You don’t have to look much further than defending National Champions Smithtown Arsenal (E-NY) to see an example of how strong the Under-17 Boys competition will be in the 2013-14 National League — and how difficult it is to even qualify for the league in this age group.
The New York side missed out on last year’s National League but worked hard to earn its way back — going 4-0 in Overland Park, Kan., and claiming the National Championship along the way. With his team now back in National League, Smithtown coach Tom Lips said the players are looking forward to the challenge that comes with playing the top teams in the country.
"The best part of National League is the competitiveness. If you have an off day, you’re going to lose. You have to be on all cylinders. If you’re not, you’ll end up losing," Lips said. "A year ago, we applied and didn’t get accepted. We had a good year, and obviously a good year is not enough. It’s pretty straight forward. They’re looking for the most competitive teams in the current moment, and we enjoy that. We really do."
Heading into the 2013-14 National League season, Smithtown headlines the Red Division. The squad will look to Thomas Butzke and Moosah Khanat to lead the offensive attack after each scored three goals at Nationals, while 2013 Golden Glove winner Noah Varonier returns as keeper.
The defending National Champions will be tested by CCV Stars 97 Black (AZ), which went 6-1-0 in last year’s National League, claiming the U-16 Boys Blue Division title. Concorde Fire Elite (GA), which finished second in last year’s Blue Division, will also provide tough competition.
The Red Division also features Region II Champions Alliance Academy 97 (MI) and a former National League division winner in CUP Gold 96/97 (OH-S). With seven other capable teams, Lips knows each game will be difficult, especially with Smithtown carrying the title of defending National Champions.
"There’s no roundabout way to put it, we want to win it. We know it’s going to be hard. We know the bull’s-eye is big," Lips said. "And again, if we’re caught sleeping or anyone else is, you’re going to pay the price because everybody is eager and ready. We’re looking forward to National League because we missed it the previous year and we’re excited to be back."
Meanwhile, GSA Phoenix 97 Red (GA) and Fullerton Rangers 96 White (CA-S) will look to finish at the top of the Blue Division this season. GSA and Rangers finished with identical 5-0-2 records in last year’s National League to finish tied at the top of their division — GSA taking first because of a better goal differential.
The two sides, which played to a scoreless tie in their lone National League meeting in 2012-13, have each had success at the national level. GSA advanced to last year’s National Championship final, where it lost to Smithtown, while Rangers won back-to-back National Championships in 2011 and 2012.
U.S. National Team pool player Amirgy Pineda, a 2013 Best XI honoree at Nationals, will lead the Fullerton attack. Blue Division teams will also have to look out for GSA’s Joseph Efford, who earned Best XI honors while scoring two goals at Nationals, in addition to leading the Region III Championships with four goals.
Region IV Champions FC Golden State White (CA-S) will also look to make some noise in the Blue Division. Golden State outscored its opponents 16-3 in the 2013 Region IV Championships and just barely missed out on a spot in the final at Nationals.
With numerous teams in each division entering this season with experience in past National League campaigns and National Championships, there will be fierce competition to come up with victories to finish in the Top 2 — earning a well-deserved bid to the 2014 National Championships.
"That’s the bonus. Most of the boys discussed that amongst themselves because there’s nothing better than getting to the National Championship and being part of that whole environment. It is special," Lips said. "[My players] tasted it two years ago. We had a wonderful opportunity last year and took full advantage of it. The boys like being part of that. We’re just fortunate to be in this situation, and we’re going to give it our best to come out on top because we want to be back at the National Championships in July."
Players to watch…
Nedim Mehanovic (Alliance Academy): Four goals at Region II Championships
Joseph Efford (GSA Phoenix): Led Region III Championships with four goals; Best XI at Nationals
Yosef Samuel (GSA Phoenix): ODP Region III
Harrison Weilbacher (Smithtown): Game-winner in Region I Championship final; Goal in National final
Thomas Butzke (Smithtown): Three goals at Nationals, including winner in the final; Best XI
Moosah Khanat (Smithtown): Three goals at Nationals
George Castro (Fullerton): Three goals at Nationals
Amirgy Pineda (Fullerton): U.S. National Team pool; Best XI at Nationals
Andrew Conwell (Tennessee SC): ODP Region III