ECNL aristocracy tested on day one in Phoenix
By Charles Boehm
PHOENIX – As large, competitive and diverse as it is, the Elite Clubs National League does have its upper crust, powerful clubs that consistently compete for honors in all age groups year after year. Many of those teams are present here at the ECNL National Event: Phoenix, and most showed their quality on day one, as temperatures climbed past 90 degrees under the merciless desert run.
In fact, one of Saturday’s very first matches at the Reach 11 Sports Complex featured two members of that elite, as Dallas Texans’ Under-15 squad met their counterparts from Eclipse Select SC (Ill.) in a tense match which offered a postseason atmosphere in September.
“I think that’s what the ECNL national showcase events are supposed to be about this year: pitting top teams against top teams from different conferences, so that we can get this level of competition and these types of experiences,” said Eclipse assistant coach Trae Manny. “So, a great opportunity for our kids, a great opportunity for their kids, and a fun way to start off a nice weekend.”
A back-and-forth contest full of skill and pace had both coaches, Texans’ Sean Bubb and Eclipse’s Rory Dames, pacing their bench areas and shouting direction and encouragement constantly.
The game swung in Eclipse’s direction in the second half as the Illinoisans, led by the exceptional abilities of playmaker Zoe Redei, seized a 3-1 lead, though the Texans fought back and grabbed a second goal to ensure a nervy finish at 3-2. The result was the first win of Eclipse’s perfect 4-0 day as a club.
“Yeah, Zoe is definitely a special player,” said Manny of Redei, a national team pool member whose aggressive runs and trickery on the ball were a constant threat. “She’s got a couple of tools that are pretty unique for a kid this age – a lot of fun to have in training and in games, and a great kid to have on your team.”
Bubb’s club is traditionally known for its size, power and athleticism, but diminutive midfielder Julissa DePaoli offered subtle glimpses of vision and cunning in addition to the attacking threat of goalscorers Haley Berg and Madison Haley.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for the aristocrats, though. Dallas Sting, the Texans’ crosstown rivals, saw their talented U-18 team pushed to the limit by a shorthanded Sporting Blue Valley unit who led 1-0 for most of the game before tiring in the late stages and falling 2-1. Remarkably, the Kansas City area upstarts produced their sterling effort with just 11 players available, one of whom, Northwestern commit Addie Steiner, was not at full speed due to the effects of a bug which was swept through the team.
“We don’t have a lot of players in that squad anyway, and then we had strep throat hit our team,” explained coach Huw Williams. “So we were down to actually 10 players and we were pushing one player every day up from the Under-17s to help them out.
“Jaycie Johnson [who will play in college at Nebraska next season] scored a great goal for us, she’s dangerous,” he added. “We’re very good up top, the 18s. Two fast forwards who are dangerous and can cause headaches for most teams.”
The performance certainly impressed Sting coach Kenny Medina.
“I’ll be very honest with you, it would’ve only been an upset because unfortunately they came with a limited amount of numbers,” he told Soccer Wire afterwards. “I give them a lot of credit because they had a really good game plan and they had some really talented players… They had some very, very gifted players, and ultimately, that’s what we should all be striving for.
“Basically we were able to pull it out, I think mainly because of our experience and our expectations, of what we’ve been through in the past,” he added. “Hopefully in the next couple of games we’ll play a little bit better.”
Medina’s squad was missing impact players Natalie Calhoun, Meagan McCollough, and Maddie Lundberg due to injury, but showed its exceptional depth as Lauren Selaiden and Kendall “Niki” McKnight inspired the late comeback.
“That’s what’s nice about the ECNL, we’ve got other kids within the club that have probably earned opportunities but because we’re so deep, it’s tough to get in,” said Medina. “They’ve come in and contributed to three points, which obviously we’re very proud of.”
The ECNL rejiggered its competitive structure over the offseason, creating eight regional conferences and doing away with its two-tiered “A” and “B” Flight system. Thus far, that move seems to have elevated the importance of its National Events Series, with top teams eager to challenge themselves against new competition from further afield. The final reckoning will have to wait until June, however, when the top teams in each conference will make up the field at the National Play-offs in Aurora, Colo.
“Our expectations are to continue to grow,” said Manny, “keep moving forward, keep taking opportunities to play against some of the best teams in the country and keep testing ourselves to see where we’re at, where we need to go and what it’s going to take for us to be prepared once June rolls around.”