One of the most intriguing U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships kick off Wednesday in North Little Rock, Ark. The finals feature four defending champions, three teams with MLS ties, two Dallas girls powerhouses with a Texas-sized rivalry and a Minnesota boarding school aiming for a unique soccer-ice hockey double.
National Championships Schedule
DEFENDING CHAMPIONS. Four defending national champions return: Andromeda (U-18) and the Casa Mia Bays (U-15) defend their boys titles, while the Bloomfield Force (U-19) and So Cal Blues (U-16) look to repeat on the girls side.
Andromeda is the U-18 boys favorite after going unbeaten and untied in regional play, but Coach Oscar Borgarello is predicting a lot of close games at the nationals.
Casa Mia Bays coach Stephen Nichols goes for a hat trick. He has already won titles in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (U-17/18) and U.S. Youth Soccer National League (U-15) and leads the Bays in their U-15 boys title defense.
Michigan doesn't sponsor a U-19 girls competition but allowed th Force to enter the regionals as it was the defending champion. Fourteen players return from last year's team. Stephanie Crawford (Michigan), Katie Walker and Kellie Walker (both Western Kentucky) were invited from the archrival Michigan Hawks to join this year's team.
The So Cal Blues are coached by Tad Bobak, the U.S. under-15 girls national team whose 30-year coaching career dates back to a stint with the NASL Los Angeles Aztecs and has won both boys and girls national title.
TEXAS-SIZED RIVALRY. The U-18 Sting is not a repeat finalist, but it might as well be. Last year, the Dallas Texans Red finished second to the Eagles and after the season they defected to the Sting along with Coach Kenny Medina, who was named the Sting's director of coaching.
The Sting's stars include Notre Dame-bound Melissa Henderson, Texas A&M sophomore Rachel Shipley and Courtney Barg.
In the U-16 age group, both the Texans (the 2007 regional champions) and Sting Royal are entered. (The Texans qualified as the U.S. Youth Soccer National League champions.)
MLS TEAMS. The growing influence of MLS's local and extended youth programs is in evidence by the presence of the U-19 Kansas City Wizards Juniors, U-15 Chicago Fire Juniors Red and U-14 Grand Rapids Crew Juniors in the boys competition.
The Wizards' entrant in the McGuire Cup consists almost entirely of local collegians.
The Fire's U-15s (different from its U-15/16 academy team) had played in the last two regionals as the Naperville Lightning.
The Grand Rapids Crew Juniors -- part of a partnership between the Grand Rapids Soccer Club and Columbus Crew -- are the first team ever from West Michigan to qualify for the National Championships.
COLLEGIANS. Current collegians are eligible to return after the school year ends to play on youth clubs in the final stages of regional and national play.
The big name in this year's National Championships is 2007 Soccer America Freshman of the Year Corben Bone, who returns with Solar, a national finalist on three prior occasions.
SCHOOLBOYS. Shattuck-St. Mary, a Minnesota boarding school, is better known for its elite hockey program, but its soccer program is attracting top talent. notably Teal Bunbury, son of former Canada international Alex Bunbury.
It is aiming for a unique U-18 double. It won the USA Hockey 18 & Under Tier I division in the spring.
Ramos leads Gunners to National Championships.