Sometimes the journey is just as beautiful as the win.
Baltimore Celtic Soccer Club
head coach Adam Mizell certainly thinks so. Despite losing to Lehigh Valley United (Pennsylvania) in the Boys 19U final at the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships, Mizell said his players will never forget what transpired in Overland Park, Kansas last month.
"It was a great experience for our kids," he said. "They'll never forget the competition, the bonds and the success that they had -- they lost in overtime in the final -- but like I told them, no trophy defines them. They're graduated out and they’re going to go on to be hopefully great college players as well. It was a great experience, everything from the pitch, the facilities, the overall coordination of logistics was top notch. They really liked it."
Celtic entered the tournament after winning the 17U crown in 2017 and the 18U title in 2018. So, there were expectations of making it three in a row. "They had our number," Mizell said. "We felt like we played well. We just couldn’t score. You can't make a complaint if you don't score." Well, Baltimore Celtic did have its moments, playing some attractive soccer in the process.
The squad started the tournament against Kingdom SC 00 Red (Michigan) on the right foot on July 23, recording a 3-0 victory. Anthony Dragisics scored on either side of halftime and Benjamin Stitz added a late goal. "To be fair, that 3-0 score probably wasn't a correct illustration of how the game went," Mizell said. "They were actually really good. We went in feeling like, we want to get a result the first day, and they made it as hard as it could possibly be for us. We really didn't have a ton of chances and they had us on our heels at times. It was a great, very high level. They were very formidable opponents, for sure."
Celtic met Lehigh Valley in its second group match, dropping a 2-0 decision on July 24. "I felt we played well," Mizell said. "We generated some good looks but didn't score. We gave a goal away midway through the second half. We started to push and push and put more numbers forward. They caught us at the end on the counterattack. It wasn't like I was disappointed in our performance. Our performance was good. If we got some finishing, we would have been ok."
In its final group encounter on July 25, Baltimore bounced back with a 4-0 victory over FC Golden State White (California South). Celtic did all of its scoring in the second half, sandwiching a pair of Stitz goals around tallies by Cole Hendricks and Jayson Butler.
"They were a situation where their backs were against the wall more than we were," Mizell said. "We needed to get a win or a tie and they needed a win. Once we got a lead on them and I felt it was going to come much earlier. It took us longer to figure them out. Once the second half came, I felt our guys understood that somehow, someway they would figure out a way to break these guys down. They put them in a bad spot because they had to chase the game a little bit and we were able to get more goals."
While Celtic did not play close to its potential in the semifinals, the Maryland side still played good enough to register a 1-0 win over FC Dallas Youth 00 B (North Texas) on John Peterson's 35th-minute goal on July 26.
Mizell wasn't impressed. "Honestly, I thought it was our worst game of the week," he said. "We were flat, we were slower, we looked tired. We created opportunities and their goalkeeper made three or four absolutely ridiculous saves. It goes back to survival mode. Whatever it takes to get it done as a group, that's what you have to do. You've got to lock in and focus and dig deep and make sure you do your best to try to get a result. It's not always going to happen. If you don't do those things, you don't have a chance.
"We weren't awful. I felt we lacked a little energy. We lacked some grit. We were up 1-0 and they really had us on our heels. They could have tied it two or three times, but we were lucky to get out of there with a 1-0 win. Any win in a national championship series is a win, so we'll take it."
Lehigh Valley then secured a 1-0 victory in the final, six minutes into extratime on July 27. "We might have the ball a little bit more than them," Mizell said. "If you don't do anything with it, what's the point?"
Celtic had two players earn Best XI honors -- goalkeeper Kieran Baskett, who also was awarded the Golden Glove, and center back Brandon Knapp.
"Brandon Knapp was our best player over the week," Mizell said. "He was phenomenal in every game. He made some big time plays that would fly under the radar for most people. We couldn't have asked anything more of him."
If Knapp couldn't stop the opposition, Baskett was there to make a key save or two. Mizell noted that his team surrendered three goals in five tournament matches -- all by Lehigh Valley. The rest of the game ended in shutouts.
"He made some outstanding saves," he said. "He's a top-quality goalkeeper. He eats up all the crosses and all kind of stuff. Our kids, they feel very good when he's back there. He was fantastic, too. The goal we gave up in the national final was from point-bank range. There wasn't much he could do about that. When he was called upon to do his job, he did it.
Baskett will attend William and Mary College. "They're getting a real gem with Kieran," Mizell said. After it was all said and done, Mizell was most impressed how two championship teams meshed together to enjoy a successful year. "This was the third go-around for about five of these guys," he said. "The rest had all graduated out. They were all at college. It was a merger of two former foes, two teams that compete against each other. When we put the team together at first, it was a little rocky. They have been competing together in club and in high school. It wasn’t as smooth a transition as you would like. Over the course of time they really enjoyed each other's company and they really liked playing with each other. I think they made some bonds in there that will take them through life.
"I know they would have loved to have ridden off in the sunset as champions, but it just wasn't to be. i told them that sometimes in life and especially in high-level sports, you come up short. But it doesn’t change the way you prepare, it doesn't change the way you compete. You have to go back and just pick yourself and wait for the next challenge and next opportunity and take the most advantage of it. That's what these guys are going to do. By the end, they were like brothers. They were like family. I know they're going to miss playing with each other."