Tom DeGeorge remembers that depressed feeling he and his team had at the trophy presentation at the USYS National Championships last year.
His Philadelphia SC Coppa Rage 05 had lost to La Roca FC (Utah) in the Girls Under-16 final and he and his players vowed never to experience those emotions again. “You go to the finals, you lose,” DeGeorge said. “You go to trophy presentation. You watch the other team lift the trophy. I mean, I think that really put an imprint in the girls’ minds. We didn’t want to feel that way again. From that moment on, the girls were obsessed with getting back to the national championships and make it to the finals.” Which they did and then some. Not only did Coppa reach the U-17 final, but the team also won the championship and was the center piece of the awards ceremony after defeating Tonka Fusion Elite of Wayzata, Minn. at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Fla. on July 24. “It was very rewarding,” DeGeorge said.
After coming so close to winning it all in 2021, DeGeorge and his squad took that experience and learned from it and found ways to become better prepared for playing the elite teams in the nation.
“I learned a lot as a coach just about managing time and resting legs, knowing what you’re doing when you’re not playing soccer down there,” he said. “But more importantly, I think the girls learned that it’s just a different world going down and playing in that heat and playing five games in six days. These girls conditioned their bodies this year, like I’ve never seen.” The Coppa Rage players went beyond attending training regularly. They practiced on their own.
“They were meeting up. They were running together. They were playing together. They were going to the gym together,” DeGeorge said. “It was stuff outside of what I had organized. They had some legs this year. They were ready to go, and it was very impressive to see.”
Of course, the team had to earn its way to the nationals, advancing through the USYS National League P.R.O. with a record of 6-1-0. Adding to the squad’s spoils was an Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association State Cup crown. Philadelphia rolled through the group stage of the nationals with a perfect 3-0-0 mark and registered a 2-1 semifinal win before taking on Tonka in the championship match. DeGeorge realized his team had its work cut out for itself but also managed to keep its rivals off the scoreboard. “You’re about to play a team that scored tons of goals and to keep them with a clean sheet, that’s very impressive to me,” he said. “My girls were so ready for that final. They were ready to face anybody. They’re smart kids. We sat down as a team, we watched film. They see stuff. They point stuff out. I mean they are a special group of kids.” It took but 48 seconds after the opening kickoff for the Coppa Rage to find the net and put its mark on the final. “We dropped it back to our midfield,” DeGeorge said. “Our midfield dropped it to the back. We swung it around, laid the ball off. We went to the sideline and then scored. They didn’t touch the ball yet. It was impressive.” Giana Rivera put home Emma Levin’s feed for the first of her two goals of the afternoon. Scoring that early certainly can help, but it also can wake up the opponents. “I was a little hesitant because that team came back two or two times during the week when they were down,” DeGeorge said. “They scored a bunch of goals and won. We talked about that before the game too. They retained that well and they realized like, ‘Alright, this ain’t good enough. There's a lot of time left.’” As it turned out, a lot of time left for Philadelphia to score. Taylor Mays doubled the lead and Rivera made it 3-0 before halftime. DeGeorge, however, wasn’t taking anything for granted.
Asked what he told his team, DeGeorge replied: “Everything looks great. We’re doing well but this game is far from over. It’s 45 minutes. Anything can happen at this level because everybody wants to win so bad. These games can swing.”“So we’re really concentrating on not letting up any goals. We didn’t want any momentum change.” There wasn't any swing. The players listened and executed their plays. Maura Day and Levin found the net in the second half.
Goalkeepers Kayla Kulp and Sam Ridler shared the Golden Glove. Rivera and Mays were named to the Best XI of the tournament. Rivera was only a goal away from sharing the Golden Boot honors as top goal-scorer. Philadelphia had a penalty late in the final and DeGeorge gave Rivera an opportunity to add to her goal total, but the Elite keeper saved her shot. Beyond being one of the best teams in the nation, the Coppa Rage players have impressed DeGeorge in what they do outside of the field. “They’re a bunch of really good friends that play together at the highest level,” he said. “They’re really good friends that love the game of soccer. It’s not like you start to get older and ‘Hey, Mommy and Daddy said you have to go to practice.’ These kids look forward to practice. These kids like to compete. My practices sometimes are great. I mean, they’re just like, wow, this is better than a game. They’re a competitive group that loves to be around the game. It’s contagious. We added a girl or two from last year and it’s just like, you can tell they’re enjoying it.” The Coppa Rage also received some publicity for the win as the Philadelphia Inquirer had a story about the team. Since the national finals were streamed, DeGeorge has been getting plenty of reaction from friends, family, and the eastern Pennsylvania soccer community.
“I can’t tell you how many text messages or phone calls I got,” he said. “I’m very connected to Philadelphia soccer. It’s just like so many people rooting for us, watching the game. ‘You guys played such a great final.’ It was pretty cool to see.” Philadelphia Union midfielder Brandan Craig, who was in town with the MLS club for a game against Orlando City SC, watched Sunday's final and got a picture with the team.
“I grew up and played soccer with his dad,” DeGeorge said. “We’re friends. He followed the girls. He motivates them. It’s a pretty cool connection.”
Former Union goalkeeper John McCarthy, who is now with Los Angeles FC, shared his thought about the team on social media, “saying he was really proud,” DeGeorge said. The players won't have much time to catch their breath. High school preseason practice begins in August. “I kind of preach to the girls like maybe you lay low for two weeks because you’ve been going for a long time,” said DeGeorge, who is a soccer coach at Archbishop Wood High School in Warminster, Pa. So, he knows about recharging one’s batteries. When the high school season ends, he will begin training in November with possible plans of participating in a North Carolina tournament that month and then return to the national league with hopes of doing a repeat performance at the youth nationals next July. But DeGeorge realized how difficult just getting to the big tournament can be. “But the game of soccer is cruel,” he said. “A bad bounce, a bad call, you didn’t come into play one day and you’re sitting at home. So, we all know that. That’s we try to keep fighting.”