ECNL U-15: Colorado Rush captures first-ever national title for club with shutout of Dallas Sting
By Jimmy LaRoue
WAUKEGAN, Ill.–For Colorado Rush, playing defensively is not in its DNA, and in doing so for the first time, the Mountain West Conference champions had little of the possession against Dallas Sting and just one shot on goal for the 80 minute Under-15 ECNL National Final.
But when you have Jordan DiBiasi and Rylie O’Keefe on the same page, one pass and one shot was all Rush needed to become champions.
The two connected midway through the first half, and a tiring Rush squad held on for a 1-0 win, culminating a tiring stretch of games in the warm, windy conditions in suburban Chicago with the club’s first-ever ECNL championship.
Because the team was playing its fourth match in four days, coach Wes Hart employed a never-practiced, little-used defend-at-all-costs strategy. It went against Rush’s normal instincts, which is to attack and try to dictate the run of play.
“The way we typically play requires a lot of work and a lot of energy,” Hart said. “Because of the circumstances, because of the tired legs and the fatigue, that’s what we did. We scored a goal, we did what we needed to do offensively, and I don’t care that we took only one shot, you know? We scored the goal and then I thought we defended wonderfully.”
For the second straight game, O’Keefe got on the end of a DiBiasi cross and scored, and both times the goals proved to be game-winners.
The goal came from an expert run by DiBiasi down the right side, and, with one of Sting’s central defenders overcommitting to help outside, she was able to lay a pass into O’Keefe, who turned, beat a defender and then slotted the ball into the left corner of the net.
“Rylie and I have really good chemistry,” DiBiasi said. “We play a lot together, and I was just going down the end line and I did it a couple of times that game, and Rylie was 1v1 in the box, and then I saw her beat her defender, I played it to her, and she just took an amazing touch and just confidently finished it.”
Sting coach Tatu said the goal “was a mistake.”
“Three defenders overshifted toward the corner flag, and it left the middle of the field open,” Tatu said.
Still, absorbing that kind of pressure occasionally leads to opportunities for opponents with the quality of Sting.
Having faced Sting before, Rush players knew of the Dallas side’s physicality, pace and athleticism to burn. It was on display, especially, just before the half when Sting narrowly missed on two threatening shots, including Natalie McDonough’s blistering long-range shot that rattled the crossbar, but no one from Sting could get to the rebound before Rush goalkeeper Sabrina Macias smothered it.
“We hit the crossbar. We hit the post,” Tatu said. “There are days those kinds of things will happen.”
Still, Tatu felt that if Sting could have tied the game, the floodgates would have opened and it would have won by at least four goals.
In the second half, Sting had the vast majority of possession, while Rush was content to sit back, absorb, and, on rare occasions, pound the ball deep to a corner of the field and make Sting chase and resume its attack.
“We got numbers around the ball, and we did what we had to do,” Hart said. “I couldn’t be more proud of the girls. It’s not what we’re used to. In my three years coaching this team, I don’t think we’ve ever defended that much. …
“It’s not something that we worked on going into this. I’ve never done a defensive session in my life. We’ve never worked on sitting back, and absorbing and playing low pressure. The only thing we do is work on attacking. But today I asked them to do something different, and we did that.”
Against such a defensive mindset, Sting found few openings, even after its coach, Tatu, shifted from a one-striker lineup to pushing three strikers forward in an attempt to get the tying goal.
It never came.
While it’s little solace for Tatu that Sting finished just shy of its championship aspirations, having been a professional lends perspective to the outcome.
He said a couple of his players got an eye-opening experience competing at such a high level. and did not play up to their potential. Still, he knows what to do to prepare them and the rest of the team for next season and beyond.
“I’m telling you right now: There are times I was fortunate to win games I shouldn’t,” Tatu said. “Unfortunately in this game, I think this team was the better team today. I think Colorado Rush is an excellent team, but today, we were the better team. We should have won the game. We completely dominated. And they had one chance, one shot went in, and that’s what it’s all about. Soccer’s about that. You can’t argue. But we’ll be back next year, stronger,” he emphasized, “than before.”
Hart said the win validates the club and its philosophy.
“It feels like it validates what we’re doing,” Hart said. “I constantly tell my girls, I don’t waver a second when I say we’re the best soccer team in the country. And certainly, many people can make that argument. On any given day, anyone can win, but It is important to back it up. It has meaning now. The fact that we won a trophy proves what we’ve been doing all along.”
DiBiasi said she was confident of victory despite the circumstances.
“We knew that everyone wanted it so bad, I just felt confident that we were going to win that game,” DiBiasi said, “and that even though we were defending, we just had to do everything we could to win.”
And if everything means using a style they’re unaccustomed to playing, using their skills and feeding off the energy on the sidelines from players on Rush’s other club teams, then they did, indeed, do everything they could.