After years of near-misses on qualifying for the US Youth Soccer National Championships, CUP Crew Jrs Gold 95 (OH-S) made sure to take advantage of this year’s trip.
In its first-ever trip to the National Championships, CUP looked like it was on the verge of earning a draw against Lehigh Valley United 95 (PA-E) in its Under-17 Boys matchup. That result changed in favor of the Ohio side when Jack Clark made a long run through several LVU defenders before cutting his shot back across the face of goal into the right corner.
"It feels great to get the three points on Day 1," CUP head coach Bobby Puppione said. "The tournament isn’t over after one day, but the first game can tell a little bit about how the tournament is going to go. So, you start off on the right foot and can get one-up on some teams and be able to have control of the group."
The Day 1 win comes after years of coming up short on qualifying for Nationals, as CUP lost four straight Region II Championship semifinals from 2009-2012. The story was different this year, with CUP having won both the US Youth Soccer National League Blue Division and the Region II U-17 Boys title.
Puppione said he was happy with the mentality of his team on Tuesday, given the tendency for players to get distracted by the atmosphere of the National Championships. CUP came out focused and applied early pressure to the LVU back line. The Region II Champions broke through in the 25th minute when Clark dribbled around the keeper to the end line before crossing the ball in front of the goal. Teammate Greg Bohn deflected the cross into the net to give CUP the 1-0 lead.
Any nerves the CUP players may have felt leading up to the game appeared to vanish as they looked composed from the first whistle.
"You come in thinking about the game. We’ve been qualified since December, so it’s been in our minds for over half a year," CUP midfielder Austin Harrell said. "You’re just really excited and once it gets close to game time, you get anxious and just want it to start. Once the game starts, you relax and get in the game and don’t worry about it."
LVU gave CUP a reason to worry when it responded with a surge of its own. After a few unsuccessful set pieces around the CUP goal, LVU found an equalizer on a Wyatt Fabian goal. He made a run to the near post off of a corner kick and connected on perfect glancing header that flew just inside the far post to tie the game at 1-1.
CUP was able to withstand the push by LVU, and the teams remained level for nearly 50 minutes of play before Clark’s winning goal in the 84th minute. Harrell said he felt both excitement and relief as he watched the ball roll into the corner of the net — putting his team in position to close out the game and get an important opening win.
While the outcome may have been different in past seasons, this year’s CUP team has made it a habit of coming out on top.
"Things are clicking for these boys, and it’s great to see because they’re a pleasure to watch and a pleasure to be around," Puppione said. "I wouldn’t trade them for anyone."