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Magnificent Seven: SOL players help Lehigh Valley United win club soccer national title

Local players from schools in the SOL Continental Conference were on the Lehigh Valley United 2000 Black club soccer team that won the 2019 US Youth Soccer 19U Boys National Championship. Pictured (from left): Reed Sturza, Luke McMahon, Bailey Moyer, Kyle Bethel, Dylan Smith, Aidan Link, Carter Houlihan. (Submitted Photo)

Luke McMahon looked at it as an opportunity.

With his Lehigh Valley United 2000 Black club soccer team about to head into extra time against tow-time defending champion Baltimore Celtic in the United States Youth Soccer U19 National Championship match, McMahon had been summoned to sub in. He’d watched his teammates battle to a scoreless draw after 90 minutes and saw a chance to make something happen.

Six minutes later thanks to a mis-hit ball that ended up being hit just right, he did by scoring the lone goal of the match as LVU hoisted the prestigious James P. McGuire Cup as national champions Sunday morning.

For McMahon and six other area players — Carter Houlihan, Reed Sturza, Bailey Moyer, Dylan Smith, Aidan Link and Kyle Bethel — it was the culmination of a year’s work and a childhood dream come true.

“It hasn’t really sunk in yet, I’m working a camp and all these people are asking me about it or congratulating us,” McMahon said. “It just shows how competitive our league is, we had guys coming from a couple different schools to win a national championship which speaks for itself and speaks to the volume of great players who come from the SOL.

“You may have some bad blood during high school season, but you can always put that aside and work together toward a bigger goal.”

All seven of those players, aside from their talent on a soccer pitch, shared a common bond as they all play for Suburban One League Continental Conference teams during the high school season. McMahon graduated from North Penn in June while Houlihan will be a senior with the Knights this fall, Smith and Sturza are Central Bucks West graduates with Moyer returning to the Bucks as a senior, Link just finished his time at Pennridge and Bethel is a 2019 graduate of Central Bucks South.

Under the guidance of former Central Bucks East coach Mike Gorni, now an assistant at DelVal, and North Penn coach Paul Duddy serving as an assistant, the LVU squad based out of Allentown supplemented its returning core with guys like Houlihan, Moyer and McMahon who were either moving up an age group or had their previous teams splinter.

While they’d given all they had against each other on the high school field, it wasn’t too difficult to put rivalries aside for a common goal.

“Them jumping on really changed the whole atmosphere of the team,” Bethel, who will play Drew University this fall, said. “We had guys stepping into key roles and they’re obviously all tremendous players. From high school competition and other local stuff, I’ve know them for a while so finally getting to share a field with them at the club level was really awesome.”

A handful of players on the LVU roster had already played a year of college soccer, but nobody on the team brought that type of ego to training or tournaments and everyone found the right role. While the end result was sweet, the journey there did have its challenges.

With so many new players coming in, the squad decided to get started early and organized training sessions at the tail end of the fall high school season when most players’ teams had been knocked out. For the players coming out the SOL, they knew the caliber of competitors coming to the workouts, it was just a matter of putting it all together.

“You have those guys you hate playing against but when they’re on your team, you love them,” Houlihan said. “Just by how hard they work and how much effort they put it, it’s not always the most fun to play against them.”

“I got to know them all so much better, we have a big group chat, we’d play after practices or get together during the week if anyone was bored,” Sturza said. “Once we built that bond with each other, everyone just connected. We were playing a couple hours twice a week and for most of us, it was an hour away to practice so we drove together and just bonded that way.”

The regular season provided a few hurdles. At points, the team just wasn’t meshing, balls weren’t finding the back of the net and there wasn’t a sense of urgency in their play.

It wasn’t enough to derail the season, but definitely something the players knew they had to get corrected before the major matches came around.

“I think again it’s all about the guys and getting excited about being able to play together,” Link, who is heading to Eastern University, said. “You don’t always get that in other places. It was really cool to play at such a high level and I think that’s what drew us in and kept us coming back.

“It shows how close we are and how much we enjoy the game that we can come together and have such a good time playing together even after all the games against each other in high school.”

LVU got back on course and ended up in the state tournament where it fell to rival Lower Merion Soccer Club in the championship match. While they’d still done well enough to move onto regionals and it wasn’t a crushing defeat, it did give the team a little extra push of motivation.

The two would meet again in the regional final, this time with LVU triumphing over LMSC. Moyer noted it was a close game and the Lower Merion-based club was just as loaded with talented players and had a good plan to play against the Lehigh Valley United side.

“For us it was a lot about resilience I think,” Smith, who will head to Eastern University for preseason this month, said. “It was having faith in the guy next to us and the coaching staff. Even if it didn’t seem as apparent at times, we were able to keep a clear head and just work through it.”

Once the team got to Overland Park, Kansas for the start of nationals, everything came together. The McGuire Cup is the oldest youth sports award in the country, contested annually since 1935 with a break during World War II and was given its name in 1975.

Sturza, who missed three weeks with a broken arm before a bout of knee tendonitis sidelined him until a couple weeks before the national tournament, chalked it up to a change in mentality. He said prior to going out to Kansas, Gorni told the squad they were going there to win it and it might mean a cutback in playing time or roles.

Hearing that was all Sturza and his teammates needed to get back on track.

“One of the most important things I think Gorni did at nationals was the talks before the games,” Sturza, who will be playing at Vermont this fall, said. “He motivated us, gave us the game plan, told us everything about the other team and made sure we respected the other team but not to the point where we would go on the field and they would trash us.

“Honestly, we were not playing that well coming into nationals and the fact we went in there and bossed it, it’s crazy and I think it’s due to Gorni.”

The day after winning the national title, a handful of guys from the team were right back on the field working as counselors at Gorni’s camp. Sturza said much of Gorni’s approach is very old school and joked he questioned a couple of the older drills he had the guys run through at practice but the end results were undeniable.

“He motivates us so well and he knows the game so well, he’s like the Godfather of soccer,” Moyer said. “He puts out this gameplan and tells us ‘if you do that, you’ll win and if don’t, it’s not going to work out.’”

Outside of their meetings and games, the entire team was very loose and prone to joking around with each other. Smith said there was plenty to do at the tournament site and in town but for the most part, the players just hung out at their hotel and kept their focus on the next game.

When match days came around, that same light mood stayed with the guys until Houlihan called everyone to order with about 45 minutes to go pregame. Once it was time to lock in, it was all eyes on the upcoming 90 minutes.

“You learn how to buy in and what it really means to play for your guys and not for yourself,” Bethel said. “Playing important games like a national semifinal, a national final or even a national group game, you know what’s on the line. After playing those games, you may never play for a national championship again and you understand the importance of every moment.”

Playing a defense-first brand of soccer, LVU gave up just five goals in its five games at nationals and four of them came in its group stage finale with a semifinal slot already locked up. LVU beat Golden State White out of California in its opener, then knocked off Baltimore Celtic for the first time in the second game to win the group.

After dropping its final group match to Michigan-based Kingdom SC Red, Lehigh Valley United drew a familiar foe in the semifinals. Yet another meeting with Lower Merion SC came about and LVU found its way past the longtime nemesis for a rematch with Baltimore Celtic.

“To face two teams that had been the toughest two teams for us, I’ve only been on the team two years but for the guys here longer than me, there was always a rivalry between them,” Link said. “To beat Lower Merion was an awesome feeling and then to face Celtic, who’s been the best team in our age group since probably U15 winning three national titles and everything, it made it really special.”

The night before the game, Moyer posted a tweet saying how his lifelong goal was in reach.

“My whole life, it was everything I worked for and I wanted people to know,” Moyer said. “I felt we were going to go out there and I’d get to complete my life’s dream.

“Seven or eight guys scored our goals throughout the tournament and before that, it wasn’t that way at all, we weren’t scoring like we should have been. At nationals, we didn’t have a star player, everyone was the star.”

In front of a packed crowd and with the match being streamed on ESPN3, it was a scenario unlike anything any of the players had experienced before.

“It was crazy, I don’t think I’ll play another game like that in my life,” Houlihan, who has committed to Lafayette, said. “Being on the field at the national finals with 18 of my best friends playing against a two-time national champ, we knew that we had to come out and show them we belonged. We did and it was one of the best feeling ever.

“Playing in that stadium early in the morning and seeing the sun rise up during warm-ups and ESPN3 being there, it’s one of the coolest things I ever got to experience.”

The match was intense but a stalemate as neither side could find the right combination to break down their opponent. At the same time, there were chances and LVU needed a couple of big defensive stands to keep a zero on the scoreboard.

With the defensive unit, which included Moyer at centerback and Houlihan playing a hard-nosed midfielder in front of the back line, leading the way all tournament, it was fitting the group came up large in the most pivotal moments.

“They had some great chances coming forward but our back line was able to do away with a lot,” Smith said. “There were definitely a few specific moments where you get out of it with a zero still on the board, you’re sweating it and you’re nervous but it definitely gives you that momentum forward and you’re able to turn that around and go right back at them.”

Six minutes into the first period of extra time, the chance came. LVU drew a free kick deep on the right side, which outside back Euan Forrestt drove into the 18-yard box.

Forrest told McMahon after the match he’d actually mis-hit the ball but his service carried right to the head of Patrick Adams, who flicked it toward net. There, making a delayed crashing run toward goal, McMahon found the ball.

“We like to make runs near and far and both on the service and secondary, so we have like six guys crashing the goal,” McMahon said. “I was making a far post run and our left Euan, he told me after he mis-hit the ball but Pat Adams was able to get a head on it while I was still making my run to the back post and it landed right on my foot so I volleyed to the far post just past the keeper.

“When Euan told me that, I told him he needed to start telling everybody he meant to do that.”

Link and Sturza were on the bench at the time, but it didn’t take long for them to join with the other guys on the field swarming around McMahon for a celebration.

“We ran all the way down to where they scored because it was on the opposite side of the field, we had to run past (Celtic’s) bench, which probably wasn’t good,” Link said. “But no one realized it in the moment, we were all just so happy.

“Luke came in, had like seven minutes and scored a goal. Every player had a role where they could really something and it was something Coach Gorni talked about a lot, we could bring a new level when we got into the game.”

Sturza, who accepted a reserve role as one of the first guys off the bench at either left wing or striker, came on right after and helped close out the victory. For him, Moyer and Smith, it was a perfect ending to their time together as teammates with a run that included a state semifinal in 2017 and a District 1-4A title in 2018.

“We didn’t do as much as we thought we would this year, we came up a little short but to end it on such a high note is awesome,” Sturza said.

“I think the first thing Bailey said was ‘what a way to go out,’” Smith said. “Going out on top is certainly special, but to do it with that group of guys meant the world.”

It was a similar feeling  for McMahon and Houlihan, who started nearly every game together the past three seasons at North Penn.

“It was incredible, we never got to experience that at North Penn,” Houlihan said. “Winning the conference is certainly exciting but never winning the district or state final at North Penn with Luke, it was a good last run and you couldn’t write a better script for it, it brought our time playing together to a good end.”

There were a lot of factors throughout the year that added up to LVU holding the oldest youth soccer trophy in the country on Sunday morning. Perhaps the most important was the way everyone on the team allowed themselves to be fit in just the right place to make everything work.

From waging wars against each other two or three times every fall to uniting under a single crest for a common goal, the seven SOL players of Lehigh Valley United created a week together they’ll never forget.

“We had a lot of downtime there so we made it a big thing that we were bonding, getting closer and making the most of the opportunity,” McMahon said. “For most of us, it was our last experience like that and we wanted to make sure it had the perfect ending.”

“If I would single in on one thing, it would be the bond and the friendship between all of the guys, especially us that live locally,” Bethel said. “They’re such strong players and it just helps tremendously, even coming from CB South, CB West, North Penn and Pennridge, there are such strong rivalries there but being able to have that and still build such a strong bond, it just helped us tremendously.”

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