ORLANDO, FL — For much of the game Sunday morning, things were unfolding just as the players from PA Dominion had dreamt it would.
They were leading Inland Surf 1-0 with less than a half hour to play at the Marathon Stadium field at ESPN Wide World of Sports. The national championship they had been working so hard toward since losing the final in 2019 to Real Jersey FC was finally within reach.
But just as it started to look like Seth Michalak’s 8th minute opener might be enough to cap their season and their youth careers lifting the oldest trophy in youth sports, an Inland Surf player got in behind the defense in the 67th minute to score an equalizing goal and turn the game on its head.
Following the equalizer, the teams remained deadlocked and appeared to be headed to extra time when a second dagger was delivered with the whistling of a penalty in the box.
Goalkeeper Joey Phillips, who had been so instrumental in keeping the zero up to that point, was unable to stop the ensuing penalty kick and stoppage time wasn’t enough to find an equalizer, something they were able to do on more than one occasion to get to the final stage.
“It’s tough right now but I’m just proud of all the guys,” said captain Shane Velez. “They’re all brothers to me; it stings but I know we’ll get through it and I know we’ll be lifelong friends and we’ll be able to lean on each other whenever we need it in the future.”
After accepting their finalist medals on the awards stage, the group huddled together one last time nearby, Michalak in the middle. The music pumping over the PA drowned out what he was saying to anyone outside the huddle but the message was one that’s been consistent throughout an incredible season that saw the team unbeaten until the very end.
“I just said that I love them and I’m always going to be there for them,” Michalak said. “Hard time but this stuff happens; we just gotta move forward. I’m thankful for them and the last 12 years with them on this team. Couldn’t ask for a more incredible group of guys.”
Head coach Mike Gorni, who was seeking his third McGuire Cup as a coach, was gracious in defeat, crediting Inland Surf’s resolve in his remarks on-stage.
“I honestly believe if we played 10 times we’d split,” Gorni said on the mic. “You guys were so good, you play soccer the right way and you do great honor to your state and teams for how you do.”
Gorni said ultimately the final came down to a few plays that didn’t go their way and chances they weren’t able to capitalize on.
“They got the one breakaway and the one penalty kick and I think we both left things on the table,” Gorni said. “It was a really good game, a very good final. That’s the hardest thing, the players and the coaches feel deeply about it and you want to release the euphoria of winning so losing hurts that much more. But they’ll be okay and go onto some other great things.”
Though Eastern Pennsylvania didn’t add another national champion to the history books this week, the 21 teams still left their mark at the US Youth Soccer National Championships.
The most teams from any state association and the most ever from Eastern Pennsylvania created a lot of magic moments that won’t soon be forgotten. Half of the 14 national championship winners ended up having to defeat a team from Eastern Pennsylvania en route to the crown.
The final W-L-D record for the week was 28-26-14.