Heading into their second season of National League competition, there are many familiar foes in the Under-16 Boys age group. Sunrise Elite 97/98 (FL) looks like the team to beat in the Blue Division after becoming one of just seven teams in the history of National League to win every game in a single season — going 7-0-0 in last year’s Blue Division. Sunrise also claimed the Region III Championship, but the Florida side came up short at the National Championships.
Sunrise is led offensively by Donald Emerson, who tied for the lead at Nationals with three goals and found the back of the net six times during last year’s National League season. The Sunrise defense will be led by 2013 National Championships Best XI honoree Samuel Buzzas.
GSA 98 Phoenix Red (GA), which finished second in last year’s Under-15 Red Division, could make a run of its own at this year’s Blue Division title. With a year of National League play under their belts, GSA coach Bruno Kalonji thinks his team will be ready to go after another high finish.
"This year, with the U-16s being our second year, I think it’s just helped the kids to have that first time experience because they were a bit more nervous going into the League, even though we ended up being second," Kalonji said. "Now, they know exactly what to expect. There’s less pressure in terms of the games. I think they’ll go in with a different mentality, and they’ll do pretty well."
Kalonji said in order to do well in National League, it’s important to get off to a good start during the first round of games in Wilson, N.C. With some of the top teams in the country in each division, teams won’t be able to afford a slow start.
One of the other Blue Division teams that will look to get off to a quick start and secure a Top 2 finish will be Lehigh Valley United 97 (E-PA). The Region I Champions will look for Evan Vare when attacking, as he scored twice in the Regional final. Arlington Impact Red (VA), which lost to LVU in the Region I final, also poses a threat in the Blue Division.
The runners-up at the National Championships, Dix Hills Elite (E-NY), headline the Red Division. Goalkeeper Tyler Spellman, the Golden Glove winner at Nationals, helps lead a tough Dix Hills defense that made scoring difficult for its opponents. Offensively, teams will have to watch Christopher McAuliffe, who scored twice at Nationals, including once in the final. Richie Mastrangelo will also be a player to watch, as he scored four goals in helping Dix Hills finish second in last year’s National League Blue Division.
A pair of Regional finalists will look to challenge Dix Hills and earn a berth to the National Championships after coming close a year ago. FC Golden State Platinum (CA-S) lost the Region IV Championship final in a penalty kick shootout, while FC Dallas 98 Premier (N-TX) fell in the Region III Championship final. The two sides will now each take aim at a Top 2 National League finish to earn a trip to the 2014 National Championships in Germantown, Md.
The ability to qualify for the National Championships through National League is a "tremendous benefit," Kalonji said.
"I think I enjoy it more to qualify through the National League. Not only that, but also there’s a great level of stability in terms of the competition," the GSA coach said. "I believe we really get good competition at National League from what I’ve seen in the past two years. The majority of the teams that you see at National League are almost the same as those at Nationals if you get to qualify. It gets you in the mindset of what’s going to be at Nationals. It gets you prepared in recognizing those higher level teams you’re going to be playing at Nationals."
With 16 teams in the age group all playing at the national level and looking to finish atop their respective groups, the amount of talent and intensity will be high — providing a great opportunity for exposure. That fact is one of the top reasons why Kalonji enjoys National League, especially with many of the Under-16 players beginning to think about their college choices.
"No. 1, I think that we get great, great competition when we go to National League. It’s the highest level of competition and a very good atmosphere, as well," Kalonji said. "Reason No. 2 I like National League is because the kids are getting a lot of college exposure. A lot of coaches go and watch the games. Just great atmosphere, great competition, great exposure."
Players to watch…
Brayden Texer (Alliance Academy): Two goals at Region II semifinals
Donald Emerson (Sunrise Elite): Three goals at Nationals; Led Region III Championships with seven goals
Samuel Buzzas (Sunrise Elite): Best XI at Nationals
Evan Vare (Lehigh Valley United): Two goals in Region I Championship final
Jake Stengel (Lehigh Valley United): ODP Region I
Byron Derti (Lehigh Valley United): ODP Region I
Christopher McAuliffe (Dix Hills Elite): Two goals at Nationals, including one in the final
Tyler Spellman (Dix Hills Elite): Golden Glove at Nationals, Best XI
Matthew Flax (Dix Hills Elite): ODP Region I
William McCreary (Arlington Impact): ODP Region I
Joseph Celo (FC Golden State): Goal in the Region IV Championship final