The Cleveland Futbol Club 17-and-under girls weren’t quite as dominant as the USA women’s national team in group play, but they didn’t have Thailand to beat up on for a 13-0 victory like in the FIFA World Cup.
Instead, the CFC ’02 girls were busy steering the ship against the best of the best from Michigan, Maryland and Pennsylvania to go undefeated during pool play of the 2019 U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships July 23-28 in Overland Park, Kansas.
Gilmour Academy rising junior center back Julia Pangonis, rising junior forward Emma Adams and rising senior goalkeeper Kaitlin Grady were among the 18 players from CFC on a mission to be the first Ohio North girls team to bring home a national title. They went up, 3-0, in each of their first three group matches before surrendering any tallies, finishing pool play with 13 goals for and four goals against.
“Our coach is very possession-oriented, and we have a lot of good forwards on the team,” Adams said of head coach Dave Sidlowski, who led the CFC ’03 girls to a USYS national runner-up campaign in 2018.
“We’re very forward-heavy, and everyone on my team can score,” Adams said. “They definitely can all score. So, that really helped us a lot. Everyone’s just very smart in how they play, and there’s not one girl on my team – like, everyone’s just very strong.”
There were 104 teams that competed in seven age groups from both genders during the national championships, but the CFC girls had the most dominant showing in group play with a plus-nine goal differential.
They defeated Nationals Union Black, of Michigan, 4-1, Pipeline Pre-Academy Spirit, of Maryland, 6-2, and HMMS-Eagle FC Impact, of Pennsylvania, 3-1, to advance to the semifinals.
“I think we were just ready to play,” said Grady, who is verbally committed to Ohio Dominican University. “We had team meetings every night and said, like, we’re going up against this opponent, what’s their weaknesses, what’s their strengths, how can we get behind their defense, and, I mean, our forwards are just awesome.”
In a four-four-two formation, the CFC girls were led up top by strikers Haley Anspach, a rising senior at Medina committed to Miami University, and Shelby Sallee, a rising junior and first-team all-Ohioan at Strongsville committed to Xavier University. They combined to score 14 goals in five matches during the national tournament.
Although some might not consider a two-forward system to be attack-oriented, a four-four-two diamond easily transforms into one of the most aggressive formations on the pitch when numbers push forward.
And with Pangonis, a Division II second-team all-Ohioan her sophomore season with Gilmour, and Sophia Gorski, a rising senior at Walsh Jesuit committed to Vanderbilt University, playing the center back positions for CFC, outside backs Kennedy Reiple, a rising junior at Lake Catholic, and Madi Snyder, a rising junior at Strongsville committed to Cleveland State, had the green light to attack the offensive box. In turn, CFC averaged 4.4 goals per game during the national tournament.
“With our whole back line, we know when people are going to go,” said Pangonis, a University of Cincinnati commit. “We’ve learned each other’s styles. So, being able to adjust to that and everyone working together has really, really helped us.
“But we always try to defend as a team and attack as a team. So, whenever our defense can, we try to help the offense and get in play, and our formation really helps that.”
Although strikers Anspach, eight goals, and Sallee, six goals, gave opposing goalies the most fits, the CFC girls showcased eight different goal scorers in five matches at the national tournament.
Gilmour’s Adams netted her tally to provide a 1-0 lead in the 10th minute of the 3-1 victory against HMMS-Eagle FC Impact, which was the clinching game of pool play. Adams is one of the newest additions to CFC, switching over just this club season.
“It was crossed in,” she said of her goal. “Shelby Sallee was dribbling up, and she kind of chipped it over the goalie, and I was just right behind her to tap it in. It was awesome to score in the national tournament. Like, it just felt awesome, especially because it’s such a big tournament and we’ve been working so hard to get there, from when we were actually kids playing and kicking the ball around when we were 4 till now.”
After playing matches three days straight, CFC had one day of rest to prepare to take on North Shore United, of Wisconsin, in the championship semifinals.
The previous month, CFC lost to North Shore United during a nil-nil stalemate that ended in penalty kicks in the title match of the U.S. Youth Soccer Midwest Regional Championship in Saginaw, Michigan. But the CFC girls, the 2019 National League Division champions, still earned one of eight spots in the national tournament for their age group.
They weren’t so lucky a year ago, when North Shore United defeated them, 1-0, in the 2018 regional title game.
“That’s why we didn’t end up making it to the national tournament last year,” Grady said. “So, I think them beating us twice in regional play, obviously, it wasn’t good. We were really looking to beat that team, and we spent a lot of extra time specifically looking at that team and how we could play different in order to beat them, and what their strengths and weaknesses were.”
But in the semifinal match during the national tournament, North Shore United scored on a diagonal feed to the backdoor in the eighth minute and shut out CFC’s high-powered offense in the first half for a 1-0 lead at the intermission.
Even though it was CFC’s first deficit of the national tournament, and even though North Shore United held a clean sheet against CFC in the past two regional title matches, the girls representing Ohio North knew they were just one strike from opening the floodgates.
“We definitely handled the pressure well,” Adams said. “In the halftime huddle, our coach told us, like, ‘This is it. If you lose this, you’re going home. Or, if you win this, you’re in the national finals, and you could be champions.’ And I think that just kind of snapped for everyone, like we have to win.”
In the 51st minute, Sallee won a ball on the end line off a rebound from her own shot, directed the ball back to the near post, and Anspach beat the goalie for the 1-1 equalizer.
In the 59th minute, Gorski sent a free kick from 45 yards out into the box with Sallee finding space on the 6-yard mark to get off a shot that was saved, but she retrieved her own rebound and hammered in a lefty one-timer for CFC’s 2-1 upper hand.
And in the 63rd minute, Sallee sent a through ball to Anspach at midfield, and Anspach turned on the jets for a breakaway tally and a 3-1 lead.
That 12-minute stretch of offensive firepower was enough, as CFC held on for a 3-2 victory and advanced to the national title game.
“Everyone just went crazy after we scored that first goal against them,” Pangonis said. “They’re one of our main rivals, so we really wanted to beat them so badly. We’ve played really good against them, but we have come out short the last couple times. So, getting that semifinal win was one of the best wins we’ve had.”
In the national title game, the CFC girls had a rematch against Pipeline Pre-Academy Spirit, the team they defeated, 6-2, in pool play four days earlier.
Proving that victory was no fluke, CFC put an exclamation point on its national championship with another 6-2 triumph behind five different scorers, including rising Medina senior and Xavier commit Victoria Lyncha, who was cleared from a torn ACL the previous week.
“She’s been with us the whole year, even though she couldn’t play,” Grady said. “So, as a whole team and what it means to be on that team, that just really proved that, even if you can’t play, you’re still one of those girls, and she means just as much if she could play or not.
“So, I think her being able to score at the end was just the icing on the cake. Not only were we national champions, which was amazing, but her being able to score and the whole team getting it together and winning by that much and so many people scoring in that game, it was amazing.”
While several of the CFC girls from Strongsville will return to their high school pitch on the heels of a Division I state runner-up campaign and the girls from Medina will set their sights on defending their Division I district title, Gilmour’s Pangonis, Adams and Grady will attempt to get over the hump after back-to-back Division II district runner-up campaigns, losing to Lake Catholic both years.
The Lady Lancers will be under the direction of new head coach Anton Trifonovs, a former professional goalkeeper in Europe, who head coached the Hawken School girls the past five seasons.