Follow the Journey of the Palo Alto 93 Blues at the 2011 US Youth Soccer National Championships

Monday, July 25

"Today was get-away day for the team. The entire team, most wearing their Western Regional Championship black polo shirts, took off from San Jose Airport at 9:45. Once we had lunch and got checked in, the team divided in two camps, those who realized their National Tournament patches were on the wrong spot on their shorts and scrambled to get it fixed, and those who went swimming. Hint for future teams: find a tailor who can quickly sew on the patch professionally. Here in Phoenix it was $5.

Before dinner, the team visited the field where they will be playing Wednesday night, Reach 11. It is a grass field similar to the fairway at a championship golf course, cut short and very flat like a turf field. Everyone was impressed. Then we had the team dinner and a shopping spree at Target for snacks and drinks. Tonight, curfew is 11:30. Tomorrow morning, we have breakfast at 8 a.m. and then our official check-in at 8:30. So far, so good, for us in Phoenix.

Tuesday, July 26

Today was the closest thing to media day for the 60 teams at Nationals, as all teams had to dress up and attend the annual championship lunch. The girls' teams seemed to enjoy wearing dresses more than the boys' teams did wearing ties! The boys had a great time relaxing, though, before getting down to the business of soccer later in the day.

Coach BJ Noble held a light workout at 6 p.m. with the temperature at 98 degrees. The boys were moving well and getting their touch back after four days off with no practice. The fields are very fast and the ball rolls true. These are the same fields where the MLS teams practice in the pre-season.

Tonight was BBQ at the Scottsdale home of one of the players' uncles and our final non-soccer activity. Tomorrow, our first game is at 8 p.m. against Alpharetta Georgia Ambush, last year's champions. The boys get to sleep in; however, they will have to keep busy tomorrow during the day while staying out of the sun and not expending energy. Wish us luck as the competition gets real.

Wednesday, July 27

The team held a 10 a.m. meeting today where the coaches reminded the players to stay hydrated, stay out of the sun, stay out of the pool and relax until we left for lunch at 1:30. One of the players' parents have a second home in Phoenix, where we had a pasta lunch at 2:30. Then it was back to the hotel to wait to leave at 6:15 for the first game of the round-robin stage of the tournament.

Palo Alto 93 Blue gave up two early goals to Georgia and lost, 2-1, despite a last-minute first-half goal and a sustained attacked in the second half. Georgia scored its first goal at 11:10 on a short corner play and scored their second at 29:50 on a steal and a breakaway. At 46:00, Palo Alto was awarded a free kick from 30 yards out and Riley Hanley scored on a direct kick that beat the keeper cleanly, shortly before the first half ended.

To start the second half, Palo Alto shifted to a 4-5-1 to slow down the speedy Georgians and mount an attack up the middle. The tactic worked, as Palo Alto carried the run of play and had five good scoring chances, but could not score. Palo Alto play Yardley, Pa. Thursday night at 8 p.m. Yardley won their opening game, 2-1, over Kansas City on a late goal. Tomorrow, Palo Alto gets more offensive firepower as Juan Gamez returns to the lineup after sitting out the first game because of a red card he received in the Regional competition. Because this is the round-robin stage, Palo Alto is still alive in the tournament. The boys had a post-game pizza dinner. Now it's time to shake off tonight's loss and come back ready for tomorrow.

Thursday, July 28

The team was determined to bounce back today after the tough loss to Alpharetta, Ga. The boys learned that the play at nationals is much different than the play in California, or even Region IV. East of the Rockies, the referees and the players are used to a very physical level of play that players in California do not experience. While much of the run of play is just tough, body-on-body soccer, the referees use a much more "let them play" standard and let a lot of things go that would draw a foul or even a yellow card on the West Coast. Also, among these elite teams, the pace of play is much faster than even at high-level league soccer.

Today started out with a 12:30 team meeting to get ready for Yardley, Pa. The coaches stressed "back to basics." Then it was a team lunch at 2:00, a rest, and a ride out to the park. In my van, the players switched from Classic Rock to Hip Hop on the satellite radio.

Something clicked with the players tonight and they showed they could be just as tough as anybody back east. They played their game, looked great, and earned a hard-fought 1-1 draw that keeps them alive in the tournament. Here's a recap of today's game. Also, the players on my van have decided to keep the radio on Hip Hop following tonight's success!

Recap cut and pasted here:

Palo Alto 93 Blue remains alive in the US Youth Soccer national championship tournament by earning a 1-1 draw with Yardley, Pa., Thursday night in Phoenix. Yardley scored first at 21:30 on a short corner play with a shot by Michael Laughery to the upper-left corner of the net from 25 yards out. It was similar to a play run by Alpharetta, Ga., Wednesday night that also cost Palo Alto a goal. Despite numerous furious attacks, it took Palo Alto until the 83rd minute to even the score with a goal from Jose Mendoza following a mad scramble in the box. Palo Alto is now 0-1-1 and is still able to advance if they win Friday night over Kansas City and Alpharetta, Ga., beats Yardley.

The game featured the ball-control style of Palo Alto against the very fast, counter-attacking style of Yardley. Both teams played at an incredibly fast pace throughout the entire game.

"We weren't nervous and we played with more confidence tonight," said team captain Riley Hanley, explaining the difference between the lost to Alpharetta on Wednesday night and the draw with Yardley on Thursday.

Coach Bill Noble credited better game preparation and a more focused warm-up.

"They didn't get caught up in the moment; they just played," he said.

Palo Alto plays Kansas City Friday night at 8p.m. Both teams have identical 0-1-1 records and either could advance to Sunday's final match with a win, depending on the outcome of the other game.

Friday-Sunday, July 29-31

Friday began with stretching in the pool at 10 a.m. Then at 1:30, it was everyone into the two white and two grey vans where it seemed we had been spending most of our waking hours. We took a final trip to the house where we had had lunch Wednesday and Thursday. By Friday it was feeling like a "safe house" where the young warriors could shed their game faces, pick up their freshly laundered uniforms and relax and joke around. Some of the parents joined us for lunch. After lunch we relaxed at the hotel, and then it was back in the vans for a serious trip to game three. With a loss and a tie, we needed a win. When someone noticed our favorite billboard had been replaced, tension broke and the boys were talking and joking again.

As we were warming up, no one had to say it, but we all knew this could be our last game together. Warm-ups were focused. Coach Rob Becerra gave a moving talk just before the game. It was very personal, too personal for the blog. But I will never forget it, and I doubt the players will.

The game got off to a good start. Our first goal was scored by Andrew Wohl. Andrew broke his foot in the round-robin of the State Cup and didn't play in the State Cup knock-out round or in Regionals. He hadn't played in two months before the tournament and had only been training for a couple of weeks. We hadn't gotten a break or a bounce in the tournament, and maybe this was a sign our luck was changing.

This is how the game went down.

Recap cut and pasted here:

Palo Alto 93 Blue U-18 boys soccer team earned a bronze medal in the US Youth Soccer National Championship Series with a draw against Kansas City, Friday night. Both teams finished with identical 0-1-2 records and will share the bronze. A win by Palo Alto, coupled with an Alpharetta, Ga., win over Yardley, Pa., would have put Palo Alto through to the title game. However, because both games Friday night ended in a 1-1 draw, Yardley will play Alpharetta in the final game on Sunday.

Palo Alto struck first on an Andrew Wohl goal at 47:00, just before the first half ended. Shortly before Wohl's goal, a Palo Alto shot hit the back of the netting and bounced out, however none of the referees saw the ball go into the net and play continued.

Kansas City, using a direct style of play, sent long ball after long ball deep into Palo Alto territory finally drawing a foul 30 yards out. Kansas City's Grant Wilson hit a high, arching ball that carried over Palo Alto goalie, Cameron McElfresh to tie the score for Kansas City at 79:00.

With both teams needing a win to have hope of advancing, the Kansas City goal ignited a furious pace. Palo Alto used three forwards and quickly moved the ball down the field with its ball-control offense, while Kansas City kept counter-attacking with long balls over the top of the Palo Alto defense.

Neither side could find a weakness in the other, and the game finished 1-1. In the U-18 round robin, four games ended 1-1 and two ended 2-1 in the most evenly matched age group at the tournament.

Tonight was the final game for the Palo Alto 93 Blues, after 10 seasons. The players will be heading off to college in just a few weeks. In one of the cruel ironies of sports, Palo Alto teammates who grew remarkably close over the last 10 years, will now be squaring off as opponents when they play for their college teams. But, none of them will ever forget the week during the summer of 2011, spent in the Arizona desert, when a group of basically neighborhood kids proved they could compete favorably at the highest level of soccer against players from anywhere in the country.

Back to the blog…

The end had come. Coach Becerra called the boys to the center of the field for one last talk. By the time he had finished, there wasn't a dry eye and the hugging began. I snuck a glance to see how Kansas City was doing, and they were already walking to the awards area. There were no hugs or tears. It drove home how special this team had begun and what it meant to the players.

It was off to the podium, then a van ride to pizza at the hotel, and one final parents' meeting to figure out who was leaving and who was staying until Sunday. Everyone was staying except for three players. One had a soccer camp and two had to get ready for college.

Saturday, July 30

Saturday was pool day. The boys had not been allowed in the pool, except for stretching, since Monday. There was water volleyball. A team trip down three-story water slide. Coach, managers and players all got wet and had a great time. It was finally like summer camp. We had one final team dinner, where three of the boys told the waiter that it was coach Becerra's birthday. (It wasn't his birthday!) The staff brought out a birthday dessert and a giant sombrero for the coach to wear, while the entire restaurant sang happy birthday.

Sunday, July 31

We arrived early at the airport; our final trip in the vans. One final spirited discussion about what music to play on the radio. An uneventful flight. My co-manager Gal Tirosh, on the job until the last minute, was checking to make sure everyone had a ride home from the airport. Then the long wait for luggage. It arrived. Final hugs and handshakes. It had all been done and all been said. The players straggled out through the airport doors and into the next chapter in their lives.