The Ohio Premier Eagles U16 boys soccer team was determined to prove it could be competitive in the U.S. Youth Soccer Association National Championships after becoming the first squad from its club to advance to the tournament.
As it turned out, the Eagles more than held their own in the event, which was held July 21-27 in Germantown, Md., as they advanced to the final before losing to Baltimore Celtic 2-1 on penalty kicks.
"This tournament had a unique, tremendous atmosphere and competing there was an awesome experience that none of us will ever forget," coach Mike Lawrence said. "This is the best competition we've seen in one tournament, but our players weren't intimidated and they proved that our team can play at this level.
"We were hoping to win the tournament, but getting second is still a heck of an accomplishment. You can't come any closer to being national champions than to lose in the final on penalty kicks."
In the final July 27, Celtic took a 1-0 lead with less than a minute remaining in the first half when Aquinas Akinlosotu scored on a penalty kick.
Four minutes into the second half, Emmanuel Dapaa tied the score with a free-kick goal from 20 yards out.
The game remained tied after 80 minutes of regulation play and two 15-minute overtime periods, which sent the contest into a penalty-kick shootout.
Celtic outscored the Eagles 4-2 on penalty kicks. Its goalkeeper made two saves and all four of its shooters converted their opportunities.
"Penalty kicks are a cruel way to end a soccer game because there's a lot of luck involved," midfielder Brady Whittekind said. "But hats off to their goalkeeper, because he came off the bench and made two great saves with the game on the line.
"At first we were all crying because it was such a tough loss, but now we realize that getting second in the nation is a huge accomplishment that we should be proud of."
To reach the final, the Eagles upset two-time defending national champion Santa Barbara (Calif.) S.C. 3-1 in a semifinal July 26.
Dapaa, who had a tournament-high eight goals to win the Golden Ball award in his age bracket, scored three against Santa Barbara.
"Emmanuel's the best player in the country and he caught fire in this tournament and put the team on his back," Whittekind said. "He's a special player and he made the difference in our win over Santa Barbara."
The Eagles reached a semifinal by going 2-1 and finishing second in their four-team bracket.
With Dapaa serving a one-game suspension because he had received two yellow cards in the Eagles' Regional Cup final loss to Chicago Magic (3-2 on June 25), the Eagles lost to Baltimore Celtic 4-1 in their tournament opener July 22.
Brenan Lawrence scored to give the Eagles the lead before Celtic scored on two consecutive penalty kicks.
"When we gave up those two penalty-kick goals it kind of had a snowball effect that we couldn't recover from," coach Lawrence said. "We knew we were in a do-or-die situation after that loss where we had to win each of our next two games to make it out of our bracket."
The Eagles bounced back in their second game, a 5-0 victory over Houstonians F.C. from Texas on July 23. Dapaa scored the first three goals and then assisted on goals by Brian Woo and Cole Heilman.
"Winning by that much is almost unheard of at this level," coach Lawrence said. "They were a good team, but we played our best game of the season. Emmanuel was upset that he couldn't play in the first game, but he made up for it with five points in the next one."
The Eagles then defeated F.C. Golden State from California 2-0 on July 24, as Dapaa and Jack Holland each scored goals.
"There was a lot of hype about both of those California teams, and they were both very good teams, but we showed that Ohio soccer is probably underrated by beating both of them," coach Lawrence said. "Golden State knew they just needed a tie to move on so we had to chase the game a little bit, but we played really well to earn this victory.
"Emmanuel's probably the best player in the country in his age bracket and he proved it with another great performance. There aren't many players his age who can score some of the goals he scored in this tournament."