Flathead Valley United 03-05 Premier Boys Prepare for USYS Far West Regional Championships
For the Flathead Valley United 03-05 Premier Boys team, the long Spring season has all led up to the Far West Regional Championships in Boise, Idaho. A journey that began with indoor training sessions in March and stretched through the entirety of the Spring, has all culminated with the team’s qualification for the Far West Regional Championships starting on June 20th.
Despite the fact that this group of young men stands out as one of the most talented groups to ever come out of the Flathead Valley, there has been no shortage of adversity for the boys.
Before the season even began, the team lost two strong players in Columbia Falls High School’s Kai Golan and Glacier HIgh School’s Joey Paolini to season ending injuries.
The adversity didn’t stop there. After winning the HotShot Tournament in Coeur D’Alene Idaho last season with the same core group of players, Coach Thomas Clark and the boys expected to repeat as tournament champions. Instead they were deducted points due to a controversial mishandling of a forfeiture and ultimately failed to progress out of the group stage even though they were undefeated in the tournament.
Still, with all of the hardships of the season, the group had high expectations and the pedigree to meet them. Consisting of players from Whitefish, Glacier and Columbia Falls High School respectively, every single player on the roster played in either the Class A or Class AA Montana State Championship game this past Fall. Something Clark cited as one of the primary reasons the team has had the success that it has.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to coach the same core group here for the past two years, and we’ve had a ton of success but so much of that is because of the coaches that have come before me and the work these guys have done to get to this point,” said Clark. “Anytime we’ve faced some form of adversity or a must-win situation, these guys can fall back on the experience that they’ve had both in their high school environment and previous environments within the club. The fact that every single kid on this roster has played in at least one state championship game is pretty unique and a testament to the soccer culture in the Flathead.”
After beginning the Montana Premier League season with consecutive losses, the team rallied to go undefeated in all competitons throughout the remainder of their campaign. The team qualified for the USYS Montana State Cup, and needed to advance to the championship game, and win the game in order to qualify for the Far West Regional Championships. After handling Montana Surf in convincing fashion with a 6-2 victory in the state semi-finals, the boys earned themselves a rematch against rivals Missoula Strikers, who the team lost to 4-2 in the Premier League season opener.
Facing a star studded Strikers squad featuring Lars Thorne-Thomson one of the better players to come out of Montana in recent memory, the boys were up against their toughest test of the season. Fortunately the FVU boys feature a number of stars in their own right, including winger Sullivan Coggins. Coggins and Thorne-Thomson both scored two goals in regular time to force the game into extra-time. After Throne-Thomson scored a third goal to clinch a hat-trick, defender Eli Mildren scored a last minute header to force a penalty kick shootout.
Goalkeeper Bryce Dunham, who made a number of impressive saves to keep FVU in the game, forced one miss from the Strikers, and all five of the FVU kickers made their penalties including Niath Edland’s game winning final shot from the penalty spot. After the toughest game of the season, the boys came out on top 4-3 and clinched a spot in the USYS Far West Regional Championships. Coach Clark cited the collective experience of the roster as the biggest factor in the team’s success in the championship.
“All of these guys have been here before,” said Clark. “The younger guys on the roster won the state championship last year and qualified for regionals with Vic (Dalla Betta) coaching them. With the older guys, we won Hotshots in a penalty kick shootout last year, went to regionals last summer. So I think having a group of guys that know how to play and remain composed in high leverage moments, is such a luxury as a coach.”
Serving as a final preparation for the Far West Regionals Championships, the team had one last tournament to play in, the club’s very own Three Blind Refs Tournament in Kalispell. The tournament was set up as a round robin tournament for the team’s age group, giving the boys a chance to play against two clubs from Montana, and teams from Washington and Idaho respectively. The team won the tournament in convincing fashion, netting a 26-2 overall goal differential in the four matches played. Though the competition level may not have reflected what the team will see at Far West Regionals, the experience was still beneficial for the group according to Clark.
“It’s been a long season but to get one more set of games before Regionals, is really important for the group as a whole,” said Clark. “Obviously at this point, we aren’t going to make drastic changes to the way we play prior to Regionals, so for them to go out and continue to grow that comfortability with each other is only positive. Not to mention winning another tournament just grows the confidence in the group, and we all know how important confidence is in this game.”
As the team prepares for the step up in competition, they will again look to fall back on prior experience as all of the players on the roster played in the USYS Far West Regional Championships last Summer. For Technical Director Damion Blackburn, the importance of qualifying for Regionals again cannot be understated.
“For players in the valley and the state, it is the highest level that they can consistently qualify for and play at,” said Blackburn. “Seeing teams that across the country and across the region are part of the National Championship series puts players in great positions where they are playing against likeminded clubs, players and coaches and also puts them in front of college scouts and professional scouts.”
Blackburn cited the importance of being able to offer a pathway forward for all the players in the club and views the Far West Regional Championships as an opportunity to do that. In the past two seasons, three Flathead Valley United teams have qualified for Far West Regionals, while an additional team qualified for President’s Cup in Salt Lake City, something that Blackburn views as an important step in the right direction for the club.
“For a club in Montana, especially in our part of the state, it is critical because we have a relatively small player pool compared to some of the other areas in the state and we are showing a level of consistency in our teams’ ability to play,” said Blackburn. “Especially with this group being a mixture of both teams from last year that qualified. It is a great statement for not only the players, the club itself, the coaching staff, but everyone involved, the families, that level of commitment and continued performance to earn the right to be there it says a lot about everyone that has been a part of it.”
The Far West Regional Championships begin group stage play on June 20th