Six central Ohio club soccer teams are getting ready to compete in the Midwest Regional Cup.
The event runs Saturday, June 21, through Wednesday, June 25, at John Ankeney Soccer Complex in Beavercreek. Regional champions in each age group advance to the U.S. Youth Soccer Association National Championships, which will be held July 21-27 in Germantown, Md.
None of the eight area teams that competed in the Midwest Regional Cup last year in Des Moines, Iowa, captured a championship, but Ohio Premier Eagles coach Mike Lawrence wouldn't be surprised to see more than one central Ohio team win a regional title this year.
Qualifying for the Regional Cup by winning State Cup championships were the Ohio Premier Eagles U14 boys, Blast F.C. U15 boys, Ohio Premier Eagles U16 boys, Crew Junior U19 boys and Ohio Premier Eclipse U19 girls teams.
The Classics Eagles U17 boys team also qualified as a representative of the Midwest Regional League.
"This is a year where Columbus (teams) could win one or two regional championships because all of us have experience competing in this tournament and we're all good teams," Lawrence said. "Our area sends teams to the semifinals and finals of this tournament every year. A lot of times when you play at this level, you just need a lucky bounce or timely call to go your way. Getting the right matchups in the tournament draw is important, too."
More than 270 preliminary games will be played as boys and girls US Youth Soccer State Cup champions, select wildcards and Midwest Regional League qualifiers in the U13 through U19 age groups compete. All of the age divisions have been divided into three- or four-team brackets, and every team will play a game within its bracket Saturday, June 21, Sunday, June 22, and Monday, June 23.
The bracket winners advance to semifinals Tuesday, June 24, with regional finals being played Wednesday, June 25.
Blast F.C. U15 boys coach Lesh Shkreli hopes playing the tournament in Ohio gives the area teams an edge, as most of them plan to drive back and forth to the Regional Cup each day instead of staying in hotels.
"Being able to commute to the tournament each day is a blessing for us because it saves a lot of money in travel expenses and we'll be able to sleep in our own beds," Shkreli said. "Hopefully, this will give our players the chance to play in front of more of their fans than usual since the tournament will be closer to home."
The Ohio Premier Eagles U16 boys team won the State Cup title for the third consecutive year.
The Eagles defeated CUP Gold 4-2 in a semifinal May 10 behind two goals apiece from Emmanuel Dapaa and Jack Holland and beat Ohio Galaxies F.C. Elite 3-0 in the final the next day behind goals by Kingsley Amoakohene, Cameron Campbell and Brady Whittekind.
"Emmanuel Dapaa is a top-10 player in the nation for his age group and he's a real difference-maker," Lawrence said. "Cameron Campbell and Brady Whittekind have played extremely well for us in the midfield and all six of our defensemen have made us a lot better in the back, which has helped us become a better offensive team.
"Emmanuel is a superstar, but the reason this team is successful is because of our team chemistry. Our guys all play well together."
Last year in the U15 bracket, the Eagles went 3-0 in pool play to reach a regional semifinal for the first time before losing to Vardar from Michigan 6-0.
Lawrence said he expects the Eagles to play loose in this year's event because they already have qualified for the U.S. Youth Soccer Association National Championships by placing first in the National League this spring.
"This takes a huge amount of pressure off of us because we're playing with house money," Lawrence said. "We're kind of looking at the Regional Cup as extra games to get us ready for the national tournament, but our guys are still feeling motivated to win it because we consider ourselves a championship team.
"We're definitely one of the top two or three teams in our region, so if we play well, the draw should take care of itself because we've already played all of the best teams in the country and we've beaten most of them."
The Ohio Premier Eagles U14 boys team won its third State Cup title in four years by defeating Blast F.C. 2-0 in a semifinal May 10 and CUP Gold 2-0 in the final the next day.
Luke Kiley scored both goals in the semifinal and Ashton Pullie and Jacob Roberts each scored in the final.
"This is a real blue-collar team," Lawrence said. "Luke Kiley is a special player, and our central defenders and central midfielders are real good, too. But the reason this team wins is because we're a group of hard workers with good chemistry."
In the U13 bracket of the Regional Cup last year, the Eagles advanced to the final, where they lost to the Raiders F.C. from Illinois 4-1.
"We surprised a lot of people last year by going as far as we did in the Regional Cup," Lawrence said. "We've had trouble finishing all season, but if we finish our opportunities in this tournament, I think we could go a long way again."
The Ohio Premier Eclipse U19 girls team is making its fourth appearance in the Regional Cup after winning its first State Cup title since 2011.
In the State Cup, the Eclipse defeated Metro 6-1 in a semifinal June 7 and KHA Red 4-2 in the final June 8.
The Eclipse had to rally from a 1-0 deficit in both games. Brooke Maletic had two goals in the semifinal and Michelle Prokov scored two in the final.
Ohio Premier added Eclipse to its name this year after picking up eight players from the Chicago Eclipse club.
Ohio Premier, which won the Elite Clubs National League tournament last year in Aurora, Colo., is coached by Willie Gage and Chris King, who recently resigned as technical director to become director of the girls teams for the Chicago Eclipse.
"This is the final go-round with an O.P. team for (King) and winning a Regional Cup would be the perfect sendoff for him," Gage said. "We started slow in both of our State Cup games, but after that, we took control of both games. This team is certainly filled with a lot of good players, so the only challenge is to get the players from Ohio and Illinois to jell together with very few practices and games together."
Ohio Premier advanced to the Regional Cup final in 2009, losing to the Eclipse 1-0 on penalty kicks, and 2011, losing to the Michigan Hawks 2-0.
"There's a wildcard in our age group. So if we can get two wins and a tie in pool play, we should be in good shape to advance to a semifinal," Gage said. "The main thing is we need to get everyone on the same page. If our chemistry is good, this team has the potential to win this tournament."
Shkreli is looking forward to seeing what his U15 boys team can accomplish in the Regional Cup at full strength.
With five key players missing one or more games, the Blast went 0-1-2 in the event last year.
"Last year, we had three players who were suspended after receiving red cards in the State Cup final and we were missing two others who were on school trips," Shkreli said. "This time we're going to have everyone there for every game, so it should come down to which team is more focused and disciplined in each game. We play everybody during the season, so we're already used to this level of competition. There's no team that we're afraid to face."
The Blast won its second consecutive State Cup title and its fourth in five years by defeating CUP Gold 2-0 in a State Cup semifinal May 10 and Ohio Galaxies F.C. 1-0 in overtime in the final May 11.
In the semifinal, Hector Gomez scored in the first half off an assist by River Allbaugh and Travis Moore scored in the second half. In the final, Ryan Schoener scored on a header off a free kick by Tre' Boger.
"We have great team chemistry and our guys play well as a team," Shkreli said. "We give them simple responsibilities and they each do a great job of taking care of what we ask them to do."
The Classics Eagles U17 boys team lost to Ohio Galaxies F.C. 4-0 in a State Cup semifinal May 10 but advanced to the Regional Cup for the second time in three years by winning its division of the Midwest Regional League.
The Classics Eagles went 1-1-1 in pool play in their Regional Cup appearance two years ago, but coach Andrew Belleman said his team has more offensive firepower than it had in 2012.
"We've added some good players this season and we now have three of the top four forwards in central Ohio in Ben Kinney, Luke Morais and Donny Deep," Belleman said. "Our players are more tested now and our team is more experienced and more explosive.
"We're not always the best team on the field, but our players are very tough and resilient, and our team wins on those qualities sometimes."
The Classics Eagles will face CUP from Cincinnati in its opener.
"This team is a big rival of ours and we've gone back and forth with them the past few years," Belleman said. "The winner of that game probably will win our group and go on to the semifinals, so we'll probably need at least a tie to stay alive in group play. We'll need to play well right away."
The Crew Juniors U19 boys team advanced to the Regional Cup for the fifth consecutive year despite having only 11 healthy players.
Defender Alex Bumpus suffered a torn ACL in a 4-0 win over Metro F.C. in a State Cup semifinal June 6. The Crew Juniors beat CSA/CUP 4-1 in overtime in the final June 8, as Danny Jensen scored the tying goal late in the second half and Amass Amankona, Sam DeRoy and Jensen each scored in overtime.
"We're just trying to do the best we can with what we have," defender Charlie Reymann said. "Our backup goalie (Mitchell Auer) had to play in the field after Alex got hurt and we didn't have any subs, but we still found a way to win."
The Crew Juniors have been a force in the U19 age bracket in the past, winning Regional Cup championships and national titles in both 2010 and 2012, but went 2-1 in pool play in the Regional Cup last year.
"I'm hoping we'll be able to bring up some younger guys for regional, so we'll have some subs," Reymann said. "If we don't have any or many subs, we'll just need to play smart and use energy when we need to. We know what the Crew Juniors have done in this tournament in the past and we're hoping we can win to keep it going."