With the World Cup less than two weeks away, many say that Coach Jurgan Klinsmann's United States side is in a "Group of Death" with Germany, Portugal and Ghana.
Advancing past the group stage in Brazil appears to be a big challenge. What the Americans should do, though, is look at what Klinsmann's daughter Laila was able to accomplish throughout the week at the 15th annual Daily Pilot Cup youth soccer tournament.
Laila was the stud sixth-grade goalie for the Mariners Christian fifth- and sixth-grade Gold Division girls. She helped her squad make history on Sunday.
Klinsmann made seven saves, a couple of them spectacular, as Mariners Christian blanked Carden Hall, 2-0, at Jack Hammett Sports Complex. It is the first time in tournament history that Mariners Christian has captured the girls' fifth- and sixth-grade Gold Division title.
It was also the first tournament title for the Lions' core group of sixth-graders, many of whom were on the team that fell to Newport Coast last year in the Silver Division final.
"It was just a really fabulous team effort," said Mariners Christian Coach Tayt Ianni, who played at UCLA and in Major League Soccer. "As a team, the girls just fought from minute one. You could tell they wanted it."
Carden Hall controlled much of the action in the first half, but the Eagles were constantly turned away. Klinsmann made a great save in the sixth minute of the match on Carden Hall fullback Mia Ferrentino, a tall player who had dribbled the ball all the way downfield from her fullback position.
Carden Hall had another shot in the 14th minute, as Mia Burns' shot from near the top of the box was just wide left. In the 18th minute, the Eagles' Gracie Burns (a fourth grader) won the ball and played it to Ferrentino, who crossed it to Sadie Pitchess. But Klinsmann was there to knock the ball away.
Mariners Christian, meanwhile, took advantage of its first good scoring chance of the game. Kyle DeLorme, who plays club for Newport-Mesa, found the back of the net on her shot from the right side of the box.
There was another tricky moment just before halftime, as Carden Hall was awarded a free kick just five yards out. Mariners Christian put literally its whole team at the goal line. Pitchess touched the ball to Mia Burns, but the shot never got to Klinsmann.
"It was my face [that blocked it]," said DeLorme after the game.
Added Klinsmann: "I knew that it was going to be hard for us, but I knew that we could get it out before they got it in the goal."
Meanwhile, Mariners Christian added a big second goal five minutes into the second half, just after Klinsmann punched away the ball on a corner kick from the Eagles' Jordan Needham. This time, it was Mariners Christian midfielder Caroline Brewster who got behind the defense to score.
Prior to Sunday's final, Carden Hall had given up no goals all tournament long.
Ferrentino appeared to cut the deficit in half in the 45th minute, but Carden Hall was called offside on the play. Mia Burns got another good shot off a throw-in soon after that, but it narrowly missed.
Credit Mariners Christian's defense, led by Klinsmann and a pair of tall and physical fullbacks in Taylor Murphy and Natasha Hill. Sophia Applebee, Gigi Minasian and Sarah Sandoval also aided the defensive effort.
Alex Ianni, Jen Alvarado, Olivia Krum, Vanessa Royal, Paige Bryant and Hannah Novacovich also helped the cause for the winners. Alvarado, who scored once in Mariners Christian's 5-0 win over Davis in the semifinals earlier Sunday, is the younger sister of former Corona del Mar High standout midfielder Annie Alvarado, now at UCLA. Natasha Hill, Ianni, DeLorme and Brewster scored the other goals in the semifinal victory.
Carden Hall also has its fair share of club players. Ferrentino, Needham, Gracie Burns and Abby Hampton all play for Slammers. Pitchess plays for Newport-Mesa, Mia Burns plays for the SoCal Blues, defender Dylan Douglas plays for North Huntington Beach and defender Evelyn Taylor plays for United.
Yet, it was another tough ending for the squad. The sixth-grade group still has a lot to be proud of. Playing in the Gold Division each time, the girls made the quarterfinals as third-graders in 2011, the finals as fourth-graders in 2012 and the semifinals as fifth-graders last year.
Douglas, Hampton and goalie Ayline Samardzic (five saves) were the fifth-graders for Carden Hall, which also got contributions from Rachel Spataro, Gabi Valeriano and Riley Foster. The Eagles defeated defending division champion Kaiser, 3-0, in the semifinals earlier Sunday. In the title match, though, there were definitely too many close calls for Carden Hall Coach Bryan Burns' liking.
"We just dominate play every year," Bryan Burns said. "We had so many shots on goal today, too, and we lose. You know, that's soccer. It's unfortunate ... the ball doesn't bounce your way. You can dominate possession, pass it around, and then they get you with a ball over the top."
Carden Hall did control possession at times but couldn't get the ball past Klinsmann, a multi-sport athlete who doesn't play club soccer. Few teams could. In Mariners Christian's quarterfinal win over Newport Heights on Saturday, she blocked one penalty shot in regulation, then three more in the ensuing shootout.
Hill, the defender who plays club for Slammers FC, just knows she's glad that Klinsmann was on the Lions' side. Her dad couldn't attend the Pilot Cup on Sunday, as Team USA was playing a World Cup warm-up match against Turkey in New York. But you bet that Jurgan would find out about Laila's heroics.
"She's, like, the best goalie in America," Hill said.
[For the record, 4:29 p.m. June 2: This version corrects the names of the girls who scored for Mariners Christian in the semifinal game against Davis.]