Cedar Starts Academy North Newark was a difficult team to beat. (Photo courtesy of EDPSoccer)

This story was originally posted at EDPSoccer.com and used with permission.

By Michael Lewis

When Gary Adair returns home to England for a little vacation this week, he will have an intriguing tale or two to share with his friends and family.

The Cedar Stars Academy North Newark Boys 04 head coach will talk about how his squad barely got out of the group stage and played one wild game for the ages in the USYS Nationals Under-18 final.

By the time the dust cleared on July 24, Cedar Stars survived a classic thriller at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, a 5-4 extratime triumph past United PDX 04B Premier Black (Oregon) to take the Under-18 championship trophy.

“For the team and the club, it’s a fantastic achievement,” Adair said. “It’s the pinnacle of youth soccer.”

Just reaching the tournament was considered an accomplishment.

“For us to qualify, it was one thing but to actually go down there and perform at the level we did, especially after losing the first game and coming back was fantastic,” Adair said. “The players deserve all the credit because ultimately they’re the ones who put the effort in on the field.

“it’s a club achievement really solidifies us, puts us on the map or keeps us on the map. A lot of the guys play for St. Benedict’s Prep. It speaks volumes for them.”

Situated in Newark, N.J. St. Benedict’s Prep has enjoyed unprecedented success in high school soccer, producing countless talented championship teams. Moreover, it also has produced Gregg Berhalter, coach of the U.S. national team, Claudio Reyna, considered by many observers to be the best soccer player of his generation, and Tab Ramos, who forged a reputation as one of the states’ best attacking and creative players.

“What they get from St. Benedict’s during the fall season carries over into the spring,” Adair said. “With the framework that EDP provides, I think it just validates everything that they do, that our guys do. It keeps them going and it keeps them ticking and they have such a desire to win and compete.”

Which Cedar Stars demonstrated during the heat and humidity in a five-games in six-days stretch at the Disney Wide World of Sports in Kissimmee, Fla.

Before we get to the championship game, let’s find out how much of a precarious a trip it was for the team to get there.

Cedar Stars, which competes in EDP, booked its spot in the nationals by registering a 5-0-2 mark in the USYS National League P.R.O. The squad clinched a berth by defeating PA Dominion in its final NL encounter. As it turned out, the Jersey team dropped its opening match in the nationals group stage to PA Dominion, putting it in a difficult position.

Martin Pulgarin gave Cedar Stars a 1-0 lead before PA Dominion rallied to win, 2-1.

The team bounced back with a 2-0 victory past Cincinnati United Premier (Ohio) behind goals by Steve Toloza and Devon Rushmore.

“If you’re around football or soccer long enough, until someone tells you that you’re finished, you’re not finished,” Adair said. “It stands a lot to the belief and the understanding of the team, the togetherness of the team, of the players, that they were able to not only rebound in the second game, but to beat a team in Cincinnati like United Premier, who in my opinion, is probably one of the better teams in the country.

“For us to be able to bounce back speaks volumes to the character of the players, the desire for them to actually strap their way through that group which was a very difficult group.”

Entering the final group match at 1-1, Cedar Stars needed a thread the needle to reach the semifinals. It needed to win by a 4-0 result or better as goal differential only counter up to four goals and for Cincinnati to win by two goals or less (Cincy recorded a 3-1 win vs. PA Dominion).

And to make matters even more interesting and add to the suspense, the game had a lightning delay with 20 minutes remaining.

“We had a vague idea, and we were sort of going backwards and forwards with the tie-breakers. We had to score goals in our final game, and we had to be defensively solid to make sure that we didn’t concede.”

Ghanaian native Ransford Gyan, one of the best players in the country, led the way with a hat-trick. Pulgarin, Yuvraj Nagra and Luka Ohadike added single tallies.

“It’s very tough when the other game was going on an adjacent field,” Adair said. “Sometimes it is a temptation to keep one eye on the other field. But we really just focused on getting our job done. It was a case of just crossing our fingers. In football you do need a little bit of luck and we did get that little bit of luck.”

Cedar Stars continued its success in the semifinals, registering a 3-0 win over the LI Slammers (Eastern New York). Belmar, Kwaku Agyabeng and Ransford Gyan scored the goals.

“Once it gets to the semifinals, it’s a little bit a little bit easier on the mental side of it from a mathematician side,” Adair said. “It’s certainly no easier on the game side, especially when you play … against teams like that are going to be organized. They’re always going to be tough. We were able to weather the storm a little bit.”

OK, it’s time to finally go to our featured presentation – the championship game.

Every time one team scored, the opposition countered with a goal of its own.

Here’s how this wild and crazy match transpired:

Agyabeng lifted the Jersey side into the lead in the fifth minute, but Oliver Stone knotted things up with an Oliver Stone score in the 21st minute. Eleven minutes later, Darren Green gave the Oregon team a 2-1 edge.

The Cedar Stars’ Gyan earned a penalty kick and converted it for a 2-2 tie in the 57th minute. Jacob Molina boosted Cedar Stars into a 3-2 lead in the 70th minute.

Only eight minutes later, United PDX’s Juan Rueda-Duran connected for a tying goal.

The teams were hardly finished finding the net. Belmar Joseph gave Cedar Stars an 86th-minute lead, but Rueda-Duran’s second goal minutes later equalized at 4-4.

Gyan netted his second of the match in the 112th minute – the game-winner – and Cedar Stars managed to close out the remaining eight minutes for the victory.

“They have some fantastic forward players,” Adair said of the Oregon squad. “It was one of those games where every time either team got the ball, they could have scored.

“Anybody was watching the game .. would have loved it.”

But in you were one of the coaches …

“I am bald. If I wasn’t, I would have definitely lost my hair,” Adair said.

“If you ever watch your full 12 rounds of boxing and you get to the last round and the two boxers are just out on the feet and just swinging at each other. That’s pretty much what it was in the last half. We got lucky.

“Eight minutes left in overtime and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, please, please can we hold on.’ We managed to hold on. Everyone was obviously ecstatic at that point.”

Adair had nothing left during the medal ceremony

“I was just drained,” he said. “I just sat there and the medal around your neck and everyone’s telling you ‘well done.’ You just say thank you, but I don’t think you’re quite understanding what’s going on because you’re just so drained. I think a lot of the players felt the same way, but they enjoyed it. As a staff we were all absolutely ecstatic for the players because they gave 100 percent and deserve all the credit. They definitely earned it this week.”

With a national championship came individual honors.

Goalkeeper Marcilio Soares was named the Golden Glove winner. Gyan, who finished with six goals, was awarded the Golden Ball. He was named to the Best XI along with Agyabeng.

“It was nice obviously from a team standpoint for some individuals got some nice recognition as well which is which is great for our boys,” Adair said.

Then again, what Cedar Stars accomplished was great in so many ways.

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Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Guardian.com. Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at Amazon.com.