The Braddock Road 1995 team, competing this year in the U-18 division of the Youth Soccer National Championships, came up short in their goal of repeating their 2012 national championship, losing in the semifinals to Beach FC Ingrassia, 2-0.
Even to get that far, they needed to get through group play, and that proved to be a struggle. On Tuesday, they faced Cleveland United and lost, 3-0, the first goal scored in the 39th minute and two more tacked on in the 79th and the 81st. That made every following game a must-win.
I managed to get to Wednesday’s game in person, as they took on Nevada’s Players SC Eite. It didn’t start well for Braddock as just 4 minutes in goalkeeper Tina Cardamone missed the ball while attempting a save, and it rolled to her left to Players’ Michaela Morris, who slotted it in from there. A few minutes later, another Players’ shot went off the crossbar. After that, though, Braddock settled down and gradually took control of the game. They equalized in the 40th minute, Kahla Seymour getting the ball in the box after a nice passing sequence and putting it away. Just two minutes later, she and Olivia Fiegel came in on a 2-on-1 break, Fiegel on the right passing to Seymour on the left, who trapped the ball with a superb first touch, then fired it into the net with her second to give the Virginia team a 2-1 lead going into the half.
The second half was nail-biting time as Braddock controlled possession but couldn’t get the ball in the net for the longest time. It took until the 85th minute for Fiegel to receive a nice cross from the right end line, spin, and put it away. “That third goal was huge for us,” said head coach Larry Best after the game. “It was 2-1 for a long time in that second half, and anything can happen. So we got that third one, and we were in very good shape.”
Fiegel would get another in second-half stoppage time when she came in with a through ball. She fired it at goalkeeper Alexa Murrietta, who tried to punch it clear but just sent it back off Fiegel and into the net. The final score was 4-1, getting the team back on track but still needing a win the next day.
I asked Fiegel what the difference was between Tuesday and the first ten minutes of Wednesday versus the rest of the day’s match. “We were nervous. Collectively our intensity wasn’t there. Everyone was going for the ball, but nothing was really happening. We weren’t finishing our chances. Today we picked it up. We all came together and really pushed through.”
“We came out slow and a little bit nervous,” added Seymour, “and then once we got a spark we controlled the game, settled down, and we ended up just doing what we usually do.”
Best had a simpler answer. “Obviously, Kahla Seymour’s the difference. The kid’s a difference-maker. We’ve said that for years – she’s always scored goals for us. It also allows Olivia to be open a little bit more. They forget about Olivia sometimes because they’ve got to worry about Kahla. Kahla’s a game-breaker. Look at how many minutes she played today and how much she impacted the game.”
Seymour had turned her ankle badly in a W-League match and looked to be out for the season, but she was cleared by her doctor on Tuesday to play.
Best had originally thought that his U-20 national teamers, Carlyn Baldwin and Kaleigh Seymour, would be available for the weekend after returning from U-20 camp, but he told me that was not the case, then shrugged and smiled. “This team has always faced adversity, and we just battle through. Can’t worry about it.”
On Thursday, the team managed a nail-biting, 1-0 win with team captain Rachel Moore collecting a corner kick clearance in the 71st minute and firing it back in for the score.
That brought us to Saturday morning and an 8 am semifinal match with Beach FC Ingrassia, a team that had won all three of their group matches while giving up no goals and scoring 13.
The intensity was incredible. Both teams were playing as if they’d be executed if they lost – the professional Spirit players could have come out and gotten a lesson or two in focus and determination. Unfortunately, Seymour wasn’t healthy enough to play in this game, and it was asking a lot of forwards Fiegel and Maire Shine to fill her cleats. Meanwhile, Beach forwards Kimberly Keever and Ashley Gonzales were creating one dangerous chance after another.
Braddock Road hung on for more than half the game, but the dam finally broke seven minutes into the second half as Beach FC took a free kick deep on the right. It flew to the left side where it was sent back to the near post, and Shannon Simon sent it in from there.
Unbelievably, Braddock Road stepped it up even higher after getting scored on and began to get the better of possession. But they just couldn’t break through the Beach defense even for a solid chance and began resorting to shots from distance that were mostly off the mark.
A scary moment came in the 63rd minute as a Braddock defender made a desperation clearance that bounced off goalkeeper Cardamone’s arm. The referee whistled for a handled backpass, giving Beach an indirect free kick from point-blank range. Beach tried a quick tap and a shot, but it was blocked by a defender and quickly cleared.
Beach settled the matter around the 90th minute when Braddock’s Elysse Branton tried to take the ball out of the back on her own and lost it. That yielded a 2-on-1 break with Simon finishing the ball beautifully into the lower left corner. The game would end, 2-0.
Best was appreciative of the opposition, who would go on to win the final and the championship, still without giving up a goal. (Their sister team – with some of the same players – would also win the WPSL championship the same day.) “Beach FC is very good. Even if we had our full team, it would be a heck of a game. Tactically, we had to play a little different from the way we’re used to playing. We had to get behind the ball. We had to have our numbers behind the ball organized.
“It was 0-0 at halftime. They got that early goal, and at this level it’s about getting that first goal. They got it. To be honest, we didn’t get a ton of chances. But they’re a good team. At this stage, without our key kids, they’re better.”
He was pleased with the team’s performance even without several key players. “I thought our kids fought hard. What people don’t understand is when you’re missing key kids, when they’re on the field, they make everybody else better. You can tell when our top kids are on the field, everyone else is so much more confident. But these kids, all year they just battled somehow, fought adversity with missing players, injuries.”
It’s the end of an era. Youth Soccer does offer a U-19 level of competition, but Best wants to move the team past that. “Chances are, we won’t play U-19. We’re going to skip that. We want to take it to the next level where they’re playing with older players all the time. They’ll come back, and we’ll go right into the W-League. We’re starting the U-20 next year, so we’ll have U-20 and the W-League. We’ll definitely be playing W-League because that’s where those kids need to be challenged. I think if we have everybody on the field next year for the W-League season, we’ll contend somehow.” He also plans on bringing back veteran players like Kristen Meier and Marisa Park, who were such a key part of the W-League team as leadership for the younger players.
I talked with some of the younger players after the match, and they looked on the bright side of the experience.
Midfielder Charlotte Hyland is a 96er playing with the 95s. “It’s been great. It’s such a high level of soccer, and I think I’ve really improved, every time I step on the field with this team because it’s faster, everyone’s quicker and bigger, and it’s just been great.”
Another 96er, Jen Boyles, an outside back and center mid for both the 95 and the W-League team, saw it as grounding. “It gives me a preview of what college is going to be like and helps me get prepared for that.”
Keeley McCarthy, an outside back and forward who’s truly a ’97 but was called up to the ’96 team and then to the ’95, said, “Each time I step out on the field with these girls it just helps me get better.”
And the baby of the group is Amy Luttges, called up all the way from the ’98s. “I was called up to 95’s about a month ago. I’ve learned a lot.”
But the marquee players for the team are Carlyn Baldwin and Kaleigh Riehl, who’ll be playing for the US in the U-20 Women’s World Cup starting in just a couple of weeks. Best can’t say enough about them. “Look at Car and Kay, they’ve been playing together since they were ten years old. And they’re going to the U-20 World Cup now. That’s a story right there that’s amazing, those two going off together, growing up playing together, and always sticking together. It’s a beautiful story with those kids.”
Riehl has been hard to get hold of after getting injured in an early W-League game and then being off in U-20 camp, but I managed to talk to her this time. “It’s been an incredible experience. Larry’s a great coach. He’s taught me everything. The girls are great. It’s been such a high level, and I’ve been lucky to play up with them, and I think I’ve just improved throughout the years just being on this team and learning from them.”
Being stuck on the bench, though, was not how she wanted to end her time with the team. “I was dying on the sidelines, just wanting to go in and help the team. But I also understand that I don’t want to get injured right now.”
She’s looking forward to the tournament. “Just being able to play at that level. It’s just incredible. I just can’t take something like that for granted.” It’ll be her first serious international experience – she played a few matches with the U-18 national team, but those were all friendlies.
Best notes that this group is something really special. “We had a plan for them. They had their plan. We came together and said, ‘Okay, what do you want to do? What are your objectives?’ Their objectives were to get to the highest level possible. And we said, ‘Okay, we’ll help you.”‘And every year they just got better and better and better. These kids are actually peaking now, as 18-year-olds, not at 14, 15, 16. They’re fit. They understand what it takes in all four components of the game, so it’s a special class, a really special class.”
I noted to Riehl the team’s tremendous camaraderie – according to Twitter they organized one last sleepover Saturday night just so they could stay together a little longer. “It’s really personal,” she agreed. “It sucks that it’s the end. But it was a great” – she paused a moment to count just how long it had been – “ten years on this team.”