BEDFORD– Sixteen young men crowd around a gleaming trophy in the shadow of the scoreboard at Pennington Field, their fingers draped over its lip as they hoist it toward the sky. For the second time in as many years, Hurst Junior High are the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District Champions. Despite their undefeated record, the path wasn't easy for Raiders United. They struggled at the end of the season and came into the Final wary of their opponents. Stallions FC climbed out of the cellar this year to finish in second place, and they had all the right pieces to steal the Champions Cup from their rivals at Hurst.
Both teams had stellar campaigns in 2017. After finishing in the #1 spot, Raiders took home the top honors in the league during a halftime ceremony. Their dominant center back was named league MVP and took a Golden Ball award home. But their opponents snagged a pair of trophies, as well; one for the league's premier goal-scorer and another for the outstanding work of their goalkeeper. The final awards — given in recognition of Character and Academic excellence — fell to Atlético Central and Hurst City FC, respectively.
The game itself was everything we hoped it would be; knotted at zeros after 30 and building to an explosive finish. The only thing sweeter than the soccer was the sportsmanship that followed. No protests, few tears, and solemn handshakes were all that came with the final whistle. In fact, both teams — and some of their classmates, who came to watch — were more than happy to share in food and fellowship after the match.
If Raiders United taught us anything this year, it's that the best soccer brings us together.
A Gritty Start
With the wind and the sun at their backs to start the game, Stallions FC dominated the run of play for the first ten minutes. They controlled the entire midfield — not an easy feat against Raiders — and looked to be on the verge of a breakthrough. The Horsemen found themselves on even footing with the league-leaders for the first time all season, and it gave them more than a little swagger. Euless nearly pulled ahead in the 14th minute when a fast counterattack led to a penalty on the Raider goaltender. The foul occurred outside of the box, however, and a Stallion midfielder sent their free kick harmlessly off the wall.
Hurst responded with an uncharacteristic reliance on lobbed passes, abandoning their usual patient-but-fast-moving style. Still, they nearly pulled ahead on a chip that beat the keeper but drifted wide at the far post. That play ultimately swung the momentum in favor of Hurst, who ratcheted up the pressure and started to lock Euless into their final third just before the half.
With time winding down, their right forward ran down a long ball, cut it back, and passed across to his oncoming partner. The assist was ultimately mistimed, however, and rolled harmlessly behind its intended target. Despite the increased aggression, the Stallion back line responded with timely tackle after timely tackle to keep the match leveled after 30 minutes.
A Flurry of Offense
Stallions' bend-but-don't-break defense finally met its match in the second half. Raiders broke through on a gorgeous cross that found a red jersey right in front of the Euless net. The striker sent his volley into the ground and through the goalkeeper's legs to put Hurst ahead 1-0 in the 33rd minute.
Stallions battled back, sneaking a cheeky pass through the Raider defense moments later. RUFC's center back was more than equal to the task, however, and tracked back to deflect the shot. Hurst's ‘keeper rushed out to smother the chance, maintaining his clean sheet. Desperation began to take hold, and Euless shifted tactics from through balls to long passes, which their opponents shut down handily.
The opportunities were there for Stallions, but they simply couldn't capitalize. More than once, their right forward hustled onto a loose ball only to find himself with no options. Raiders' staunch defense turned away more than a few dangerous passes, and it looked like the match would be stuck at a stalemate for the final 15 minutes. But Hurst wasn't content to win 1-0.
The Reds struck again in the 47th minute, building a ferocious attack up the left flank that ended in a perfectly timed through ball. The left forward hardly hesitated before sending a rocket over the Stallion ‘keeper and into the top shelf, just below the crossbar. The match started to unravel for Euless from there. The Horsemen had taken part in this particular script before, and they knew that an early deficit against Raiders can be nearly insurmountable.
Tough, But Not Enough
After a shaky period of play, Euless surrendered a third goal on a centering pass back that was redirected into the top corner at the far post. The ball curled expertly around a defender's challenge, leaving little space for anything to be done. To their credit, however, Euless refused to give up. Even a 3-nil hole couldn't keep their spirits down.
Raiders United Head Coach Franky Girau substituted his back line in the final ten minutes to give them some rest, and the Stallion attack carved through the backups consistently for the next four minutes. They broke through in the 56th minute on yet another perfect through-ball. The left forward beat his man to the ball, sending a one-touch shot underneath the Raider ‘keeper to put Euless on the board.
The goal gave the bedraggled Horsemen a much-needed shot in the arm. Suddenly, Euless looked as though they might have just enough left to pull themselves into extra-time at the finish. But Raiders United clamped down defensively after surrendering the clean sheet, absorbing pressure and clearing the ball long at every opportunity. Despite their speed, Euless simply couldn't overcome a two-goal deficit. Not against the best defense in the league.
With the win, Raiders United became the second team to put their name on the Champions Cup. They join their peers at Hurst City FC as the sole owners of the prestigious new award. And now they have a year to prepare for their title defense.