The Under-18 Boys age group is highlighted by defending National Champion West Coast FC (CA-S), which will be a favorite to finish atop the Blue Division. The California side’s journey came full circle last year, as it lost to CUP Gold 95/96 (OH-S) in its first National League game before winning a rematch, 1-0, in overtime at the National Championships to capture the title.
West Coast has a trio of players that scored two goals each at Nationals, including midfielder Dylan Struthers, who scored the game-winner in the final. Forwards Esen Harris and Luis Silva also tallied a pair. Golden Glove winner Chandler Kirby leads a defense that allowed just one goal at Nationals.
After finishing second in Blue Division last year to qualify for Nationals, West Coast coach Neil Armour hopes to see his squad get off to a good start and have similar success in this year’s National League against talented competition.
"The only thing I say to my boys is to make sure that when we leave North Carolina, and we get to Las Vegas, that we still have the chance of qualifying in our own hands, our own destiny," Armour said. "That’s very important. If you come back to Las Vegas and you’ve got enough points, knowing that if you win all three games in Vegas that you automatically qualify, we can’t ask for any more than that. You need a little bit of luck along the way, and if we get a little bit of luck and we play well, than anything can happen."
Region I champion OBGC Rangers (MD) will provide some stiff competition in the Blue Division. The Maryland side went 5-0-0 in its run to the Regional crown and will look to string together a similar streak of wins during the National League season. Another team that could challenge for a top finish in the Blue Division is Triangle United SA Gold (NC), which also went 5-0-0 en route to the Region III Championship.
Meanwhile, CUP returns to National League play and looks to be the favorite in the Red Division. The National finalists and last year’s National League Blue Division winners bring a determined, scrappy mentality to the field that makes them tough to beat.
Pushing CUP for the Red Division title will be Region IV Champions Santa Clara Sporting 95 (CA-N). Fellow Region IV squad Fram 18 Premier (CA-S) could also make some noise, as the California-South side outscored its opponents at the Region IV Championships, 8-0, before falling in the semifinals.
PDA McGeough (NJ) can’t be overlooked in the Red Division after scoring 21 goals in five games at the Region I Championships, coming up just short in a 3-2 loss to Rangers in the final.
The talent from all corners of the country that will be present in the National League catches the eye of those in the league, as well as coaches at the next level — something that attracted West Coast to the league.
"For us, it was about wanting to play good competition, wanting more exposure and basically getting more exposure with regards to colleges," Armour said. "Playing teams that under normal circumstances you probably wouldn’t get the chance to play, and basically to test ourselves against the best teams in the country. The level of competition in National League, I think, is fantastic. For us, it was all about the competition, and the exposure that we could get to help our boys go to college."
Now, West Coast will focus on aiming for the top spot in its division and making a return to the National Championships. While the odds may seem good on paper for the defending champs, their coach knows it will be anything but easy when his team takes the field.
"Our goal is definitely to go all the way to Maryland and try and defend our title, but first thing’s first – you have to try and qualify first which is not going to be easy," Armour said. "The National League this year, just the lineup of the U-18 bracket, is way stronger and more competitive than it was last year, so I’m expecting it to be way tougher this year to qualify. I don’t think there are any guarantees, but we’re going to give it our best shot and hopefully we can make it."
Players to watch…
Jack Clark (CUP): Five goals at Region II Championships
Bradley Macomber (Alliance Academy): Five goals at Region II Championships
Samuel Schmidt (OBGC Rangers): Two goals in Region I Championship final
Jeremy Ebobisse (OBGC Rangers): Five goals at Nationals
Chase Gasper (OBGC Rangers): U.S. National Team pool
Dylan Struthers (West Coast FC): Two goals at Nationals, including overtime winner in the final
Chandler Kirby (West Coast FC): Golden Glove winner at Nationals; Best XI
Wyatt Fabian (Lehigh Valley United): ODP Region I
Charles Brill (Fram): ODP Region IV
James Cook (Fram): ODP Region IV
Marshall Garcia (Fram): ODP Region IV
Nicolas Harguindeguy (Scottsdale 96): ODP Region IV