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ECNL May 28, 2012

Challenges prompt problem-solving at ECNL National Showcase: Zarephath

By Charles Boehm

The frustration mounted for Slammers FC’s Under-16 ECNL side as time ticked away in their Sunday afternoon match against the Bethesda Freedom at the ECNL National Showcase in Zarephath, N.J.

Holders of the top spot in National Flight A for much of the season, Slammers (Calif.) ran into determined, athletic opposition in the form of Bethesda, a team sitting many rungs below them in the standings. Slammers surrendered one, then two, and finally three quality goals, falling behind 3-0 in front of a large crowd of supporters and college recruiters.

The thick Mid-Atlantic summer air was far muggier than they are accustomed to in Southern California. The lush surface at the PDA Facility was a bit thicker and longer – “This is like playing in sand. We’re used to short, fast-moving grass,” noted coach Walid Khoury afterwards – than what they play on back home. And their opponents’ goalkeeper, U.S. Youth National Team pool member Alexis Bryant, was in superlative form, making several top-notch saves whenever her teammates’ closely packed ranks were breached.

Slammers would rally for a late goal as Mackenzie Cerda finally found a way past Bryant, a teammate quickly snagging the ball out of the Bethesda net to hurry it back to the center circle to save precious time. But the clock ran out, sentencing the Orange County-based squad to their first loss in ECNL play since October.

Yet Khoury took the setback in better humor than many of his fellow elite coaches might have, noting that frustrating results like it are part and parcel of the developmental process.

“Overall I thought we were the better team, we had the most possession. But they did what they had to do, played a 4-5-1 and had some fantastic counterattacks and they scored three fantastic goals,” he said. “Three fantastic goals, their goals were world-class. And that’s soccer. Sometimes you do play well but the result doesn’t fall your way. And it’s going to be good motivation for us. We need this.”

With the league’s wide geographical diversity and consistently challenging schedule, many other coaches had similar opportunities to underline learning experiences as their players dealt with injuries, fatigue, long journeys, unfamiliar conditions, talented opposition and sometimes, their own eccentricities.

“We can absolutely play with anybody in the country and we’ve done it, but we also have the ability to lose to anybody in the country,” said Dave Nolan, the coach on the other side of that upset result. “And it’s just a matter of when the focus is there and everybody plays to their capabilities, we can beat anybody…We just need to try and strive a little bit harder to get some consistency.”

For FC Virginia U-17s coach Paul Ellis and his squad, the state’s ongoing high school soccer season presented tricky challenges all weekend, starting with the fact that several members of the team had to decide whether to return home early to play in high school matches scheduled at 5 p.m. on Monday, or stay for their game against Carmel United at 12:30 p.m.

“So they’ve got some big decisions to make,” noted the veteran English coach, who said he has had to tweak his training schedules and methods to cope with the outside demands on his players’ minds and bodies.

“It’s really very difficult to get these guys together on a regular basis and train due to high school [soccer], so we basically took an eight-week break,” he explained. “We came together 10 days ago before this, we’ve trained three times and we’ve come up here and done it. So you could say that practice is overrated, but at the end of the day it’s about managing them and I feel that sometimes when you give them an extended break away from each other, sometimes they’re hungry to come back and play for each other.

“I use that psyche versus training them constantly, so they’re training with their high schools five days a week and three games, and then they’re having to come out – it becomes a drag coming to practice, so I don’t do that. I cut them off, keep them away from each other, and then we bring them back and they’re anxious to come out and play.”

For Khoury, whose team still enjoys enough of a cushion in the standings to soak up a loss or two without damaging their plans for a trip to the ECNL National Championships in Waukegan, Ill. June 24-30, a setback at PDA is far preferable to stumbling on the league’s biggest stage.

“It’s good, it’s good, it’s good. It teaches you how to deal with adversity,” he noted. “The humidity, the grass – [we’re] getting adapted to these fields since we’re going to be playing in Chicago in the same kind of conditions, maybe even worse. So everybody’s got to deal with that.”

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