A PDB Soccer Academy player and her Cedar Stars Academy counterpart battle for the ball. (FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

HICKSVILLE, N.Y. — The PDB Soccer Academy team did not win its opening two games in the EDP Women’s Open Under-23 Super Club North League last weekend.

The Under-23 squad dropped a 4-2 decision to Manhattan SC in its league opener Friday night before playing the Cedar Stars Academy Charge to a 1-1 draw Saturday afternoon.

But then again, recording W’s doesn’t necessarily top the list of the team’s priorities this summer.

Keeping in shape for the upcoming women’s college soccer season and learning a little more about the beautiful game are the main concerns. Accruing points is nice, but it won’t necessarily be the bottom line.

“We want to make the playoffs and quality to win but at the end of the day I would like to get more games,” manager David Harris said. “The players are really happy to get the games in and have fun and just play. That’s really what they want to do.”

Indeed, they do, even if the regular season, which runs through July 8, is only six matches a team. The first-place side in each conference reaches the playoffs, including the second-place side with the best overall record.

“It’s definitely not a long schedule,” said Manhattan College forward Arianna Montefusco of Levittown, N.Y., who scored against Cedar Stars. “It’s nice that everyone comes all over from different places to be a team. I wanted to be able to stay in soccer shape for when I go back for preseason.”

Defender Gianna Cokinos of Dix Hills, N.Y., who will start her sophomore season at Stonehill College this fall, decided to join the team for exactly that reason. Her sister, Katina Cokinos, a midfielder-defender who hill enter her junior season at Manhattan College, followed suit.

“It definitely helps a lot,” Gianna said. “You could do all the fitness you want on the side, but game fitness is the most important playing at the college level. So even getting touches on the ball and getting game fit really helps, playing against other college girls, too.”

The team is the brainchild of PDB Academy director Zef Kabashi and Harris, who has had extensive experience organizing men’s U-23 teams for the Long Island Soccer Football League. There weren’t enough teams for a LISFL women’s league, so Harris started to corral players for a team in EDP.

“I wanted to create another opportunity for women to have a team to play on,” he said. “Locally, they didn’t have to travel too far. So, they could get their games in, practice sessions in, go back to their schools in the fall, match fit and ready to play. And play at a competitive level, maybe not at the level of the [Long Island] Rough Riders or the Long Island Fury, WPSL, but still at a high level.”

Many players work during the summer and have internships, which could get in the way of attending games and practices. So, a 30-woman player roster was created to give the team a lot of flexibility.

The squad is a mixture of players from Queens College, New York Institute of Technology, Manhattan, Stonehill, Duquesne University, University of Massachusetts, Sacred Heart University, Vassar College and Ithaca College, among other colleges. There also is international flavor with former Republic of Ireland U-17 goalkeeper Nicole Cranny (Queens College) and Australian defender-midfielder Sienna Scully (Iowa Lake Community College).

Former Republic of Ireland youth international Kevin Grogan, who grew up in the Manchester United system, coaches the side.

“What we are doing is within the training, we can try to educate the players and just send them back to college with just a tiny bit of different perspective of the game,” he said. “And if they can pick a few things up from me, from my experience from playing in England with Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, I think it’s good for players to have a different voice. Obviously, they all have fantastic coaches in college, but now they get the chance to maybe pick up one or two things from me during the summer that might help them.”

Oh, don’t get PDB wrong, the players still want to win. They left Turf Field No. 1 at Cantiague Park Saturday a bit falling short of accruing three points.

“I mean overall, it’s not too disappointing,” Cranny said. “Coach Grogan is fixing a lot of our technical errors. We’re stringing things together, trying new formations, new positions. Maybe we should have come away with three points, but at the same time we’re working on the small things right now. We did come away with a point, so it’s not the end of it. It could have been better, and it could have been worse.”

The learning curve has been great for midfielder Maggie Thibault of Plainview, N.Y., who is one of the younger players on the squad. She will enter New York Institute of Technology as a freshman this fall. So, playing at this level has been an eye-opener for the former Massapequa Soccer Club and Long Island Soccer Club standout.

“It’s kind of intimidating at first because I feel a little bit smaller than everybody else,” she said. “It was a wakeup call.”

Slowly, but surely Thibault adapted in the draw.

“The pace of the game was definitely faster than when I played for club,” she said. “So, I had to be quicker on my feet and think about where I was going to play it first before I had the ball.”

Asked what she learned in the 90-minute match, Thibault responded with a chuckle: “Everyone here is a good soccer player. It’s not like high school where everyone is kind of mixed up. It’s very different from what I’m used to.”

Cedar Stars showed up with only 10 players against PDB’s Starting XI and seven substitutes. Using that as a factor, you would think PDB would wear down its foes.

“You would think it would affect them more,” Grogan said. “You would think they would run out of steam, but they didn’t. They were very compact and tight. They soaked up the pressure from us and they hit us really well on the counterattack. They created a lot of chances because of that. they did a really good job under the circumstance. They were economic with their work rate.”

Sometimes it is easier to start a game a player short rather than lose one during the game. You can establish a style right away instead of in an emergency situation.

In fact, Cedar Stars drew first blood in the 11th minute as Emily Beenders chipped Cranny.

“We were playing possession and we were playing high,” Cranny said. “They weren’t really coming at us too much. They slipped the ball through. We were 1 v 1 and give her credit. She’s a great forward, she was giving us problems throughout the whole game. She saw I was off my line a bit. She knew we were playing high defensively and she managed to get it high on point. She hit the target. Honestly, that’s all you need to do that point. As long as you hit the target, anything can happen.”

PDB equalized behind Montefusco two minutes later.

“I realized the goalie was a bit out and the girls weren’t giving me that much pressure,” she said. “I figured I might as well take one touch, a long follow through with my shot.”

The hosts tried for the game-winner but could not find the range.

“This team has so much talent,” Katina Cokinos said. “I think that’s almost a blessing and a curse because there’s so much talent, you almost don’t know what to do with it. But it’s really awesome to get a great group of girls, a lot of Division 1, Division 2, some going into college, get together and just play some competitive soccer. I think that’s really the goal.”

PDB’s next match is against TSF Academy at DePaul High School in Wayne, N.J. Sunday, June 24 at 6 p.m.

It’s still early in the project and season. Yet, Grogan has seen improvement in training and in games

“You can see the phases of play, the movement of the ball, switching the point of attack has gotten a tiny bit better,” he said. “We need to work more on the final third and end product. The girls are just getting to know each other. I made a comment on Friday night at the game. The forwards were making fantastic runs, the midfielders were playing fantastic balls, but we weren’t getting on the end of them because they didn’t have the synergy because they don’t know each other yet.

“So that’s really a relationship thing, getting to know each other and being on the training ground. It wasn’t that anyone was doing anything wrong. They weren’t on the same wave length yet. So that takes time. That usually takes three to four weeks. Obviously, it’s a very short season. If you peak at the end of the season, that’ll be fine.”

And by then they should be ready for college preseason, which is a lot closer than you think.