Pool member
Andre Blackman (West Pines Strikers): U.S. National Pool member