Jefferson Cup U-15 Championship Final: N.C. Fusion need penalties to outlast Carolina Elite, take title
By Jimmy LaRoue
After a weekend of intense action, Twin City North Carolina Fusion 96 Elite outlasted Carolina Elite SA 96 Premier (S.C.) Sunday in a penalty-kick shootout to take the Under-15 Championship final during Boys Weekend of the Jefferson Cup.
Fusion went up a goal in the first five minutes in the match and held resolute until the waning stages, when CESA tied the match off a set piece. As fatigue enveloped both teams, the two teams played a scoreless overtime before Fusion outscored CESA 3-1 in the penalty kick shootout.
“Obviously, three games before the final, both teams spent a lot of energy, but both teams tried to play in the final, said Fusion coach Andy Butler. “It was a low-tempo game, so teams were able to pass it, and it became a bit of a war of attrition, and in the end it went down to extra time and penalties. It was just one of those, a little bit of luck and we ended up winning it.”
With CESA shooting first in penalties, Fusion goalkeeper Jon Wierman read it correctly, diving to his left to make the save. After CESA’s second shooter put his attempt high, Wierman dove left again to save another. Fusion’s Austin Azzouzi and Ben Harris converted penalties, setting up Carl Druebbisch’s title-clinching penalty.
“He said he’s never saved a penalty before as well,” Butler said. “Good for him. Obviously he’s quite tall, rangy kid, so he’s able to cover the goal. He went the right way. I didn’t ask him whether he guessed or he read it, but if he read it, he read it well and he got two good hands on both of them and he made the saves.”
Fusion, the third-ranked team in North Carolina according to GotSoccer, narrowly won its group, with both it and Upper Freehold/Allentown NJ Strikers going 2-1-0, but Fusion advanced to the final with 17 points to the Strikers’ 16. Carolina Elite, ranked third in South Carolina, current State Cup champions there and among the top teams in Region 3, won all three games in its group to reach the final.
In Fusion’s opening Jefferson Cup match against Sereno 97 Boys White of Arizona, they possessed the ball well and played what Butler said was their best game of the tournament, though they lost on the last play of the game. In their second match, just two hours after the opener, Fusion didn’t put forth their best performance, according to Butler, but “we did enough to win” 1-0 against South Carolina United Battery Pre-Academy on Striker Park’s lone turf field. Harris scored both goals for Fusion Saturday.
Riley Zerfoss then began his memorable day with Fusion’s lone goal on a breakaway following an expert counterattack, Butler said, in the 1-0 win against Upper Freehold/Allentown NJ Strikers to reach the final.
Then, with both CESA and Fusion tired from having already played three games in two days, it seemed Zerfoss’s early goal in the final would stand up. However, CESA tied the match late in the second half off a set piece.
“To be fair, they were pushing, and they probably deserved to get the goal back,” Butler said.
And with neither team able to muster up an attack in overtime – “there wasn’t much soccer going on because of the fatigue,” Butler said – the match went to penalties, with Wierman’s two key saves propelling Fusion to the Jefferson Cup title.
Butler said he tried to rotate his three available substitutes among his forwards, preferring to keep his back line unchanged and stable, as Fusion plays more of a defensive system.
“It was based on possession,” Butler said. “If we had the ball, we’re not chasing it as much, so we could conserve a little bit of energy, and we did that over the four games. That said, we managed to get the early goal and we managed to keep the ball at times.”
In addition to the efforts from Wierman, Zerfoos and Harris throughout the showcase event, Butler praised his solid back four, as well as central midfielders Mason Storm and Charlie Killebrew.
Butler expects several players from this team to progress into Fusion’s Development Academy team, but for now, he expects the Jefferson Cup title will be a springboard to its league season, the upcoming 10-day trip to England and the State Cup later this spring.
Butler said his group is a new team at the U-15 age, as the North Carolina Fusion is a merger of two clubs, blending eight players from the Winston Salem-based Twin City Youth Soccer Association, six from Greensboro United and two more from other teams.
With some players living two hours away from one another, Butler said the team had a rare chance to bond at the hotel, and got to hang out at Dave and Busters.
“This weekend has been superb for the chemistry, getting them all together and hopefully it kick-starts our season,” Butler said.