Talented VSA Heat Blue squad digs deep to claim Region I U-17 girls championship
By Roger Gonzalez
Northern Virginia side VSA Heat Blue Under-17s had their eyes on the prize the entire time at the U.S. Youth Soccer Region I Championships in Lancaster, Pa. last week.
With quality players packing both the starting 11 and the bench – Heat Blue has 14 of 17 squad members committed to college programs – the Haymarket-based squad got off to a solid start at regionals against mid-Atlantic rivals Baltimore Bays 94/95 Chelsea, winning 2-1. The squad trailed 1-0 early on before bagging two second-half goals to earn the win.
“Talent-wise, this is a really strong group,” said coach Steve Smith, whose team drew the second game 1-1 against New York’s Black Watch Premier. “They are going to encounter different tactical problems…They learned that we have to keep the ball moving, change [the field] quicker.”
With two decent opening results, the stage was set for the final group game against Connecticut’s Yankee United Blaze.
“We went into the last game knowing we had to win [to advance],” said Smith, who was attempting to take a team to nationals for the second time.
“It’s a team that we had played twice before…We really didn’t want to see them since we already beat them twice.”
Heat Blue went on to thrash Yankee United Blaze 8-1, seeing the squad clinch first place in the group stage and a place in the knockout round.
“Mentally, we kind of talked about it as a quarterfinal for us,” Smith said. “If we tied or lost, we weren’t moving on. The girls were really pumped for that game. We jumped on them early…Then we scored three goals within in the first 15 minutes of the first half. It was pretty much lights out. The girls were really combining well.”
That win set the tone for the rest of their tournament.
“We felt that if we came out and played the way we can, we should be able to get the finals,” the coach said. “It reinforced our confidence. The girls were pretty pumped up…It was amazing to watch. It was fun to watch. The girls really put everything together.”
The team saw off New Jersey’s SDFC 09 Lynx 2-1 in the semifinals before lifting the trophy with a heart-wrenching 2-1 overtime win against Seacoast United of New Hampshire.
The team once again found itself down 1-0 in the second half, so Smith changed the formation, opting to go from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3. It paid off as Daniela Neves, a talented, playmaking forward who will play her college soccer at West Virginia, bagged both goals to earn Heat Blue the title.
“The one thing I love about my team is, no matter if we are down, we always seem to keep it together,” Neves said. “We always find a way to relax and calm down. Changing the formation helped a lot.
“The win was amazing. It was a dream come true. All the months of training, it was all worth it.”
Her coach praised the team’s depth for much of the success.
“That’s the strength of our team,” Smith said. “There is not really one go-to player. That was the key. Nobody can really focus on one player.”
Neves led the way with four goals in all, while defender Meghan Cox (JMU commit) and forward Ashley Herndon (JMU) each bagged three.
Goalkeeper Taylor Kerxton (Wake Forest) was strong in goal, while a stellar defense and midfield was able to contain opposing attackers and advance the ball with pace.
Now comes the biggest challenge yet. The U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships will take place in South Carolina July 24-29.
“You’ve got to go in there with the attitude that you have a chance to win,” said Smith of the single, six-team group at nationals, in which the top two point-getters advance to the final. “We are looking to get six points, and hopefully that will get us into the finals.”
Neves and the rest of the girls are ready.
“Oh my, I can’t wait,” she said. “We can’t wait. Regionals was just a trip to nationals…Now, it’s our time to focus on nationals. Our mindset is to win and to take it for Virginia.”