The ECNL Finals are the ultimate proving ground for the best youth female teams in the United States. Only teams that have proven their mettle throughout the ECNL regular season - the most demanding league competition in the country, and then who win their groups in the prestigious ECNL Play-Offs, earn the right to compete in the ECNL Finals. It is a select group.
The ECNL Finals includes two levels of competition. The ECNL Champions League National Championship is the top female youth soccer trophy to be won in the United States. The ECNL North American Cup is the second highest trophy in the country. Both are earned only through best vs. best competition, over 10 months, in the incredibly demanding Elite Clubs National League.
In their first trip to the Finals, and the first ever for a youth team from Wisconsin, the FC Wisconsin Eclipse U17s were seconds away from competing for the championship, ultimately finishing fourth after a gut-wrenching final two days in the competition. In any regard, the event was a fantastic experience that has proven the quality and developmental progress of the team, the players, and the club.
The event began with The Rivah Draw, where every team learned their competition group and path to the championship. For more on this event, click here. FC Wisconsin Eclipse opened play in Group A on Sunday the 13th, with a match-up against St. Louis Scott Gallagher - MO. The two teams had met once in conference play in September, with St. Louis winning 3-0. Showing the depth and quality of the ECNL Midwest Conference, both teams qualified for the North American Cup Finals, but the rematch was to be a very different story. FC Wisconsin Eclipse raced to the lead in the 4th minute on a goal from Kristen Corral, and the team doubled their lead in the 25th minute on a corner kick goal by Gaby Dorsey. While St. Louis pulled one back in the 60th minute, FCWE had multiple chances to re-establish the two-goal lead and the game finished 2-1. The game continued a regular theme for the club over the season and over the past two years - massive individiual improvement showing in more and more positive team results.
Day 2 of the event found FCWE matched up again with a Midwest Conference opponent - Minnesota Thunder Academy. MTA was the 2012-2013 Midwest Conference Champion and Champions League participant, and their quality continued to show in the 2013-2014 season with the appearance in the North American Cup Finals. In a very tight and tactical game, neither team created many chances in the first half. The second half saw FCWE on the ascendancy, with 2 good chances from Allison Jacobson and Steph Fabry. The deciding goal wasn't scored until the 89th minute when Allison Jacobson hit a laser from 25 yards off the far post. The lone goal was enough, supported by solid goalkeeping from Jordyn Bloomer and great team defending.
Day 3 of the ECNL Finals was an off-day, as teams took time to recover and enjoy the experience. For FCWE, the day included more ice baths (a common theme over the week!), a pool recovery work-out, and myofascial release to help tired and fatigued muscles heal and replenish.
FCWE was in a tremendous position moving into the final game of group play. With 6 points from the first two games, the team was in control of their destiny: a tie or win and they would qualify for the North American Championship game. Their opponent was Internationals FC from Cleveland, OH and the ECNL Mid-Atlantic Conference. With cooler temperatures and fresh from a day off, the game was played at high speeds and was a back and forth affair. Both teams created several chances, but both defenses stood firm and would not break. As time ticked away in the second half, Internationals became more desperate, throwing numbers forward knowing that a tie would eliminate them from competition. This left chances for FCWE on the counter, as fatigued players began to see bigger spaces opening up on both sides. The game was decided, in a heartbreaking fashion for FCWE, when Internationals scored in the 90th minute on a well delivered corner kick. Reflecting the balance in the group, this was the third game-winning goal in the 89th minute or later in the group (Internationals beat St. Louis similarly on day 2). Though tied on points, Internationals advanced to the North American Championship on the head-to-head tie-breaker.
While a disappointing result against Internationals, the final day of competition still had FCWE competing for the third place medals against Northeast Conference club East Meadow (NY). When FCWE took a 1-0 lead mid-way through the first half on a nice goal from Kate Del Fava, the day looked positive. Unfortunately, East Meadow took the resulting kick-off straight down the field to equalize 20 seconds later. The second half saw a different picture, with East Meadow taking the lead, only to be cancelled out by a Briana Jaeger corner kick goal.
As the game wound down, the exhaustion of both teams was clear, and the winner was to be determined in penalties. East Meadow won 5-4, again emphasizing the close competition across the age group. FCWE finished in 4th place in the 2014 ECNL North American Cup, a result that felt disappointing but was an incredible accomplishment for the young players and for the club.
The journey of the U17 team over the past 36 months is remarkable:
The proof of their work, commitment, and dedication is objectively clear, and the style of play on the field displays the same picture.
"FC Wisconsin Eclipse was created in 2012 to prove that Wisconsin players deserve the opportunity to compete at the highest youth levels in the country, and that they are capable of doing so successfully," said Director of Coaching Christian Lavers. "The starting and the ending point for the U17s over the past 3 years show this better than any story ever could. They have gone from one of the bottom teams in the league, to a top 40 team in the United States, in only 36 months. They have worked incredibly hard on their own and in team trainings, have pushed through huge adversity in the progress, and have shown what FC Wisconsin Eclipse stands for. We are incredibly proud of them."
"The ECNL includes only the best clubs in the United States, and no game is ever easy," said coach Andy Lee. "Our opponents in the ECNL alos work hard and get better every year, so the transformation of the U17 team in this time is even more remarkable. The weekly competition against the best players and teams in the country is a tough environment to be in, especially when you are struggling at first, but our players have shown that it is the environment that they want, and one that they can thrive in."
The development focus of the club is reflected by how many players from the U17 team were a part of that first difficult year in the ECNL in 2011-12. Six starters this year - Chloe Knudtson, Briana Jaeger, Gaby Dorsey, Steph Fabry, Katie Golabowski, and Allison Jacobson were on the team at U15. Four more players - Jordyn Bloomer, Christina Feller, Katie Hoefgen and Mariah Downs - joined the club at U16. Three players - Kara Baugrud, Amy Wilson, and Kristen Corral joined the team this season. (Three players from the U16 FC Wisconsin Eclipse team also joined the U17 team in Richmond - Jess Cooley, Payton Wesley, and Kate Del Fava. All three have been a member of the club since its inception.)
"This team has proven what we knew when we founded this club - that Wisconsin players in the right developmental environment, with the right culture, and with the right mentality, can eventually compete with anyone in the country," said Lavers. "They have taken the first of many steps we hope to see from Wisconsin's aspiring players in the coming years, and we are incredibly proud of what they have done."