Heading into their final US Youth Soccer National League season, the Under-18 Girls teams are preparing to face some of the best, most accomplished teams from around the country in their age group. The squad with the most recent success, defending US Youth Soccer National Champion Cleveland United White (OH-N), is out to win the National League Blue Division for the second straight year.
Cleveland United has a few scoring threats, led by Golden Ball winner Kelly Novak, who scored five goals at Nationals. Best XI honorees Sydney Elinsky and Alexis Manoa will also test defenses, as they each added three goals at the National Championships.
One coach who is familiar with Cleveland United is Dom Bucci, who will coach a pair of teams from Match Fit Academy FC (NJ) in the age group. His Match Fit Beat (NJ) side played Cleveland to a scoreless tie in last year’s National League and lost in overtime, 2-1, to the Ohio squad in the National final. It’s playing against competition like Cleveland United that Bucci’s club enjoys about the league.
"We’ve decided, especially in this age group over the last four years that we’ve been part of the National League, it’s just provided our players with a platform to be in front of the best coaches in the country and provide us with the best competition to play against the best teams in the country," Bucci said.
"The National League has always been the highest level for us. It’s certainly a competitive atmosphere for our players and our coaches. We wouldn’t have gotten to where we are as a club if we didn’t play in the National League over the last four years."
PDA Ginga (NJ) could be poised to take one of the top spots in the Blue Division after finishing second in a tight Under-17 Red Division in 2012-13. Region III Champion AHFC 96 (TX-S) could also be a team to watch in this year’s Blue Division.
In the other group, Bucci’s Match Fit Beat side headlines the Red Division. The National finalists make it tough on opposing offenses to break through, and Golden Glove winner Rachel Egyed will try to continue that trend this season. They’ll have to contend with BRYC 95 Elite (VA), a team that has proved it can compete on the national level. BRYC won last year’s Red Division and claimed the 2012 National Championship.
Those teams could be impacted by first-time National League participant Tophat 14 Gold (GA). The Georgia side went undefeated in the Southern Premier League and outscored opponents 14-0 during group play of the Region III Championships before falling in the quarterfinals. Region I Champions Beadling Thunder (PA-W) will be another team to watch, as they try to improve on their sixth-place finish in last year’s National League Red Division.
With several teams having experience in previous National League seasons, they know there is little room for error if they want to finish near the top of the group. Bucci said every game has its own important meaning and if a team has a difficult game here or there, it could cost it the chance to advance to the National Championships.
While the players will experience the pressure and nerves that come with top-level competition, they’ll also receive the benefits that come with it. Bucci said the spotlight that gets put on games between talented clubs can help each player moving forward, especially as many of the Under-18 players prepare for college.
"In that age group we have two teams right now. The exposure that those teams will get there puts them in the position to go to the best schools in the country, and that’s what this is all about," Bucci said. "If we could get our players in front of those coaches, at the highest level, then they have that opportunity to go on and then get a great education."
Players to watch…
Alexis Kiehl (Kings Hammer): ODP Region II; Five goals at Region II Championships
Abby Weigel (Kings Hammer): ODP Region II
Rachel Green (Tophat): Tied for lead at Region III Championships with four goals
Serenity Waters (Tophat): Tied for lead at Region III Championships with four goals
Malea Fabean (Beadling): Two goals in the Region I Championship final
Kelly Novak (Cleveland United): Five goals at Nationals, including overtime winner in the final
Sydney Elinsky (Cleveland United): Best XI at Nationals
Alexis Manoa (Cleveland United): Best XI at Nationals
Jillian Kennedy (PDA Ginga): ODP Region I
Rachel Egyed (Match Fit Beat): Golden Glove winner, Best XI at Nationals