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When looking at some of the characteristics of teams that attain the level of success that is associated with the US Youth Soccer National Championships, you will find that having a squad with a core group of players and coaches who have competed together over several season is a commonplace.
It is that conventional wisdom that renders the situation Charles Grado and his Under-15 Solar Chelsea Grado (TX-N) team unique, considering you can count the number of weeks Grado and his team have been together on two hands.
“The previous coach of this team, Jon Hopkins, unfortunately was ill and had a couple of injuries, which forced him to step away from the team after State Cup,” Grado said. “State Cup was that group’s last run with a lot of players moving on to different teams.”
The result was Grado trying to merge the players who remained from the State Cup Championship team with players within the club who had intentions joining for the upcoming season. However, Solar only had a handful of weeks to prepare for the 2017 US Youth Soccer Region III Championships. While most teams competing at the US Youth Soccer National Championships entered their respective Region Championships with a clear understanding of everyone’s role, Solar Chelsea were still trying to establish the ideal position for each player.
“We treated regionals as a platform for these players to audition for roles on the team for the upcoming season. I thought there was no better opportunity considering I had no previous loyalties to players because I haven’t been the coach,” Grado said. “We had three weeks to prepare, and God bless their effort. We trained almost every day to build chemistry and cohesiveness. At regionals we were bouncing around players to different positions trying to find the best fit.”
Something clicked to say the very least as Solar would overcome a 1-1 draw to eventual semifinalists 02 CSA Predator (NC) in its first match to rattle off five-straight wins and claim a Region III Championships.
“I think we got better through the week, and the girls showed 100 percent commitment and drive,” Grado said. “A lot of that improvement came off the field as the girls became friends, and you can get more out of players if they have a vested interest in each other.”
While Grado’s team may not have possessed a great deal of experience playing together, nine of the players competed on the Solar Chelsea 02 Hopkins (TX-N) squad that finished sixth in the 2016-17 US Youth Soccer National League Blue Division, and eight were on the Solar Chelsea 03 (TX-N) side that reached the 2016 Region III Championship finals.
“The experience those players had was invaluable, because they were the ones who had level heads when the nerves even got to me on a coaching standpoint,” Grado said. “Our team could look to them for a sense of calmness and focus in preparing for these matches. There is no substitution for experience.”
The team that Solar Chelsea 03 fell to in the 2016 Region III finals was eventual National Champions and fellow club side Solar Chelsea Red (TX-N). For a second straight year, Solar had the final two teams as Solar Chelsea Grado defeated Solar Chelsea 02 Naizer 1-0 in the 2017 Region III Championship finals.
“I think it speaks volumes to the depth within Solar and the amount of talent that North Texas has as a whole. There is a culture that we are trying to establish and improve, and we are trying to put these kids in the right environment to succeed and develop,” Grado said. “It definitely speaks to the adage that the journey isn’t a sprint, but a marathon. It is an amazing accomplishment, and we hope to grow and build upon it.”
With the National Championships taking place in Frisco, Texas, playing in front of a home crown adds an extra element to the tournament – something that Grado feels has advantages and disadvantages.
“It is 50/50 for me. There is an added pressure of playing in your backyard in front of your club,” Grado said. “On the flip side, these girls are true competitors, and that pressure can drive a team. Having a crowd that will cheer for every tackle and erupt for every goal can certainly fuel that drive. We are also acclimated to the elements. It is our hometown, and we will defend it with all we have for Solar, and for North Texas.”
Grado admitted that he, along with his players will have some nerves before the first game, but he emphasized the need to get on the ball early in order to get in the flow of the game.
“I told my players before the regional final that if you don’t have butterflies in your stomach, then you are inhuman, because everyone gets nervous before big games,” Grado said. “The game remains the same, there are 22 players, one ball and the goals are the same size.”
While Solar is certainly focused on the upcoming week, Grado did mention that playing at a tournament like this will help his players moving forward, whether it is in the following season or in the years to come.
“It prepares them for next year’s National League, but also to eventually play collegiately,” Grado said. “There is pressure like they will face at nationals day in and day out at the college level. That is our goal – to give the best opportunities to these player to continue their career on the college level, get a top notch education and become good people.”
While Grado’s hesitance to put the cart before the horse was readily apparent when asked to describe what it would feel like to leave Frisco with a National Championship, he reiterated how proud he was of team for even getting this far, adding winning a national title would be dreamlike.
“It would be a massive statement to the quality of our club as well as North Texas as a whole. The fact that North Texas always has teams in these national tournaments speaks a lot to the environment here,” Grado said. “As a coach, I get the greatest satisfaction from seeing these players succeed. I’m extremely proud of them already, and to reach the full accomplishment would be surreal.”
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