JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The coronavirus wiped out most of last season and made things a bit different this year, but the opportunity to chase a girls national soccer championship is back.
Jacksonville FC’s U14 squad qualified for the ECNL national playoffs in Bradenton. They are one of 32 teams in the group play bracket and will face the Minnesota Thunder (Thursday, 9:45 a.m.), Eagles SC (Friday, 7:45 a.m.) and PDA Blue (Sunday, 7:45 a.m.) in trying to advance to the knockout round.
The four survivors from the knockout stage advance to the ECNL National Finals in Richmond, Va. July 17-18.
Coach Brad Schmidt said that it’s been an unusual year for the JFC squad. COVID-19 scratched much of the 2020 season and put some limitations on what the club could do this year with things like travel. The U14 roster is about an even mix of newcomers from other clubs and JFC veterans. They have meshed extremely well.
But the end goal never changed — play hard and make it to the ECNL national playoff bracket. JFC and Florida Elite’s U16 team are the only local girls teams to have qualified for this year’s field.
“You can be the better team and lose games, you can not be the better team and win games and I think that’s something we’ve proven both sides of that this year,” Schmidt said.
“So, I think you got to go play the game for a reason. We played PDA who actually played here, the No. 1 team nation right now, lost to them 1-0 in a really tight game. I think it allowed them to understand that, ‘hey we can play with anybody.’ And you catch the right breaks and there’s only one team happy at the end might as well be us.”
At 13-3-3, the U14 squad’s only losses (Orlando City, Sunrise Prime and PDA Blue) have all been one-goal defeats. It edged the Tampa Bay United Rowdies for the ECNL Southeast Conference championship.
“We’re going down into this tournament with a lot of willpower and determination, but mainly we’re just focused on you playing our best,” said defender/midfielder Sarah Aquino.
“One of the biggest things that I think Coach Brad teaches us is, he would rather have us lose, playing one of our best games possible against a really good team, than have us play sloppy. So, it’s really more about grace and playing with as much power and dignity as we have rather than just goofing around.”
Aquino, who has been in the JFC program for 11 years, said that the challenge of a national tournament is facing opponents who bring out the best in players.
“I’m super excited. I mean, Minnesota has a really good player who I have to mark, but I’m not nervous. It makes me more excited than nervous because it’s just a great opportunity for everybody,” she said. “One of the things that you have to learn on this team is how to adapt and I think that everybody on this team is incredible at that.”
Schmidt said that coronavirus protocols this year reduced the number of games for clubs, but that hasn’t exactly been a bad thing this late in the season.
“The good thing is, is most of the kids are fresher than they normally are this time of year. So, I think they’re super excited because we haven’t been able to do quite all the same stuff we’d normally do in a season,” Schmidt said. “So, to be able to get down and spend five days with your teammates and create some memories is a good thing.”