Momentum, rhythm in focus as PDA Showcase marks final stretch of ECNL season
By Charles Boehm
Due to regional variations in scheduling, some Elite Clubs National League teams have nearly completed their slate of 2011-12 matches, while others have a large chunk of games still to play. Yet no matter where they stand in that regard, the arrival of the National Showcase event at the Players Development Academy in Zarephath, N.J. over Memorial Day weekend is an inescapable reminder that the season’s home stretch is at hand – the time when places in next month’s ECNL National Championships are secured.
Only the top 16 teams in each age bracket will qualify for that event, held in Waukegan, Ill. June 24-30. Some squads are already out of the running, a select few can already feel confident that they have their tickets punched, while many in the middle know that the period of league games before, during and after the weekend in Zarephath will determine how their entire year concludes.
Little surprise, then, that momentum was a major talking point on day one of the event.
Long Island-based Albertson Fury’s Under-16 ECNL team kicked off their weekend with a hard-earned 1-0 win over SoCal Blues on Saturday afternoon, the first of Albertson’s three matches in three days against tough West Coast competition. The Blues occupy fourth place in National Flight A, while the New Yorkers are on the bubble of the championships race, so the victory may prove a crucial one for Albertson.
“[SoCal Blues] are a really good team, they’re loaded all over the place,” said Fury coach Paul Riley afterwards, readily noting that his team benefited from their opponents’ late-night arrival barely 12 hours before kickoff. “That’s why you want to play in the ECNL, because you want to play against teams like that every week.
“That’s why we’re here, to come to New Jersey from New York and play three California teams – it’s fantastic. We’ve started to get a little bit of rhythm in the last couple of weeks. We struggled early in March, we went to [last month’s ECNL National Showcase] San Diego, we struggled in San Diego. And now we’ve got a bit of rhythm so it’s probably a good time to play California teams.”
Other teams found themselves in the opposite situation, often due to injuries and fatigue at the end of a long season.
“We’re kind of limping through the end of the year. I think we have 11 U-16s with us and four U-15s with us, so we’ve taken some injuries,” said Eclipse Select coach Rory Dames after his U-16 squad started strong, but slumped to a 4-1 loss to Dallas Sting on Saturday. “We’ll fight and scrap to try to keep ourselves in the top 16 and get into June, and if we get into June and it turns into one-off [knockout games], we’ll take our chances with anybody in a one-off.”
Such shorthandedness was amplified by the extremely muggy weather conditions in central Jersey, where clouds locked in the warm, still air for most of the day, with the exception of several hours of midday sunshine which made life even harder for the players as temperatures climbed past the 90-degree mark.
“It’s very humid, we’re not fit. I was disappointed a little bit with the effort – sometimes you are not fit, but you have to dig deep and find some strength to compete,” said Sting U-16s coach Antonio Pecorari, better known as Tatu, who was disappointed with his team’s work rate despite their comfortable margin of victory.
“When you play in heat and humidity like this, you need to keep possession. You have to make the ball do the work and force the other team to work.”
Beyond being accustomed to sultry Mid-Atlantic summers, teams from the host club are reaping the benefits of this important event being held in their own backyard. PDA’s ECNL teams went 3-0 on Saturday, and all three (U-15, U-16, and U-17) are well in contention for places in the National Championship.
“I do, I really do,” said PDA U-16s coach Mike O’Neill when asked if his group was where he wanted them to be at this stage of the campaign following a dramatic 1-0 win over San Diego Surf on Saturday.
“We lost two kids for the year with ACL [injuries], two very good players for us, [but] the team continues to go forward. I think we’re playing good soccer and we’re a team that typically plays good towards the end – we kind of gain our momentum, and I think we’re gaining our momentum now. That was a big win for us today. Two games left, we’ll see – I’m not going to jinx us!”