Vol. LXI, No. 29
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
(Photo by Bill Allen/NJ SportAction)
MAIN MAN: Antoine Hoppenot dribbles the ball up the field for the Union 90 U-16 boys' soccer team as it competed in the Region 1 tournament in Portland, Maine. Hoppenot's offensive production helped Union 90 advance to the semifinals of the tourney where they lost 2-1 in overtime to eventual champion FC Delco (Pa.).
As the Princeton Soccer Association's Union 90 Under-16 boys' team started play in the Region 1 tournament in Portland, Maine earlier this month, the club had plenty of reasons to be a bit intimidated.
The squad had never been to the competition, having won the New Jersey Cup in May for the first time in the club's history.
Upon arriving in Maine, the players were exposed to a carnival atmosphere with 282 teams in attendance, as boys' and girls' teams from U-12 to U-18 were on hand to compete for the regional title in the United States Youth Soccer Association (USYSA) competition.
And looming in Union 90's bracket was FC Delco from Eastern Pennsylvania, the defending national champion in its age group.
Union 90 head coach Stoyan Pumpalova wasn't sure how his team would respond in the unfamiliar surroundings."It was a huge competition," said Pumpalova. "I had never coached in it and our players had never gotten that far. I wasn't sure how some of the players would react."
Any concerns Pumpalova may have had were dispelled before the team even took the pitch. "When I saw the players in the opening ceremonies, I felt the boys were ready," recalled Pumpalova. "When I looked in their eyes, I saw feistiness."
The Union 90 players proved to be feisty competitors in the tournament as they topped teams from Pennsylvania, New York, and Maine to advance to the semifinals and a clash with FC Delco.
The Union 90 team built a 1-0 lead in the game before falling 2-1 in overtime to end its tournament run.
Longtime Union 90 midfielder James Mooney pointed to the team's extra conditioning as a factor in its success. "We had some losses in the Potomac tournament (over Memorial Day weekend) and coach said we wouldn't see the ball for a few weeks," said Mooney, a star for the Lawrenceville School who is entering his senior year there.
"We were running 5,000 meters every practice and we had to finish in a certain time. Everyone was focused on doing really well in the regionals."
With many players having been with Union 90 for several years, the team has developed a winning chemistry.
"We know each other really well, we connect on and off the field," added Mooney. "We have definitely bonded as a team. Before games, the atmosphere was crazy; everyone was focused and excited."
The team's fitness and togetherness paid dividends in its regional opener as it battled back from a 2-1 halftime deficit to beat Spirit United (Pa.) 4-2.
Pumpalova, for his part, knew that his team needed some words of encouragement at the halftime break. "Some of the players were upset, I heard some saying that we weren't playing well," said Pumpalova, noting that his club had fallen 5-3 to the Spirit in mid-June in another competition.
"I waited a couple of minutes and then told them that everyone was playing great. I told them that if everyone starts believing in themselves, then we can convert chances."
Union 90 did just that as Jelani Rooks scored two goals and Antoine Hoppenot added another as the team rallied for victory.
Mooney said the team went into the second half with plenty of confidence. "We all believed we could win," said Mooney. "Jelani had played great in the first half, he came into the second half fired up. He put in two really good goals and that got us going."
Union 90 kept going as it topped FC Westchester (N.Y.) 3-1 as second half goals by Kei Murata and Rooks broke open a game that had been knotted 1-1 at the half.
In Mooney's view, Union 90 reached a higher level in the win over Westchester. "I thought they were better than the Spirit," said Mooney. "We worked really well as a team, our defense really stepped up."
Pumpalova was proud of his club as it rose to the occasion. "Westchester was so good technically, they were really moving the ball around," said Pumpalova.
"I don't think I've ever seen our team play so well for 80 minutes. Everyone who played, did well. We never stopped working together."
After a 1-0 win over Maine, Union 90 faced its biggest challenge as it clashed with FC Delco. "I told them before the game that you have to understand that they are still a good team but you guys are a lot better," said Pumpalova. "If we were to win against Delco, we needed to leave everything on the field."
In the early stages of the contest, Union 90 seemed on course for the upset as it built a 1-0 lead on a goal by Murata. "When we were ahead 1-0, I thought it might happen," said Pumpalova. "Our team played incredibly well for 50 minutes."
The tide turned, however, when FC Delco had a player sent off on a red card. While having the one-man advantage should have been a plus for Union 90, it seemed to throw the club off its game.
"Sometimes when a team loses a player, they raise their level of play," explained Pumpalova. "The team with the advantage can get overconfident. We hadn't practiced that situation so maybe we weren't prepared for it."
FC Delco scored late in the second half to force overtime and then tallied early in the extra session to eke out the win.
While disappointed by the loss, Pumpalova tipped his hat to FC Delco. "They showed what a great team they are and why they are No. 1, said Pumpalova, noting that FC Delco went on to win the title.
"They tied with five minutes to go and they deserved that goal with the effort they had put in. They scored in the first 10 minutes of overtime and they closed the game out. They used every single minute."
Mooney rued Union 90's failure to cash in on its advantage. "We believed we could win," said Mooney. "When we got up one man, we should have been pressing, not sitting back. They definitely have more experience."
In the final analysis, it was FC Delco's tournament experience that made the difference. "I told the boys that this team won against us with experience," said Pumpalova. "They didn't win with skills; they didn't want it more. They had been in this situation before."
Union 90 is determined to get in that championship situation. "I hope that as a coach and a player, we learn a lot from this," said Pumpalova, whose club will next be in action when it competes at the Score at the Shore tournament in North Carolina.
"We had a dream that we could do well. Now we have to have new goals. We have to go into these tournaments with the confidence that we can win. The aim has to be to win, not just do well."
Mooney is confident that Union 90 can achieve those new goals. "I think it was an incredible run," said Mooney. "Playing with these guys everyday is great. I have to give Stoyan a lot of credit; he has really built this team. We will be invited to some top tournaments because of how we've done this summer; I'm looking for bigger and better things."
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