BRUNSWICK – Sam Kaplan immediately felt pretty good about his penalty kick Tuesday. So did goaltender Kevin McMullen.
The keeper made a diving save on Kaplan’s bid and preserved the lead for FC Delco from Eastern Pennsylvania. Though Maine’s U-17 Coastal team continued to pressure in the second half at Bowdoin College, McMullen’s club held on for a 1-0 victory to claim the U.S. Youth Soccer Region I Championship and advance to the Nationals in Frisco, Texas.
“I think I read it off his foot,” McMullen said. “I just tried to read his hips and where his plant foot was. I just went for it. I just didn’t hold anything back.”
Maine’s Coastal team was hoping to be the first Maine team to win a regional title. Last year, Coastal’s U-14 team lost to Maryland in the championship game.
“I think it opened up a lot of eyes to the quality of soccer in Maine,” coach Fran O’Leary said. “These boys have represented Maine very well. Hopefully, this team will open a lot of eyes to the fact that there’s a lot of good boys and girls playing soccer in Maine.”
Coastal had not allowed a goal in the tournament before Steven Miller scored six minutes into Tuesday’s game. The goal held up, thanks to saves by McMullen and Coastal’s inability to finish, despite creating ample pressure in the second half.
“Just winning that semifinal game, I didn’t know what to think about it,” said Gray’s Kendhall Davis, a senior at Gray-New Gloucester, who had played for Odyssey the last few years and always lost to Coastal in the state finals. “I was excited out of my mind. Then to come to the final game after dreaming of coming to the regionals the last six years, it’s huge for me. I’ll remember this forever.
“Just playing this game is good enough for me. I really wanted to win. As hard as it is to lose, I’m happy to come this far. Only eight teams are playing for a spot in nationals. To be part of that eight is huge.”
Miller scored on the first shot of the game for FC Delco, which came moments after a Coastal near miss when a crossing pass by Portland’s Tony Yeboah was put wide by Scarborough’s Eddie Jones. Delco answered when Nikhil Gregg fed a pass to John Procope in the box. He found Miller open on the left side.
“There are three things that can happen in a game,” O’Leary said. “You’re going to score or they’re going to score or nobody scores. You have to handle all three. We rebounded well to give ourselves an opportunity to win.”
The lead almost went to 2-0 late in the first half. Rodrigo Nogales had a shot stopped by North Yarmouth’s keeper Oliver Blum, and Joe Crowley chipped the rebound off the crossbar.
Coastal, made up mostly of players from Brunswick, Cumberland, Freeport, Yarmouth, Scarborough, Portland and Gorham, held possession for much of the second half. FC Delco fell back and tried to conserve energy and force Coastal to beat its strikers before challenging the defense. Coastal tried to use its space and be more patient in building chances.
“After the first half, even though they scored that goal, Delco knew that we were just as good as them and that we weren’t going to keel over easily,” Davis said. “That’s what we came here for – to play as hard as we can and give every team we play the best game that we could.”
Coastal’s best chance came midway through the half when a hand-ball call in the penalty area resulted in a penalty shot. Brunswick’s Kaplan fired a shot to the right of McMullen, but he made a diving stop to save the lead.
“I thought I hit a good shot,” said Kaplan. “I thought it was certainly a good enough shot to score. He was off his line and was quick and got the better of me.”
Coastal kept the pressure on. Davis and Freeport’s Taylor Gorman fed nice passes into the box for shots, but McMullen patrolled the area effectively, and his defenders remained poised. Coastal never produced the open shot or forced the defensive mistake it needed.
“We’ve had a great tournament,” said Kaplan, whose team won in overtime to reach the finals. “It’s the best we’ve played all season. With this tournament, you need the talent and the desire, but you also need a little luck. (Monday) against South Central a little bit of luck went our way, and today, we just couldn’t buy one, but we put in a good effort.”