Jefferson Cup: VISTA Elite Impact 96 U-18 girls near end of long, happy road together
By Roger Gonzalez and Charles Boehm
RICHMOND, Va. – The Under-18 girls team in black held the lead, the advantage and most of the ball possession under sunny skies on the final day of the 2015 Jefferson Cup.
VISTA Elite Impact 96 were on their way to a 3-1 victory over FC Frederick ’96 in their third match of the weekend, but the occasion held far more significance than that. After nine straight years of qualifying for, and generally excelling in, the tournament, the Virginia squad had reached the final day of their Jefferson Cup experience.
“I think some of them are a little bit used to it by now, like maybe it’s no big deal,” said their veteran coach Pete Cinalli with a chuckle. “But it’s a very big deal.”
It was a bittersweet moment for Cinalli, who has helped guide the core of his team from gangly children into confident young women, all of whom are officially set to continue their soccer careers at the next level now that his final undecided senior committed to Shenandoah University earlier this month.
After more than a decade with the Fredericksburg Area Soccer Association (now Fredericksburg FC), Cinalli and the club parted ways in October, and Elite Impact 96 re-affiliated as an independent club. Most of the current team of 13 players have played together since U-9 level and were eager to complete their journey together.
“It just made sense for us to kind of stick together for the spring, go in a different direction,” said Cinalli. “It didn’t make any sense for us to turn left at this point.”
This year they finished with a 2-0-1 record in the Jeff Cup’s Elite bracket, earning them a tie for second place in the second-highest division in their age group. In recent years they’ve battled for college recruiting exposure in showcase brackets, not hardware. So while Cinalli would’ve loved to see this squad lift a trophy in Richmond on this final lap, he sounds content to have achieved the players’ most pressing goal: the opportunity to play NCAA soccer.
“We’ve always done extremely well, won several championships, been a finalist almost every year. It’s one of the top tournaments in the nation,” Cinalli said, recalling the many college scouts who’ve watched his team play at Jeff Cup over the years. “You have to be an elite level team to get in, in every bracket. It’s quality teams from all over the country, [with] great service, run professionally.”
Cinalli said last year two or three Elite Impact kids received offers from school that evaluated them at Jeff Cup, and subsequently inked commitments with those programs.
“It makes a huge difference in the ability to place players,” said Cinalli. “It’s been an important showcase for us.”
Elite Impact 96 pride themselves on being aggressive and attack-oriented. Interestingly enough, some of his leading goalscorers and shot-takers are defenders, as his team is pretty much all attack, all the time.
And the team’s run isn’t ending quite yet. Cinalli plans to have this team enter the U-19 Virginia State Cup and expects some of the girls to join his USL W-20 team, Northern Virginia Majestics.
He’s been with these players a long, long time: while Fox recently announced plans to remake “The X-Files” television show, Elite Impact have been together since the original was still in production in 2002. Over those years, he has seen the girls grow and mature as soccer players, and might even get a few more seasons to watch that process continue.