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Patriots FC Girls 05/06: Road to the USYS National Championship



by Michael Lewis


Even before Patriots FC Girls 05/06 won the Girls Under-18 crown at the USYS National Championships, it recorded a major victory.

The team managed to arrive in Orlando, Fla. on time to play its opening game on Tuesday night, July 18.

"We had a disaster traveling down there," head coach Phil Bannister said.

It was no mean feat for the EDP Soccer team to reach its destination after weather delays forced JetBlue to cancel the squad's flight out of Westchester County in New York on Sunday. That forced everyone, from players to coaches to parents to scramble to find flights.

Some players flew down Sunday night, others on Monday. They flew out of New Jersey, Connecticut and New York. Some players flew into Miami. Bannister left JFK Airport at 2 p.m. Sunday, but his flight was diverted to Atlanta, and he arrived around midnight.


Patriots FC had only eight players attend Monday's opening ceremony.


"It's a really nice event where everybody gets dressed up and all of the teams are there," Bannister said. "It's disappointing because a lot of them missed that. That's a great event to start off the tournament."


Every Patriots FC player managed to reach central Florida on time for its 6 p.m. Tuesday game against Barca Academy Columbus (Ohio). The team held a light practice on Tuesday morning.


"The preparation wasn't ideal, but we felt prepared enough in the week leading up to it," Bannister said. "We knew what we had to do."


"We got fortunate. If we had had a morning game — we had people arriving Tuesday morning at 2 a.m. — it would have been tough playing on Tuesday."


But Patriots FC toughed it out with a 4-0 win over Barca Academy Columbus (Ohio).


Gillian Alessi, off the first of three consecutive assists by Caigan Leonard, helped the team with an early goal. But Bannister noted his team was "poor" in the first half.


"We just looked like we were getting our legs and a little bit weary from traveling," he said. "We didn't really keep the ball that well. I didn't think we played great in the first half."


Patriots FC struck twice in the opening 15 minutes of the second half on Annie Maguire and Kaitlyn Judge scores to give them a 3-0 cushion as Brooke Huleatt, the youngest player on the squad (born in 2008), found the net for the final goal off a Kaitlyn Krieger feed.


Huleatt is the sister of another Patriots FC player, Kayley Huleatt. She was a freshman. Most of the team was born in 2005. She finished with two goals and two assists, which is pretty amazing for 2008," Bannister said.


The next night, the side blanked Lou Fusz Athletic LFA Tottleben 2005G, 3-0. Gillian Alessi recorded an unassisted goal 10 minutes into the game. Maguire converted a penalty kick right before halftime. She put away her second goal in the final half.


Patriots FC was familiar with Lou Fusz, having beaten the St. Louis team, 1-0, in last year's tournament and tying them 3-3 in the National League.


"We knew they were really difficult opposition, very physical, very tough," Bannister said. “They had a lot of a lot of division one commits."


The victory ensured a semifinal spot.


"That was the first hurdle," Bannister said. "We wanted to make it our goal to get through the group to be 2-0 after two games instead of going into that third game and needing the result. I think that was a huge moment."


That allowed Bannister to rotate players and rest those who had played significant minutes in the first two contests. It worked out perfectly as his team registered a 2-0 win over the Mighty Bluebirds 05G (Ark.). Both goals were scored in the second half. Brooke Huleatt put home the first one off a Miya Frank assist before setting up the second tally by Kaitlyn Krieger.


"I was trying to look at it as playing five games in six days," Bannister said. "The depth we had really showed in that game."


An opponent finally found the net against Patriot FC, which recorded a 2-1 semifinal win over 402 Development Academy 05G (Neb.). It was the closest game the squad had at Nationals. Juliette Sullivan, off Leonard's first assist of the match, lifted the side into the lead 45 seconds into the final half.


"Everybody admitted that they were a little bit nervous and didn't want to make mistakes," Bannister said. "We just went out in the second half with a different attitude."


The Nebraska team refused to wilt, equalizing with 15 minutes remaining.


But Kaitlyn Judge put away a Leonard feed in the 85th minute for the game-winner. Patriots FC needed nine minutes of regulation and stoppage time to seal the victory.


"It goes down to great defending," Bannister said. "We were smart on how we played in that last 10 to 15 minutes. Really happy. It wasn't a wasn't a pretty game by any chance. It was just grinding out a result."


Conceding only one goal against the quality of competition was quite an achievement.


Sofia Kolndreu, the team's No. 1 goalkeeper, and Christina Augustin backstopped four clean sheets. Kolndreu played the semifinal and final.


"We're not built upon a defensive structure," Bannister said. "We're pretty much an attacking team. We have the ball a lot. We like to get players forward."


Patriots FC allowed seven goals at last year's nationals.


"We just spoke about how we had to be a lot better defensively," Bannister said. "We knew that if we didn't give up anything then at the end of the day, something will come our way. It wasn't like we were having 1-0 wins."


The final brought together two teams that knew each other well. They had met twice prior to the Nationals. In league play, Patriots FC dropped a 1-0 decision at Middle County SBMC 05. In the Eastern New York Youth Soccer Association State Cup the next week, the Westchester side avenged the loss with a 1-0 away win.


"We're two very even teams," Bannister said. "They've got a very good team and have a few special players in the attacking third."


"They scored a lot of their goals early and scored a lot of big goals with the other teams being a little bit open. We [had] a game plan where we weren't going to get exposed from behind. We sat in for the first 15-20 minutes to see how it would go and make sure we didn't give anything away."


It worked.


"It's against what we normally do," Bannister added. "It's not how we play. But we just figured that it was important … if we could kind of frustrate them early."


Bannister brought on some fresh legs. Around the 30th minute, Patriots FC struck on a counterattack. Brooke Huleatt found Leah Rifas, who fired a shot from the edge of the penalty area for a 1-0 lead.


About the hour mark, Micaela Ross dispossessed a Middle Country player of the ball and raced in and scored for the winning goal in a 2-1 triumph.


"The fulltime whistle was amazing,” Bannister said. “A lot of parents and family were down there. They followed the team for years and they all know each other. They've all been together for a long time. Just celebrating with them afterwards was a really special moment."


Bannister then praised his rivals.


"It was a really tough game," he said. "They've got a great team and I think they deserve a lot of respect for getting there. It was a good representation from Eastern New York. It was funny because me and their coach were joking a little bit about when we play each other in the finals. It ended up happening, which was pretty cool."


Patriots FC went three and out in the U-17 Nationals last year.


"We were just happy to be there," Bannister said. "We ended up winning Regionals. That was a great achievement for the team. We made it our goal to win the competition [this year]. We went into it with a lot more belief. The girls knew it would be the last time and last games together. They just took that into every game and wanted to make sure we played as many games as possible."


Bannister hopes that his team can reach the finals for a third successive year in the U-19 bracket in 2024. His team will have a different look because about a dozen players will have aged out. He plans to restock the team.


Given what the team accomplished this year, don't bet against Patriots FC in 2024.

 

Michael Lewis can be reached at Socwriter@optonline.net and followed at @SoccerWriter on Twitter.

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