The members of CASL’s U17 Chelsea Ladies soccer team know how it feels to win a national championship – not just once, but twice.
It was a nail-biting finish earlier this month on a field in Waukegan, Ill., for the final game of the Elite Club National League championship between Chelsea and the Michigan Hawks. With the score tied at 1-1 after regulation and overtime play, the title came down to penalty kicks.
“Penalty kicks are always the most nerve-wracking thing,” said midfielder Claire Wagner, 17. “We stood at the halfway line with our arms all around each other.”
But they stood there with confidence in their team.
“During penalty kicks, we always feel we are up,” said midfielder Joanna Boyles, 16. “We never feel like we are the underdog.”
And in the end, the CASL team prevailed through the penalty kick round, winning 5-4, and celebrated its second national championship in a row.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Wagner said. “I don’t think it hit us until afterwards.”
Growing a powerhouse
The core members of the Chelsea team came together in the CASL system before they were 10 years old. Nearly all of them live in the Triangle.
Wagner attends Panther Creek High School, and Boyles is a student at Sanderson. Neither girl plays on her high school team, instead focusing on the Chelsea club team. Boyles is also a member of the under-17 national team.
All but one of the Chelsea members is a rising high school senior, so the next season will be their last together. Eighteen of the rising seniors have committed to play soccer at Division 1 colleges; the 19th is still undecided.
Even with back-to-back national championships under their belts and college plans in the future, team members say they are focused on their next winning CASL season.
“The goal for us is to win another national championship,” said Boyles, who committed to UNC-Chapel as an eighth-grader. “Three in a row would be amazing.”
The team has been led since the beginning by coach Damon Nahas. He says his job this year is to prepare them for their college years, not just the next national championship.
“To win one is an amazing accomplishment and to go back-to-back is an unbelievable task,” Nahas said. “Right now I want to train with the mindset that someone out there is training harder than us.”
Boyles credits Nahas with instilling intensity in the time.
“We play every practice and every game like it’s the national championship,” Boyles said.
‘A possession team’
Coach Nahas says the team’s playing style is possession-oriented with a focus on attacking the ball and maintaining a free flow of play.
“It’s a beautiful style that is difficult to play,” Boyles said. “We are a possession team, and we work the ball into the goal. We’re not just dribbling and kicking.”
The players will keep refining those skills as they look toward next year’s tough run at that third national championship.
“You have a target on your back,” Wagner said. “Everyone wants to beat the defending team.”
And it will be a bittersweet final year for a team that considers itself a family.
“Some teams say it, but they don’t actually mean it,” Wagner said.
“On and off the field we’ve been through everything,” agreed Nahas. “They help define one another. And they help define me and make me a better coach.”
And in their last year together, the CASL U17 Chelsea Ladies vow to play hard and play well.
“We want to leave our stamp on club soccer,” Boyles said. “We want to make a difference and play the right way.”