This story is used with permission by EDP Soccer.

By Michael Lewis

For most of the last year, the Penn FC Lightning 2004 Girls team played with  that proverbial target on its backs.

Like it or not, that’s what teams face after winning a national youth soccer championship.

“Obviously, it was different feeling going in,” head coach Bill Becher said. “Last year we went in kind of as an unknown team. We were excited about it. After regionals, we had a belief that we could win, but we didn’t know what we were getting into.

“This year we came back as the defending champion. We weren’t going to catch anybody by surprise. We knew that there was a lot of good teams there, and it was going to be difficult. But our expectations were high. We really thought we were going to win again, despite the fact that we knew that it was not going to be easy. We certainly weren’t overconfident.”

Despite that burden, Penn FC relished the challenge came close to duplicating the feat this year. The squad reached the USYS nationals for the second year in a row, although it fell short in the final, dropped a 3-0 decision to Galaxy SC 2004 Blue (Ill.) at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Fla. on July 24.

“We just have a strong belief in ourselves,” Becher said. “We push ourselves. We expect the most from us each time out. We had a good run at it. We just came up a little bit short at the at the end, lost to a good team. I know the score line was 3-0, but it was a pretty even back and forth game. We had chances and they put theirs in. Give them credit.”

Record-wise, the Eastern Pennsylvania side had a good run-up to the nationals, qualifying for it with a 4-1-2 mark in the USYS National League P.R.O and then winning the Eastern Pennsylvania Youth Soccer Association State Cup.

Prior to the nationals, Becher felt Penn FC wasn’t pushed or challenged enough in its games.

“Unfortunately, we had a lot of games that just weren’t competitive,” he said. “I would say almost 50 percent of them ended in games that were 4-0 or worse, which hurt a little bit, especially prior to going there [Disney]. Through April, we just didn’t have games that we were really challenged in.”

Penn FC found its rhythm at the nationals.

“It came back pretty quickly,” Becher said. “We were challenged in every game we played there. The girls responded. We found the ways to win but there were times we just didn’t look as sharp in the attacking third as we had been all year partly [because] maybe that is that some games too easy.”

In the nationals, Penn FC won its group with three successive victories and allowing no goals. The team then dispatched Tennessee SC in the semifinals, 5-1. Loren Gehret had a brace and Jamie Swartz, Alex Murphy and Kristen Economopoulos also found the net.

“It was the first game we scored in the first half,” Becher said about the nationals. “Now they have to push to try to score and then they just left a lot of spaces and behind that we were able to take advantage of.”

Penn FC forged a reputation as a team that scored first and dominated the rest of the match.

However, that didn’t happen against Galaxy SC.

Anna Johnson gave the Illinois squad a 28th-minute lead before Kaitlyn Lewellyan tallied in the 67th minute. Olivia Anderson closed out the scoring in the 90th minute in the 3-0 result.

“We are really built to play from the lead, and we get the lead in the higher percentage of our games,” Becher said. “If we do score first, we’re very difficult to beat. The goal [by Johnson] made it harder. They did a good job. I’m not going to say they sat in but they didn’t pressure our center backs. They tried to win the ball off that next pass. They did what they needed to do, and it worked for them.”

While Becher has liked to stress the team concept and not singling out anyone player, a pair of Penn FC performers were honored as members of the age group’s Best XI squad – Swartz, who led the team with three goals and Elizabeth Suydam. Both players are center midfielders, though Swartz also has performed at various positions.

“Jamie plays a little bit of everywhere,” Becher said.

“We’re a team,” the coach added. “Everybody has role. Everybody understands their role. We’re super, super unselfish, which I think makes us really good. We know everybody is just as important as the next.”

At an age group – Under-18 – in which many teams will split up because so players either age out or attend college, Penn FC will return next year at a U-18 squad for an opportunity to reach the nationals for a third consecutive time.

“We have five girls that have graduated and are moving onto college,” Becher said. “So, the rest of are back. We’ll have a strong team again. I mean, we’re losing some really good players. But we’re retaining a lot of very good players, too. We’ll look forward to the challenge of next year. We’re definitely going to push to make another run at this.”