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Rage On: Strong local presence helps Philadelphia SC Coppa Rage win USYS U17 national title

What a difference a year makes.

At the conclusion of the 2021 US Youth Soccer National Championship 16U title match last summer, the players of Philadelphia SC Coppa Rage watched another team celebrate. They left a seed on that field in Orlando, one that they were determined to come back and watch bloom a year later when they would be the team celebrating a national title.

Sunday, that’s exactly what Coppa Rage did, winning the 17U USYS championship and becoming the first team based in Philadelphia to win a national title since 1967.

“It’s been really surreal,” Bella Brown, a rising senior at Springside Chestnut Hill, said. “It didn’t hit me specifically until the end of the final game and we were actually getting the medals and awards. Last year’s loss was really heartbreaking for us, so that feeling and emotion in general pushed us to never want to feel that again.”

Philadelphia SC Coppa Rage lifts the USYS U17 national championship trophy in Orlando, Florida after defeating Tonka United (MN) 5-0 in the final. (Courtesy Bella Brown)

Coppa Rage, coached by Archbishop Wood girls’ soccer coach Tom DeGeorge, defeated Tonka Fusion Elite out of Minnesota by a 5-0 score in Sunday’s championship tilt. Rising Hatboro-Horhsam junior Emma Levin scored the match-winner just 35 seconds into the contest, which quickly became a prolonged inauguration as Coppa Rage built a 3-0 halftime lead and kept the pressure on until they were crowned champions.

It was a perfect ending to a week that encapsulated everything the team was about. They had plenty of contributors, led by Best XI selections Gianna Rivera (Archbishop Ryan) and Taylor Mays (Pennsbury) and a shared Gold Glove award by keepers Kayla Kulp (William Tennent) and Samantha Ridler (North Penn).

The defense was outstanding throughout the tournament, the midfield controlled the pace of play and the forwards were opportunistic and clinical with chances.

“We just want to win,” Levin said. “When we play against each other, we just play harder because it makes us better. A lot of us have been together since fifth grade or sixth grade, we’re such good friends with each other, we’re always hanging out outside of soccer and I think that’s why our chemistry is so good.”

What set Coppa Rage apart was the team’s depth. Mays said every team they faced had one or two, maybe three, really dangerous players that had to be accounted for. With her side, there were at least five or six players on the pitch at a given time that could do serious damage if left unchecked and eventually, opponents just ran out of ways to cover all of them.

A year ago, the experience was completely new and in some ways, overwhelming to every player on the team. With the often grueling conditions in the Florida heat and humidity and their name associated with last year’s run to the final, there was a lot more than just players in another uniform to overcome on the way to a championship.

“I think we definitely went in feeling like we were a team to beat, many of the other coaches mentioned they had watched us last year and had been following us,” Brown, a Binghamton recruit said. “I felt a little more anxious but it also encouraged me to know these people had all been watching us and now they had to play us. We needed to show them who we are and that we were going to keep fighting and not ever back down.”

he Philadelphia SC Coppa Rage U17 team poses for a photo after winning the USYS national championship (Courtesy Emma Levin)

Most importantly, they had each other. Team meals, a group yoga session by the hotel pool after a game or even just gathering in the lobby to hang out together was all Coppa Rage needed to keep things loose while also serving a reminder why each of them was there and who they were playing for.

“What made us so good is that we’re all truly friends,” Mays said. “There weren’t any certain cliques, we all get along and all of our styles just fit together. There’s never drama and I think that’s what makes us so special when you put all of us together.

“I was able to do my favorite thing with my favorite people in the world, nothing beats that.”

Only one team, DSKC Weir out of Dallas, had beaten Coppa Rage in their National League P.R.O. season and in a twist of fate, the top two teams from Group C would face off in the opener. The match was billed as one of the best in the first slate and it delivered plenty, from DSKC taking a 2-0 halftime lead to a long weather-induced delay that turned it into a marathon of resilience.

It was also an early wake-up call and with Mays leading the charge, Coppa Rage woke up. Mays scored two goals, including the game-winner right after the match re-started following a two-hour rain delay, as Coppa Rage came back for a 3-2 victory to start on the right foot.

“Remembering what it was like watching another team get the medals was really motivating and I think we always went back to that feeling and wanted to work harder for each other,” Mays, who has committed to Rider, said. “We had lost to that team 4-2, we knew we were starting off with a bang in that first game. Even when we went down 2-0, we looked at each other and you could see we all knew we weren’t going to lose.”

DeGeorge and Levin echoed Mays and also tabbed that opening-day victory as a prove-it moment. Levin, a captain with the Hatters last season as a sophomore, summed it up as a challenge to each player to back up their talk of a championship and prove their work was going to mean something.

“We were down twice in the tournament, we actually trailed in the semifinal but we just knew if we could come back from this, there was no way we were losing,” Levin said. “We all looked at each other and came out with so much momentum that after we won, we all realized we could win the whole thing.”

In their third match, needing a win to secure a spot in the semifinals, Coppa Rage faced an opponent that had opened the tournament with back-to-back shutouts. Maura Day, a rising senior at Abington who played left back on the team’s robust back line, curled in a corner kick to break the shutout streak and ignite a 7-0 Coppa Rage win.

Brown, who found the back of the net twice in the win, felt the result was another landmark moment in the tournament. Coppa Rage had put on a dominating performance and was two wins away from closing the deal on its business trip.

“We expected more out of ourselves,” Brown said. “Last year, we got there and we were proud of what we did but this year, we wanted more.

“We knew if we tied or lost, it was over for us. We all went in with a mindset of ‘we need to win this’ or we were going to have to do this all over again until next year. That really pushed us and we won 7-0, so maybe it really worked for the best.”

Players from Philadelphia SC Coppa Rage let out a victorious yell after capturing the USYS U17 national title in Orlando, Florida on July 24 (Courtesy Bella Brown)

Sunday’s victory also added to the impressive haul of silverware for the DeGeorge household this year. Ava DeGeorge, a rising junior at Archbishop Wood, added a national championship to the PCL and District 12 titles she helped win alongside her older sister Alyssa and under her dad in the fall.

Tom DeGeorge, a soccer lifer and Hall of Fame inductee at Arcadia, had nothing plaudits for every player on his roster and felt immense pride in all of them for how they approached their goal. His father-in-law Eddie Leigh, a titan of the southeastern PA youth soccer community who passed away in 2017, had led FC Bucks to a national title in 2009

It was a special celebration for everyone involved with the club, but there was no denying taking photos with Ava holding the trophy had a little extra emotion for both of them and his wife Colleen, Eddie Leigh’s daughter.

“Ava’s my daughter so I get to see how much work she puts in, she’s alway running on her own, she’s always out shooting and asking me to work her out, she just has a really strong drive,” Tom DeGeorge said. “For all the girls, to see them get rewarded for all the time they put in, it’s so nice.

“It’s been in my family, it’s always been a big deal for us and even when my kids were little, they knew their grandpop won a national title. People always talked about it. I still talk to girls who were on that team so to be able to do it with my own daughter, it’s truly special.”

While DeGeorge is always one to deflect the credit onto his players, as he did in this instance, Mays tabbed her coach as a crucial factor in the team’s success.

“Tom is truly an amazing coach,” Mays said. “He’s not one of those coaches who just wants to yell at you and expects unreasonable things from you. He’s truly like a teammate to us and pivotal to all of our success.”

In May, Coppa Rage won its third straight NCS PA State Cup championship, then all focus turned toward preparation for nationals. That collective focus was the major difference this summer but again, they all traced it back to the loss in Orlando last year.

Brown said any time she felt tired or lacking energy to train, she thought about watching another team celebrate in front of her. Levin recalled how the Coppa Rage players trained in long-sleeve shirts when the weather got warm so they’d be more acclimated to the Florida heat and DeGeorge lost track of how many times the players orgained their own training or pick-up games on top of the twice-per-week practices he ran.

“The mindset we had was so important,” Levin said. “Last year, in the final, we were down 1-0 and at halftime, we looked defeated. This year, none of us had that look ever, even down 2-0, we had this mindset that we were going to win.”

The Philadelphia SC Coppa Rage team poses on stage after being awarded the USYS U17 trophy. (Courtesy Bella Brown)

Brown, who resides in Oreland, was part of a strong contingent of SCH players including defensive stalwart Abby Fitzmaurice, Brigid McDonald and Lanie Franklin and Day was joined by Abington midfield partner Carley Slavin. Stefania Mladenoff, who plays for Northern York High School, had a longer trip than her teammates to practices but was as much a part as anyone else in winning the title.

There was also a unique aspect to the team with quite a few players lining up as rivals with their high school teams.

Mays is not stranger to intense SOL battles against Alexis Ocasio and Mercedez Paino at Neshaminy and Ella McAleer at CR North, Levin and the Hatters usually slug it out with Day, Slavin and the Ghosts and in the PCL, few rivalries are as strong as Rivera and Samantha Pastino at Ryan against the DeGeorges at Wood. Olivia Linus and the SCH crew are foes in the Inter-Ac.

“It’s so funny when we have to play against each other, just because we know each other’s styles so well,” Mays said. “When I play against Neshaminy, Alexis is a center back and I’m a center forward. We know each other’s moves and we just laugh at each other the entire time we play and as soon as we step off the field, we’re back to being best friends.”

If anything though, that only made sharing a goal easier because there was no doubt about how determined and competitive anyone else on the field was.

“My practices are crazy,” DeGeorge said. “If you came to a practice, you’d probably enjoy it, I think sometimes they’re more fun to watch than a game. It’s just so competitive, these kids just want to win and when they don’t, they take it personal.

“There’s a lot of trash talk in the group texts between the high schools but at the end of it, they shake hands and go out for dinner afterward because it’s more important to be great friends.”

As the team’s run continued, they gained more and more traction back home. Teammates from their respective high school programs, friends from outside soccer, local media and the greater Philadelphia soccer community as a whole got behind Coppa Rage.

Philadelphia Union player Brandan Craig, another Northeast Philly soccer product, was at Sunday’s title game to support the local club a night after the local MLS team had won at Orlando SC. Even far from home, the support was not lost on the Rage players in Florida.

“It’s crazy the amount of support we had,” Mays said “I didn’t even realize that was the number of people who cared about us. All my friends from Pennsbury were watching, my teammates’ friends were all watching and it gave us the motivation to play well, we wanted to show off for all our friends at home.”

Docked out in championship gear, Philadelphia SC Coppa Rage takes a photo with their USYS U17 hardward. (Courtesy Tom DeGeorge)

After going down 1-0 just 15 minutes into their semifinal against Avalanche Black DW of Utah, Coppa Rage rallied again. Mays assisted Rivera, who led the team with six goals in the tournament, seven minutes later then in the 76th minute, the Philadelphia side drew a penalty kick.

Brown stepped up to the spot with a chance to give her side the lead. She buried it, blasting the ball inside the left post as Coppa Rage carried the lead through the final whistle.

“I usually go in feeling confident and calm, look at the ball and imagine what the shot will be like,” Brown, who netted three goals in total, said. “I was confident knowing my team was behind me no matter what happened.

“These girls are like my family, the way we play together and the way we mesh, I don’t think it’s ever going to be like that with any other team.”

There would be no need for a comeback in the final. Once Levin got the ball 35 seconds in and the All-SOL midfielder put the shot away, the title felt all but ensured.

As good as the start was, DeGeorge was more impressed with the finish. He noted there’s no opportunity to call a timeout in soccer but his players just knew what to do, playing possession, winning corner kicks and keeping the ball in the corners to ice the final seven or so minutes off the clock and accomplish the task.

“The day before, we were so excited and just couldn’t wait to play so once that whistle blew to start the game, all of us wanted to score right away,” Levin said. “When I got the ball and scored, I think we were expecting that, we didn’t expect anything else. It was awesome scoring that early in the game, it just gave us so much motivation.”

Emma Levin, who scored the winning goal in the national title match, holds the USYS U17 trophy after helping Philadelphia SC Coppa Rage become the first club team from Philadelphia since 1967 to win a national title (Courtesy Emma Levin)

Coppa Rage isn’t the biggest club around, they had to rent out fields for matches or practices but that didn’t do anything to stand in the way of the pursuit of a national championship. Any team is only as good as its parts and only when those parts find a way to work together, something that was never an issue for this assembly of players.

This particular group will always have a prominent and visible place at their club forever, a mark that will both define their accomplishment and hopefully provide inspiration to every player who follows after them.

“We’re a piece of soccer history now in Philadelphia, our whole club is going to get a star on their uniforms above the crest,” DeGeorge said. “I have nieces at the club now or even for any of these girls coming back five years from now and seeing that star, we were a part of that and it’s something special.”

The Philadelphia SC Coppa Rage players take a group photo during the USYS U17 national championship tournament in Orlando, Florida. (Courtesy Tom DeGeorge)

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