Eight days before the Wilson Youth Soccer Association Explosion U16 team’s first game of the US Youth Soccer National Championship Series in Orlando, Florida, head coach Randol Mendoza made the team’s focus, and first goal, abundantly clear: Win game 1.
In a setting where the top team in each four-team group moves onto the championship bracket, with goal differential standing as the tie breaker, Mendoza knew starting the tournament on the right foot would be critical. Mission accomplished, as WYSA opened with a 2-1 victory over NJ Premier FC Monday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in a game that featured a lengthy weather delay.
“It kind of gets the pre-tournament jitters out of the way,” Mendoza said. “It allows you to relax a little bit as far as we got the objective accomplished, because if you start with a loss, it just kind of sets you back and now you’re dependent on other teams’ results. So to come out and get the three points, and get a goal differential of +1, we breathe a little easier right now as we prepare for game number two.”
Isabella Daza scored both of Wilson’s goals, with Maddie Brown and Mariah Polk each notching an assist, and Darby Wallig made eight saves in goal.
“I think it just sets the stage and it sets the tone for how we need to perform in the upcoming events,” Daza said. “It just made all of us feel really good. We got our momentum up, and we were just all really excited.”
Eighteen minutes into the game, the Explosion struck first, as Brown, who subbed into the game for Bri Little at forward in the first half, made a diagonal run into the box, with the ball on the left side of her body.
Though Brown is not left footed, she struck the ball with enough force that the NJ Premiere FC goalkeeper could not corral the rebound, and Daza popped it in from a yard away from the goal line.
“I’m just really glad to help,” Daza said. “I’m really happy that I can make an impact on such a great team with outstanding players against amazing competition. I hope I made everybody proud, and I’m hoping to continue helping out the team in any way I can.”
NJ Premier FC tied the game up with about two minutes left in the first half, which Mendoza called a bit of a let down for WYSA.
Wilson, however, didn’t waste much time regaining its lead in the second half, as, in the game’s 49th minute, Polk took a pass from Daza, then sent the ball back ahead to Daza on the run, and Daza beat the keeper one on one for what would stand up as the game-winning goal.
“We pressed on, we continued moving the ball like we usually do,” Mendoza said. “And the evidence of that is that second goal. That second goal comes from a combination play between a handful of players. We kept the ball simple, we moved the ball around these players, around New Jersey and then created to where we moved the ball so effectively that, Isabella, in this case, all she has to do is arrive and go one on one against the keeper. She makes a really good decision, keeps the ball low and scores that game winner.”
With 24 minutes left, Wilson was looking to keep its momentum going and finish the game strong when mother nature threw a curveball. Storms halted the game, forcing the Explosion to take shelter in a nearby facility for about 90 minutes.
The biggest challenge for the team was staying loose and focused, and refueling with protein bars, granola bars and turkey sandwiches, scavenged by Randol’s wife, Particia Mendoza, and some of the players’ moms.
“It was kind of hard,” Daza said. “But we have our coaches there, like Eric (O’Brien) always telling us to keep our focus. We were stretching so we were never still, we were always moving so we wouldn’t get stiff or anything. It wasn’t hard, but it was just stepping into the mentality that you have to have to keep yourself ready for the game.”
The break allowed both teams to rest and recover, which gave NJ Premier FC a boost in pushing for the tying goal. Wilson got a chance to take a 3-1 lead as Brown was awarded a free kick from 25 yards out, but her shot hooked left and off the top bar.
NJ Premier FC fought to tie the game and generate offensive opportunities but the defensive group that included Cappa Bunn, Karys Wheeler and Wallig in goal held down the fort.
“We minimized their attacking threats, and then Darby came up with some high ball saves that kind of calmed the game down and minimized any head scoring opportunities by New Jersey,” Mendoza said. “So we managed to ride out the 24 minutes.”
While the delay presented a challenge, adversity has been nothing new to this team, which battled through numerous injuries in the Region III Championship in Tennessee en route to the National Championship Series.
“I think it just shows our strength,” Daza said. “I think it just shows how strong we are and how far everyone’s come. It’s amazing to see what we can do and what we will continue to do, no matter the challenges that are presented to us.”
Wilson will take on RUSA FC Gold out of New Jersey, which fell 3-0 to the Greater Libertyville Soccer Association Tuesday on Wednesday at 11:30 a.m.
After one day of play, Libertyville leads the group, as WYSA and Libertyville both have three points from their wins, but Libertyville has a plus-3 goal differential compared to Wilson’s plus-1.
“You have to get the result,” Mendoza said. “It’s going to be a team we want to beat. We want to make sure we get an early goal, maybe two goals to ease the pressure a little bit. We have to go out there tomorrow and focus on game No. 2, get that result as well.”