South Charlotte

Charlotte Eagles’ U17 soccer team scores a national championship

Charlotte Eagles XLR8 U17 team hoist the championship trophy, from left, Alec Lumsden, Alex Varghese, Walker Gillespie, Isaac Haddock, Ryan Cowie, Myles Lloyd holding trophy, Sam Bass, David Collins Jr., Jack Valbuena, Matthew Ranshaw, Richard Gillespie, Joshua Kendrick and Nicholas Piro
Charlotte Eagles XLR8 U17 team hoist the championship trophy, from left, Alec Lumsden, Alex Varghese, Walker Gillespie, Isaac Haddock, Ryan Cowie, Myles Lloyd holding trophy, Sam Bass, David Collins Jr., Jack Valbuena, Matthew Ranshaw, Richard Gillespie, Joshua Kendrick and Nicholas Piro U.S. Club Soccer

Chase Wickham was still in senior year as a soccer player on the No. 1 ranked-University of Alabama-Birmingham in 2013 when he told his future wife, Annie, “that he was totally focused on his professional soccer career and would never become a personal trainer.”

But just two months in his professional soccer career with the Charlotte Eagles in April of 2014, Wickham — like many pro, soccer players do —decided to start doing some personal training on the side to make some extra money.

By the season’s end in October, Wickham decided to make personal training his full-time job and open his own company.

Wickham’s work included training several of the top club soccer players in the Charlotte area.

Last summer, a couple of those soccer players encouraged him to come help coach and play soccer in a summer league they competed in for fun a couple nights a week at the Sportsplex at Matthews.

Wickham, who had never coached a team in his life, admits he didn’t want to make another commitment at the time.

“At first, I didn’t want do to commit to playing or coaching a team, because I didn’t want to do anything casual and I was busy enough with my personal training business,” said Wickham said, who now has 30 to 40 clients that he trains year-round. “But a few of the soccer players that I train, Elijah Corbin, Jack Valbuena and Alex Varghese, were very persistent in asking me to come join them. They eventually they talked me into it.”

A summer league of their own

Wickham began going to help coach and play with his trainees each Tuesday and Thursday night, with a group of high school (aged) soccer players, who would often bring several friends to compete in casual “3 on 3,” and “6 on 6” games.

The same group also played in several, more formal 3 vs. 3 and 6 vs. 6 tournaments on the weekends.

While Wickham was content playing soccer a few nights a week, some of the players believed they could do more.

About that time, Jack Valbuena’s mother, Julie, approached Wickham about coaching a full, 11 on 11 team at the Southeast Regional tournament in Greensboro.

Wickham, Valbuena and a few of the players helped recruit a team of 17 players from across the Charlotte area to make up a full team just in time, registering for the tournament just before final deadline.

The team, which became the Charlotte Eagles’ XLR8 U17 Boys’ Premier squad — was made of up primarily of players from the three of the area’s biggest clubs: the Carolina Rapids, Charlotte United, and Charlotte Soccer Academy — but had never played together collectively.

While the Eagles’ U17 team had a good experience at the 2016 Southeast Regionals, they lost in the finals ending their season abruptly.

“That first summer (2016), we came together late, and I don’t think we knew we could do as a team,” said Jack Valbuena, an Eagles’ team captain who goes to high school at Myers Park and plays club soccer for the Carolina Rapids U19 Academy team. “But, we definitely got a taste of what we were capable of, and I think a lot of the guys wanted to play (together), again.”

Second time is a charm?

While the core of the 2016, Charlotte Eagles’ U17 squad all went their separate ways to their respective club and/or high school seasons (different for each player), most of the players were eager to get back together this summer.

Coach Wickham and many of the players that played last summer started practicing three times together again three times a week on May 31.

To accommodate as many players from across the Charlotte region as possible, the Eagles’ U17 squad practiced one night at Bailey Park in Huntersville, on night at Crestdale Middle School in Matthews and one night at Alexander Graham Middle School in the South Park area of Charlotte.

The Eagles’ U17 team put together a roster of 17 players for the Global Premier Soccer (GPS) Carolina Summer Showcase in Fort Mill, June 17-18.

The Eagles rolled through the warm-up event, winning all four games while outscoring their opponents, 14-1.

One week later, the Eagles returned to the Southeast Regional in Winston-Salem with something to prove.

But in the first game, Coach Wickham and company lost a 3-2 heartbreaker to the Pittsburgh Riverhounds, 3-2, putting a bad taste in the Eagles’ mouths.

“I think losing that first game really woke us up,” Wickham said. “We were confident that we could win out, but the whole team knew we had to be at our best to win it all.”

The Eagles roared back, winning their final three games in convincing fashion (outscoring opponents 7-2), knocking off the Piedmont Triad Futbol Club (PTFC) Black in the championship game to advance to the U.S. Club Soccer National Cup XVI in Westfield, IN (in the Indianapolis Metropolitan area), July 21-24.

While it was a team effort, the Eagles got big contributions from forward Alec Lumsden (Myers Park High), who scored four goals in the Southeast Regional, while goalkeeper, Myles Lloyd (Mallard Creek High), allowed just five goals in four games, including just two scores over the final three straight victories to claim the title. Co-captains in center midfielder, Valbuena and center back, Matt Ranshaw (Marvin Ridge High) also played big roles.

“After we won the Southeast Regionals, our team really came together, all became like brothers and really wanted to do the hard work for each other,” Jack Valbuena said. “…When we got to nationals, we had a lot of free time and the whole team spent a lot of time hanging out in the hotel and at the pool, got a lot closer. That camaraderie all showed on the field.”

Championship run

One player who wasn’t even on the roster in Fort Mill or Winston-Salem was forward, Isaac Haddock.

Haddock, who had played with the Eagles in the 2016 Southeast Regionals, hoped to get some rest during the summer as the Mooresville native doubles with Carolina Rapids’ U18 club team and Community School of Davidson High school squad.

But, when Coach Wickham and company needed a few players for the National Cup tournament, Haddock was ready to go.

“I knew if they got to Nationals (Cup), and wanted me to play, I would definitely go,” Haddock said. “When Chase called me, there was no question that I was going to try to help the team.”

The addition of Haddock paid immediate dividends as the 6-foot-2, 185-pound center forward — who plays center back for club team — scored in the opening game at the National Cup July 21, helping the Eagles to a 3-1 win over GPS MA Elite 2000.

The Eagles came back from a 1-0 halftime deficit to tie A.C. Connecticut, 1-1, the next day.

Then, the Eagles had one of their best games of the summer, rolling past International West (OH) to advance to the National Cup XVI championship game, where they would meet a familiar foe in GPS MA Elite 2000, the same team they opened with three days earlier.

Wickham and his team knew coming into the championship game that it wasn’t going to be easy to beat the same team twice in a four-day span.

GPS MA 2000 Elite proved they weren’t going down without a fight taking a 1-0 lead into halftime.

But the Eagles weren’t going to panic, as they were in a familiar play, as they trailed 1-0 at halftime in five of their 12 games this summer.

Wickham, who had made effective halftime adjustments several times, did it again, shifting his alignment to a 4-2-4, featuring four forwards to put more pressure on the defense.

The Eagles had several close calls before Haddock struck again, scoring on “a rocket into the upper 90,” according to Wickham to even the score.

The teams battled on scoreless through two overtimes, forcing the game to be decided on penalty kicks.

A game that had already gone back and forth, got even more dramatic.

The Eagles went first on penalty kicks, with Ranshaw converting to give his team a 1-0 lead. GPS responded with a goal of their own.

Next, Alex Varghese gave the Eagles a 2-1 lead in the extra session, but GPS tied the score again at two.

Haddock was the third Eagle to take a penalty kick, scoring to give his team a 3-2 lead.

Then, Myles Lloyd made a game-changing save to put his team up 3-2.

The Eagles’ David Collins, Jr., put the Eagles up 4-2, forcing GPS to make the next two goals just to tie.

While GPS cut it to 4-3, their final penalty kick sailed over the goal post, giving the Eagles the U.S. Club Soccer National Cup XVI title.

The victory was truly a team effort from team captains Valbuena and Ranshaw to Haddock to Lloyd to Collins. The Eagles also got big contributions from Sam Bass from Myers Park, Ryan Cowie from Hough, and twins Richard and Walker Gillespie from Charlotte Country Day and “really all 17 guys play their part,” according to Coach Wickham, who all made their championshimp moment possible.

The Eagles also did it in front of multiple college, soccer coaches.

“Anytime you go to penalty kicks, it’s definitely nerve-wrecking with everyone lined up watching each kick,” Valbuena said. “But to win it in PK’s just made it even sweeter. When we piled on Myles (Lloyd) after they missed the last shot it was a feeling we will never forget. …

“To win a national championship is huge for every guy on this team and for Chase, too.”

Championship feeling

While Wickham and his team are still enjoying the championship moment, they will go their separate ways this fall and spring, and don’t know if they will give it another run in 2018.

But the group will always be bound by their run to the 2017 U.S. Club Soccer National Cup title.

The Eagles went 10-1-1 this summer, outscoring their opponents 31-9.

While each player has their own memory of the championship, Coach Wickham doesn’t have to look far for a reminder as the National Cup trophy has a spot on a counter in his living room.

“When I look at that trophy, it’s not shiny, it’s not glamorous,” Wickham said. “What I see is all the hard work, blood, sweat and tears that we put into winning a national championship. …

“We will have that memory and that accomplishment together forever.”

Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: jedwardsjr23@gmail.com.

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