Bill Sento came to Northern Virginia last week to look over some of the area's top soccer players. And Sento, soccer coach at Loyola University in Balitmore, was a bit surprised, but certainly not disappointed, with the talent he saw.
"I was never aware that this caliber of soccer was being played here. I'm interested in the whole Northern Virginia area," said Sento, after the Northern Region championship game in which McLean High School clinched the top spot of defeating Woodson High School 3-0.
Judging from the loud and enthusiastic response from more than 1,000 spectators at the McLean High School stadium, Sento was not the only person impressed with the fast-paced, highly physical style of play at the tournament.
That style was amply demonstrated by McLean, which rolled up a 19-and-1 record in regular season play. Most observers attributed McLean's victory and its impressive season record to its size and strength. The team also displayed two other essentials, speed and aggressiveness.
South Lakes High School Coach Tim Isaacs is well acquainted with McLean's formula for victory. South Lakes lost only four games this season, three to McLean.
"They just physically pounded us," Isaacs said. "The big difference was their strength, (giving them) the ability to outmuscle and intimidate people.
Other teams, including South Lakes, hope to beef up their own teams strength by focusing on weight training for the next season.
"The conditioning factor is so important," admitted McLean Coach Ted Pease. "We play on small fields, so the ball is always in a crowd. You need players willing to go into a crowd to find the ball. And we'll go up in the air with anyone for a ball."
Against Woodson, McLean players seemed willing to go anywhere for a soccer ball -- or a goal.
With 14 minute gone in the first half, McLean began to control the game's momentum. The team's muscular trio of fullbacks -- Ryan Bergman (6-1, 170 pounds), Paul Ahearne (6 feet, 180 pounds) and Matt Burke (5-11, 175 pounds) -- blunted several Woodson attacks on goal with jarring tackles
Late in the first Half the Referees whistled some of McLean's rough play, which was draining the smaller but skilled Woodson team. But McLean continue to use a tough nine-man attack to pressure Woodson.
The tactics paid off when Eric Myren took a pass from Keith Oliver off the right side and went for the goal through a mass of Woodson players. At half time, McLean had a 1-0 lead.
"We were dominating then," Coach Pease said. "We're very big. Bergman is tall and he was just heading the ball away from (John) Mingione (Woodson's 5-5, 135-pound forward, a scoring threat all season). We go directly to the ball from the front -- that our game, never back off. We wanted to dominate midfield in the second half and try to keep playing on their half of the field."
The second half strategy worked as well as the game plan for the first half had.
With center fullback Ahearne planted firmly in the middle of the field virtually every Woodson rally was thwarted. Ahearne volleyed long passes to his forwards and halfbacks.
Midway through the half, Myren took a ball down the left side, pulling Woodson defenders with him. He then crossed the ball to Brad Nichols, who who scored the second goal from point-blank range.
With about 10 minutes left to play, Oliver scored the final goal on an individual effort that showed how far some U. S. players have come in developing individual skills. After running down a booming kick from one of his fullbacks, Oliver dribbled down the right side, slipped to the ground while avoiding an attempted slide tackle, got up, regained control of the ball and fired in a hard-angle shot.
Steno said after the game that he was "scouting Oliver and others. I was impressed by several players on both teams. They were well skilled and well drilled. Coaches are doing an excellent job here."
Coaches like Pease note that area youth soccer leagues, where children can begin playing as early as age 5 offer high coaches a pool of players who are highly skilled.
"The players I get have it now in skills," said Pease, who has coached for seven years at McLean. "They've played more and watched more soccer than ever. I try to get their brains to catch up with their skills."
Well-wishers surrounded the McLean players after their victory, and one young woman said to Juan Vega: "That was wonderful."
Vega, perhaps the smoothest player on the McLean team, smiled and thanked the woman before posing for pictures. A junior at McLean, Vega was born in Peru and came to the United States when he was 5. He learned soccer from his older brother and by playing on Northern Virginia youth teams.
"I have played against apprentice teams from England," said Vega, "and Amercan players have more skills. We are learning so much. We're hearing from colleges and from some pro scouts.
"Yes, I think about scholarships or maybe even playing professionally. Why not?"