By Charles Boehm
Waukegan, Ill. — As is so often the case in high-stakes knockout matches at this stage of tournaments, the pressure was enormous and goals were scarce in the ECNL Under-18 Flight A national semifinals on Friday morning.
What added a more unusual wrinkle to the proceedings was the sequence of daunting thunderheads that zoomed over the Waukegan SportsPark for several hours at midday, bearing banks of lightning which triggered the sirens that directed Finals Week fans and participants to take shelter on multiple occasions.
Both the Solar Chelsea vs. Michigan Hawks and Dallas Texans vs. Slammers FC U-18 semis were initially suspended early in the second half, and resumed some 20 minutes later only to be interrupted again when a fresh wave of ominous clouds rolled in.
Michigan Hawks had gone 1-0 up on Solar Chelsea just before halftime when Layal Zaidar slotted home a loose ball deep in the penalty box. With coach Derek Williford’s team controlling the majority of possession and regularly finding strikers Malory Weber and Ally Krause in dangerous areas down the center and along the left channel, Hawks looked comfortable with their lead. Yet the man in the middle complicated their task during the brief stretch of play between lightning delays, showing Krause, one of their star performers, a straight red card after she appeared to step on a Solar player amidst a tangle of bodies after a 50-50 ball in midfield.
In one sense, the subsequent stoppage of play helped keep Solar Chelsea from seizing the impetus and building any rhythm.
All the same, the referee’s decision left Williford fuming for the rest of the game, as he organized his team into a more defensive shape and left Weber alone up top to chase after clearances and kill time by carrying the ball to the corner flag whenever possible.
That set up a very tense finale as Solar Chelsea, perhaps a bit prematurely, elected for a direct approach by hoisting crosses and diagonal balls into Michigan Hawks’ 18-yard box in search of an equalizer. Compared to their assured performance in yesterday’s quarterfinal win over Mustang FC, however, the North Texas squad looked fatigued and disjointed, struggling to keep the ball long enough to trouble their Midwestern opponents.
After a lengthy spell of injury time, the ref blew his final whistle, sending the shorthanded Hawks into the championship final.
The story was much the same in the other semifinal, where Slammers FC snatched a stunning goal straight from a first-half corner kick and defended it for the rest of the game against the top-seeded Dallas Texans. Despite their impressive array of talent, Texans could not find a way past goalkeeper Sarah Cox and the rest of an inspired Slammers group which has surprised even its own coach.
“Miracle run, man,” said coach Ziad Khoury. “We came here and we were missing arguably the best front runner in the country, Makenzy Doniak, she broke her shoulder with the U-20 National Team. We’re missing one of our top backs, who had to go to Europe because of a senior trip, and we’re missing another forward, Devin Barrett.
“We came here just wanting to get results, and we find ourselves in the final. So we’re fighting hard for every game – I thought every team was a little bit better than us, and we find a way to win.”
Barrett is injured and unable to move at full speed, but she did make the trip and suit up with her teammates – and proved to be the difference-maker in just 30 seconds on the field on Friday.
“I put her in for a corner kick, because the only thing she can do is hit a corner kick,” explained Khoury. “It was a 30-second sub and she hit it and it was over. So she only played for 30 seconds. We subbed her in for one set piece, and she was able to bend it and deflect it off a defender, straight from a corner.”
Slammers had to defender Texans’ aerial assault throughout a long second half, and maintain their focus throughout the multiple weather delays, and ultimately their work was rewarded. They will face Michigan Hawks in the final at 1:30 p.m. CDT on Saturday.
“Today I really believe we wanted it more than Texans, I thought we were the better team over 90 minutes,” said Khoury of his U-18s. “So we’re really happy for them – it’s the best way to say goodbye.
“It couldn’t happen to a better group.”