by Michael Lewis
Sometimes it's just about winning.
Sometimes it's how we deal with a tough defeat and adversity.
Take, for example, what transpired at the Boys Under-19 final at the USYS Nationals in Orlando, Fla.
The PA Dominion Boys '04 lost to the Inland Surf, 2-1, on a 90th-minute penalty kick in the James McGuire Cup championship game on July 23.
They certainly weren't happy with the call or the ensuing goal, in their only defeat of the season.
But instead of whining about it, they walked off the field like men, congratulating their opponents.
Now, that certainly is not an easy thing to do, considering we see how some professional players and teams behave after a questionable or controversial call goes against them.
Head coach Michael Gorni and his coaching staff wanted his team to complete an unblemished season.
"That's why it hurts so much because we wanted it so much for them and felt that they were so deserving," he said. "On the other hand, the pride you take in a team like that, that goes through all of this and then walk off as gentleman congratulating the other team, even in their hurt, is pretty outstanding."
Even without a national championship PA Dominion had an outstanding year.
The team finished its National League without a blemish at 7-0-0. They went undefeated without a tie in EDP league play.
The squad won three major showcases without a loss.
It also won the Eastern Pennsylvania State Cup unbeaten.
That was one incredible run.
Based out of Harleysville, Pa. in the Philadelphia suburbs, PA Dominion kicked off Bracket A, which Gorni termed “the group of death," on July 18.
The game took several hours to complete as its 8 p.m. starting time was moved back two hours due to inclement weather. The team recorded a 4-2 win over Strikers Miami FC.
Beckett Wenger, Shane Velez, Liam Hartman and Diego Guzman found the net in the game, which ended after midnight.
"It was hard," Gorni said. "The first game stopped just as the opening whistle went. The game started after 10 p.m. I thought that our players handled all of that really well. It's not easy to do."
The team followed that up with a 5-2 victory past Indiana Fire Academy the next day. Guzman and Velez each finished with a brace and Colin Woehlcke added a single goal. The squad overcame 1-0 and 2-1 deficits after some early mistakes.
"I think the coach told me seven MLS NEXT players," Gorni said. "We knew that they were good. Even though they came in with a loss, we knew our group was extremely competitive."
Still, PA Dominion was relentless on attack.
"It could have been seven or eight at that point," Gorni said. "We just really put on a display. We were finding quality shots. Obviously, finishing five is not an easy thing to do at Nationals."
Only 13 minutes into its 2-2 draw with Oregon Premier FC 04B Academy in its final group match on July 20, PA Dominion was hit with another storm delay at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. This one lasted 90 minutes, and that match was completed after the witching hour as well.
The Pennsylvania side had its season-long winning streak snapped but avoided defeat on Liam Hartman's diving header in the 81st minute. Gorni called it a "sensational goal." Seth Michalak had given his team a 1-0 lead before Oregon rallied for a pair of goals.
"It was our most difficult game," said Gorni, who added that Oregon needed a win to reach the semifinals.
In another thriller in the semifinals on July 22, PA Dominion edged Spire FC Spire FC 2004 Boys going down 2-1 after conceding both goals off of corner kicks.
"It was an odd game because we probably had the better of it," Gorni said.
That was the second consecutive match in which PA Dominion rallied from a deficit against a quality side.
Gorni attributed to the fact it was due to his squad being an attack-minded side that could score goals.
"We were very good in that phase of the game, going forward, scoring goals, which is quite often the opposite," he said. "You're getting timely goals and you're winning games and keeping things tight."
Guzman finished with five goals, Michalak with four, Velez with three, with other players chipping in.
"There was a lot of balanced scoring," Gorni said. "There was scoring from starting positions, scoring from off the bench. We never used the same starting lineup twice. Every lineup in the five games was changed, because we were fortunate enough to have that versatility."
In the July 26 final against the Inland Surf, Michalak, off a Guzman feed, lifted PA Dominion into a seventh-minute lead, but midway through the second half Mattheos Agapitos scored a breakaway off Damian Espinoza's pass to knot things up at 1-1. But a penalty kick was awarded to the California side, which Felipe Cobain converted for the game-winner in a 2-1 result.
It was a difficult way to lose a championship game at any level.
"It was a questionable penalty kick," Gorni said.
"You try not to be negative and take credit away from anyone. Our guys handled that well. On the other hand, the simple truth of the matter is, we had been scoring a ton of goals. We just left some on the table that day and we came up short. We did everything we could. We just couldn't get the goal.
"I felt we were the better team in terms of the game, but they're a quality opponent. They did what they needed to do. They deserve it. That's why it was so hard because I really felt that our players had played so well and so consistently all year. It just stung a little bit more because it meant so much to these players."
What made it extra excruciating was that PA Dominion had participated in three of the past five Nationals. As a U-15 side, it lost in the 2019 final. The Covid-19 pandemic cancelled the tournament in 2020. As a U-17 team, PA Dominion lost in the semifinals in 2021, and was eliminated via a tie-breaker in the U-18 group stage last year.
This year's squad was a combination of high school players, mostly seniors, and college freshman.
"When they decided that they wanted to pursue this again, they really were very committed first and foremost to each other," Gorni said.
Goalkeeper Joey Phillips was so good in holding down the fort when the team sent players forward on attack.
"I wouldn't have taken any other goalkeeper in the age group over him,” Gorni said. "He gave us a great opportunity to get forward and score goals because you take that risk and leave yourself vulnerable sometimes. He was able to come up with some big saves and good moments."
Velez, the Pennsylvania high school player of the year, teamed with Sean McKenna at center back, and will attend the University of Massachusetts. Sean Stackhouse played at left back and Nate Kim was on the right side.
"They're quality defenders and they did that part," Gorni said. But they also were interesting because they could join into the offense and get forward. It makes the game a little bit more fun that way."
This team won't return to play youth soccer next year, but Gorni said that as many as two-thirds of the squad will perform under him for the Ukrainian Nationals in the National Premier Soccer League.
Gorni also will direct the Dominion PA's 2005 and 2006 boys teams next year.
He certainly will be one busy coach in 2024.
"They keep an old guy young," he said, "so it's all good."
Especially if one of those teams can reach Nationals.
Michael Lewis can be reached at Socwriter@optonline.net and followed at @SoccerWriter on Twitter.