Wild card they said, national championship title they never said, but that is exactly what the SLSG Metro 14 Pre-Academy team attained July 22.
Making the most of their late entry as a wild card into the US Club National Premier League Champions Cup in Denver, Colo., the team faced opponents from Washington, Florida, Colorado, New York and Texas on its run to secure a second national championship title for the Collinsville-based division of St. Louis Scott Gallagher.
After losing four players to illness the night before the regional championship match on July 1, a late penalty and a 3-2 loss to the Michigan Wolves of Detroit seemed to signal the end of a promising season for this group of boys, who hail from communities in the metro-east like Collinsville, Edwardsville, Alton, Belleville and Waterloo as well as communities across central and Southern Illinois, like Carbondale, Marshall and Anna-Jonesboro.
A last-minute wild card berth, however, signaled a reprieve and the team set out to make the most of their second chance.
According the coach, Blake Decker, "It is difficult to put into words the emotional highs and lows surrounding our defeat in the regional championship match and then the subsequent awarding of a wild-card berth. We trained 120 times over 10 months preparing for regionals and when it ended the way it did, it was heart breaking.
"However, I think that experience provided the players with an unique perspective that contributed significantly to the team's eventual national championship title," Decker added. "Unlike all the other teams at the event, the guys knew exactly what it felt like for the season to be over because we experienced it. They set their minds and hearts to ensuring we made the most of our second chance together."
SLSG opened with a 4-0 win over Wentachee (Wash.), followed by a 1-1 tie with Weston, from Miami.
It then trailed 1-0 early in its final pool-play match against Rush Colorado, the champions of the Colorado State and Mountain Developmental League.
SLSG tied the game just before halftime and got the winning goal when Wan Kuzain Wan Kamal (Carbondale) picked up a ball at midfield and made an individual run, slipping a pass to an overlapping Clayton Pearson (Edwardsville), who bent the ball around the onrushing goal keeper.
"That comeback was a key moment for us," said Wan Kamal. "We have always been a very tight group, we enjoy being with each other on and off the field, but the ability to come from behind on the third day after conceding the lead early to a local team, who was not affected by the altitude, made us believe that together we had a chance to beat anybody."
In the semifinals, SLSG Metro faced pre-tournament favorite MLS Youth Academy, New York Red Bull (NYRB). A team comprised of players from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania, which owned 34-1-1 record in the North East Pre-Academy League and outscored its opponents 13-1 in the group stages.
After a scoreless first half, SLSG Metro shocked NYRB in the fourth minute of the second half when Pearson was taken down in the penalty box and buried the subsequent penalty--kick in the back of the net.
NYRB tied it with seven minutes left in regulation. The score would remain tied as the two teams entered two 10-minute overtime periods.
Just as it looked as though the matter would have to be settled via penalties, Hunter Mudd (Edwardsville) picked up a ball in midfield after a sliding tackle on the NYRB left back, passed it to Pearson, who beat a defender and served the ball into the box.
After a deflection by the goalkeeper, the ball fell to Mudd's feet and he applied the final touch to secure the victory.
"Even if I was not there Riley (Patterson) was right there with me and he would have gotten it if I did not," Mudd said. "I think that shows how committed we all were to each other. They had so much of the ball, but even after defending hard for nearly all of the 90 minutes, we had three players in the box to Red Bulls one. We wanted it so badly."
In the final, SLSG Metro faced FC Dallas, another fully funded MLS youth program.
It did not take them long for SLSG Metro to grab the lead, Pearson once again finding the back of the net off a Riley Patterson cross in the eighth minute. However, FC Dallas would tie it with only 30 seconds left in the first half.
SLSG Metro would take the lead for good seven minutes into the second half, as after a long punt by goalkeeper Gage Steiner (Alton), Patterson challenged the FC Dallas center back for the ball and it popped free for striker Ben Huels (Waterloo), who beat the final defender and then the goalkeeper to score.
Kept in its own end for much of the next 15 minutes, SLSG Metro got an insurance goal with just over five minutes remaining in the match, as attacking midfielder Ryan Stites (Waterloo) picked up a ball about 25 yards from goal, ran inside with it and found Pearson running in behind the FC Dallas back line. Pearson notched his fifth goal of the tournament and sealed a national title for SLSG Metro.
The national title won in Colorado is the second in third years for SLSG Metro and marks the third consecutive year an SLSG Metro team has appeared in a national championship final.