As the final whistle blew, Lehigh Valley United players fell to their knees and then the James P. McGuire Cup rose in their arms.
The 19-and-Under side, comprised of alumni of multiple Eastern Pennsylvania clubs, became the 78th winners of the oldest trophy in youth sports. While the college-aged men celebrated on that July 2013 night, several recent middle school graduates weaved their way through the maze of hugs and cheers on the field.
The young boys — members of Penn Fusion 98 (PA-E) — received the invite onto the field to join in the celebration from a few former club mates who played for LVU during the National title run. It was then and there that the 14U players decided they wanted to be in that same position when they reached that age.
Four years later, they’re right on track.
Now a 19/20U side, Penn Fusion 98 is back at the US Youth Soccer National Championships in Frisco, Texas, to play for the McGuire Cup and a chance to recreate that night in 2013. Ironically, it’s the reason they were watching that game four years ago that has provided them with motivation ever since.
Fresh off their second straight win at the 2013 National Championships, the Penn Fusion players listened intently to live updates as they ate at a diner in the Kansas City suburbs. The group knew if the result held in the other 14U preliminary round game, they’d be moving on to the National Championship final. The match moved to stoppage time and all was going as planned until — goal.
“Had the [Michigan] Wolves not scored in stoppage time, we would have advanced,” Penn Fusion midfielder Aiden McFadden recalled. “But they did score in extra time. So then we knew we just couldn’t lose by two in the last game. We lost by three. To get knocked out like that when we were close to advancing, it hurt.”
With their tournament over and no Sunday morning final to prepare for, McFadden and his teammates attended Saturday night’s McGuire Cup final and saw first-hand the joy of winning the title.
Penn Fusion worked hard to get back to Nationals and have a shot at experiencing that feeling. In 2015, they once again found themselves one game away from the final. However, a semifinal loss left them just short for a second time in three years.
“It’s extremely tough because those two years were heartbreaking,” Penn Fusion captain Max Zandi said. “Each time we lost, our motivation was, ‘Alright, next year we are going to go get it.’ Now, it’s our last shot to get it.
“There’s not another trophy we’ve ever played for before that is as big as the McGuire Cup. If I had to win one National title at any age, it would be the U19 age.”
The Pennsylvania side has earned this final shot at the National title by winning the US Youth Soccer National League Red Division. With four National League qualifiers joining four Regional Champions, this year’s road to the McGuire Cup title will be the most grueling yet.
Having coached many of the Penn Fusion players since they were 10, Mark Thomas knows they have the belief in each other to accomplish their goal. The coach said the players are very honest with each other and bring a “blue collar” work ethic each time they step on the field.
But hustle isn’t all they do. A large majority of the team is set to begin college soccer in the fall, as the players have the skill that Thomas knows is crucial on the national stage.
“What you’ll find in the National Championship Series is that every team has those one or two players,” Thomas said. “It just comes down to those key moments in games where it’s decided by who is winning the individual battles and which of those key players can gain an advantage.”
McFadden, a Notre Dame commit, has the ability to be one of those difference-makers. He and teammate Frank DeRosa tied for the most goals in their age group during the 2016-17 National League season to help Penn Fusion to the title. Now, before he heads off to South Bend, Ind., McFadden is excited to have one more run with the friends who have helped shape who his is today.
One of several players who have known each other since grade school, McFadden can trace his path in soccer back to his very first team. With his shirt dangling down to his knees, a 3-year-old McFadden played on a team with Zandi, and he became hooked on the sport.
“No one in my family had ever played soccer, but that experience has really kind of changed my life,” McFadden said. “It’s crazy to think that changed my life at 3 years old, but now I’ve grown up with these guys. Really, most of my best friends are all on this team.”
Since their early years together at Penn Fusion, many of the players on the 98 team have had role models within the club from the 93 side. Led by 2016 MLS Rookie of the Year runner-up Keegan Rosenberry, the 93 team came one kick away from winning the 2011 National Championship, as it fell, 2-1 (5-4 PKs).
Thomas said the current players may not realize it, but just as the 93 team drove them to set goals, there may be younger players trying to emulate the 98 team. What they don’t realize right now — just as the 93 age group drove the 98 boys to set goals and try to be the next Keegan Rosenberry or Melvin Snoh, now in the next few years there will be some players who want to emulate the 98 age group.
“They’ve kind of already proved themselves of leaving behind a legacy of consistency,” Thomas said. “We’re happy they’ve performed so well and set the standard for the next couple years for the teams who are coming up behind them.”
While a handful of the 93 players, including Rosenberry, were on the McGuire Cup-winning LVU team, Penn Fusion still has yet to claim a National title as its own. The 98 team wants to change that.
It’s easy for them to visualize their goal. All they have to do is remember that night in 2013.
“Every time we would play at Nationals, Regionals or State Cup, our coach would say, ‘Be like the 93s,’” Zandi said. “It would be awesome for us to leave our mark and have him tell others to be like the 98s. It would be so cool to have the younger kids looking up to us and to be the first team out our club to win the National title.”