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Minnesota teams make strong showing in inaugural Super Elite tournament

07/14/2013, 3:30pm CDT
By Ryan Lund

With teams from California, Nebraska, and Japan on the docket, it wasn’t hard to imagine a diverse set of participants come championship Sunday at Schwan’s USA CUP.

But in the Super Elite Division at least, one name kept popping up: Minnesota Thunder Academy.  The local club put teams  in all four finals.

Minnesota Thunder Academy took home titles in three of its five championship appearances Sunday, including the boys' U16 and girls' U14 Super Elite Championships.

MTA’s U16 boys pulled off the Super Elite tournament’s second shocker on Saturday, downing U.S. Youth Soccer Championship-bound FC Golden State 5-1, and setting up a Sunday morning showdown with Costa Rican powerhouse Regional Proyecto Gol.

In the championship game Sunday morning, after a tight first half that saw the Costa Ricans take a quick one-goal lead, Thunder Academy stormed back, netting the equalizer as the second half got underway.

After a furious sequence of back-and-forth play that saw plenty of chances land on both sides, the game appeared headed to extra time.

However when the game-winner finally came, it was off the foot of MTA’s Ian Smith, who redirected a feed into the bottom of the Costa Rican net to give the Minnesota club its first championship of the day.

For Smith however, the opportunity to compete against such a diverse field is still the tournament’s main draw.

“I just think that all of the different cultures, all of the different people, was just really interesting,” he said, moments after netting the game winner.  “Learning about different people’s cultures and the way that they play.”

And while Minnesota rarely receives credit on the national stage, Smith hopes that MTA’s winning ways will continue to elevate the state’s soccer credibility, and was quick to praise their international opponents.

“I think it was great.  Minnesota has more talent than people give it credit for, and we have a fantastic team here,” he said.  “It meant a lot to come and beat a team of that quality from that country.  They have a rich soccer history so it was great actually, I loved it.”

Head coach Rob Zahl was similarly optimistic about Minnesota’s stature on the often crowded U.S. youth soccer scene.

“Having so many different cultures in town is a great thing for us, but I think on top of that having a Minnesota team win it is pretty impressive as well,” he said.  “Ultimately I think that’ll put us on the map.”

Zahl’s squad wasn’t the only MTA team to take home a title however, as Thunder Academy struck again in the finals of the U14 girls’ division, downing Omaha FC in a come-from-behind victory immediately following the U16 match.

“After being down 1-0, that goal really just helped us get our energy back up,” said MTA’s Adrienne Tarver, whose three goals propelled Thunder to its second championship on the day.

Tarver would eventually tie the back-and-forth contest to kick off the second half, before converting on a net-mouth feed to give Thunder a 3-2 lead midway through the second half.

Thunder would eventually net a bit of insurance to make it 4-2, but not before a diving save by goalkeeper Emma Greenfield kept Omaha off the board.

For their part, another Minnesota elite club, St. Croix Academy finally struck gold in Super Elite, derailing MTA’s shot at a sweep, blanking the U14 boys squad 2-0.

Japanese powerhouse Tokiwagi Gauken quickly dismissed any notions of a dominant MTA as well, rolling to a 5-0 dismissal of the Minnesota squad in the girls’ U16 Super Elite division.

Despite the losses, Thunder Academy trainer Ralph Akale remains emphatic about Minnesota’s place on the U.S. soccer scene.

“That old adage, that we are not up to par is far gone; that is a lie,” he said.  “We are right there with the rest of the world.”

MTA went a long way towards validating that claim, making the finals in five different USA CUP championships on Sunday, winning three of them.

Akale sees the club’s Super Elite success as just one piece of the USA CUP experience.

“My favorite part is seeing them speaking Spanish, them speaking Scottish, and then speaking Jamaican,” he said.  “There’s a Jamaican referee, there’s a Scottish referee, and a Spanish team playing an American team.  What else can you ask for?”

For USA CUP’s Super Elite director Tom Soehn, the Super Elite Tournament was a success.

“Overall, as our first year branching into younger age groups I felt it went really well,” he said. “Obviously this is my first year doing it, but I want to continue to make the pairings stronger.”

Soehn would like to continue to see the Super Elite divisions expand in the years to come, although not in the way that some might expect.

“One of the things that we’re looking to do, is that we’d like to expand down in ages,” Soehn said. “We’d like to get Super Elite divisions all the way down through U12.”

And with four freshly crowned champions this year, Minnesota Thunder Academy and the Super Elite tournament appear ready to continue bringing Minnesota soccer to the national stage.

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Tag(s): July 14, 2013