Several coaches talk about the depth of the US Youth Soccer National League and how any team from the league can make a deep run at the US Youth Soccer National Championship. That was the case in this age group last year, as Ambassadors FC (OH-N) went from a mid-table National League finish to an appearance in the final at Nationals.
Ambassadors played consistently tough in last year’s National League, with every result being very tight. Just one game was decided by more than a goal, as the Ohio side finished with an even goal differential. Their scrappy play in National League left them in fifth place at the season’s end, meaning Ambassadors needed to capture the Region II Championship in order to move on to the National Championships.
Ambassadors outscored their opponents 20-1 at Regionals to capture the title and that momentum continued in Overland Park, Kan. The Region II Champions won all three pool play games and came within minutes of winning the National title before falling to fellow National League side Eclipse Elite Black 97-98 (IL) in overtime. Kent Manson, coach of Ambassadors, said playing in National League helped his team "dramatically" going forward.
"I don’t think we would have done what we did at Nationals without the National League," Manson said. "For the kids, it’s a great opportunity for them to play against teams that you just don’t get the chance to play. We’re from Cleveland; we don’t get to play Southern California teams that often. To be able to do that is fantastic. They love it."
This year, the now experienced Ambassadors side will be a prime contender for the Under-16 Girls Red Division. They’ll rely on the dual-threat of forwards Alexandra Wright and Sarah Krause, who each earned Best XI honors at Nationals. Last year’s Red Division winner, Carlsbad Elite 97/98 (CA-S), is back and looking to defend its division title. U.S. National Team pool player Sunny Dunphy will be a player to watch at forward for Carlsbad.
Another team with past National League success that should challenge in the Red Division is Tampa Bay United 97 Premier (FL). The Florida side went 5-1-1 last season to finish second in its division. Meanwhile, first-time National League participant Syracuse Development Academy 97/98 (NY-W) will attempt to continue the success it had while capturing the Region I Championship.
In the Blue Division, defending National Champion Eclipse Elite Black (IL) will look to hold off some talented competition in the group. MRM Coyotes (MD) will challenge for a top spot in the division after finishing first in last year’s National League Blue Division. The Maryland side fell to Eclipse in a penalty shootout tiebreaker at Nationals that decided who advanced to the final.
Tennessee SC 16 (TN) returns to the National League after claiming the Region III Championship last season. Led by U.S. National Team pool player Karlie Paschall and three US Youth Soccer ODP Region III players, Tennessee will be a tough challenge for any Blue Division team.
First-time National League team Boise Nationals Italia (ID) will be another team to watch after it advanced to last year’s National Championships as the Region IV Representative and gained some valuable experience.
A group full of past National League experience means the Under-16 teams know what’s at stake when they take the field in North Carolina. Ambassadors’ team goal is one that is likely on the minds of the 15 other squads in the age group — finish in the Top 2 and qualify for Nationals. Manson knows the players will also get the chance to develop their skills against competition that had to earn its place in the league.
"It’s a league that has qualifications. You’ve got to qualify in order to get in. The level of competition is obviously validated through the qualification process, which is pretty intense," he said. "You potentially have to be a very high level team in order to be asked to compete in it. For us, and I think for everybody, it’s an opportunity. It creates a venue where you know every game is a very, very difficult game, which only better develops your players and your team."
Players to watch…
Alexandra Wright (Ambassadors FC): ODP Region III; Led Region II Championships with nine goals
Sarah Krause (Ambassadors FC): Leading scorer at Nationals with seven goals
Julia Lester (Tampa Bay United): ODP Region III; Led Region III Championships with six goals
Danielle Gordon (Tampa Bay United): ODP Region III
Kaylan Marckese (Tampa Bay United): ODP Region III
Taylor Lynne Bennett (Syracuse): Scored winning goal in Region I Championship final
Kennedy Yearby (Syracuse): ODP Region I
Madison Hammond (PWSI Courage): ODP Region I
Clare Severe (MRM Coyotes): ODP Region I
Sunny Dunphy (Carlsbad Elite): U.S. National Team pool; ODP Region IV; Game-winner in Region IV Championship final
Karlie Paschall (Tennessee SC): U.S. National Team pool
Meredith Slessman (Tennessee SC): ODP Region III
Jessica Harvey (Tennessee SC): ODP Region III
Callie McKinney (Tennessee SC): ODP Region III
Mia Gale (Waza FC): ODP Region II