Wednesday, July 11, 2012 | 2:05 a.m.
A majority of the players on the Players SC ’94 soccer team have been teammates since they were in middle school.
They have a strong bond formed by numerous games, long road trips, many victories and, until last month, coming up short in the most important tournament of the season.
Now, with the group of mostly 18-year-olds recently graduated from high school and weeks away from leaving for college or attempting a professional career overseas, they are preparing for their last tournament together. It’s a tournament they’ve long hoped to be part of.
Players SC in late July will be the first Nevada team to play in the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championships, advancing with a tournament title last month at the Far West Regionals — the same tournament they lost in the past three years, falling short of the semifinals each time in overtime or on penalty kicks.
This year, in their last attempt at making nationals, they wouldn’t be denied.
“We basically have had no one to play (locally) the last four years,” said Saeed Bonabian, the team’s coach. “They are very, very skilled. I have been here since 1989; this is by far the best team we (Las Vegas) have produced at any level.”
Players SC (23-2-6), which is ranked second nationally by gotsoccer.com for all under-18 teams, has reached the championship game this year in all six of the tournaments they’ve entered. They won the two major local tournaments, the Mayor’s Cup in February and Las Vegas Thanksgiving Classic in November, and were finalists at the prestigious San Diego Surf Cup and this spring’s Players Showcase.
They won the Nevada State Cup (they’ve hardly been challenged in town the past four years) in May to advance to the regionals, beating WSM Premier of Oregon in the title game to give a Nevada team its initial appearance at nationals. In the semifinals, they downed Sereno out of Arizona, which had knocked them out of the regionals the past two years.
“That was a big win to get past those guys. We had history against them,” Bonabian said.
The region, which includes teams from powerhouse Northern and Southern California, Utah, Oregon and Arizona, among others, is considered the toughest to navigate. That gives members of Players SC confidence it can excel at the four-team nationals, where they open July 24 in Rock Hill, S.C., against Grand Rapids Crew Jrs of Michigan.
And, come the opening kickoff, the players feel they will be at an advantage because of their history together.
“We are a like family from training so close every single day,” said Anthony Clark, who will be a walk-on at UCLA in the fall. “We know we have a chance to go out on top, and nobody wants to let the other person down.”
Because of the players’ versatility, each has been called upon to play a variety of positions to present matchup problems for the opposition, Bonabian said. Also, each has taken a turn being the team’s go-to player.
Ruben Duran, who helped Eldorado High become a force in the Sunrise Region this past high school season, is one of the team’s top players and will play next fall at Cal-Poly. Defender Ricky Acero red-shirted last fall at UNLV after helping Legacy High win the 2010 state title.
With full college scholarships nearly impossible to land in men’s soccer, Edgar Nava has secured a tryout in Slovenia and will likely play for one of the country’s lower-level professional teams, Bonabian said. The same for Irvin Gijon in Belgium.
“We play a possession type of game like you see Spain play,” Bonabian said. “For example, in the semifinal and final game (of regionals), we won the game 1-0, but it wasn’t even that close. We had possession 80 percent of the game and the other team had to chase the ball the entire game.”
While Players SC hasn’t matched up against any of the three squads it will play at nationals, the players aren’t worried about what’s in front of them. If they continue to play like they have since their middle school years, one last tournament win could be a reality.
“We are going to play our game and play our hardest, just like we have for years,” said Luis Cruz, who played in high school at Eldorado. “Everyone knows that if we stay focused and play our style of game, we’ll be tough to beat.”