Carmel United prepares for step up to A

Carmel United's under-16 squad captured the ECNL Challenge B title last season to earn a spot in the Challenge A group this season. Evan Kokoska

Even though they are defending ECNL Flight B National Champions, Carmel United enters the season with something to prove.

"We want to play against the absolute best competition," says Ralph Richards, head coach of the U18 and U17 Carmel United squads. Both teams won the Flight B national title last year, and both have been promoted to Flight A for this season.

"This gives us a chance to play some of the best teams in the country, and we're really excited about it," Richards says. "It will be an adjustment, no question about it. But we want to play at that level, we want that challenge."

Richards' squads were successful last year thanks to an unbreakable defense. The U18 team gave up just two goals in 12 ECNL matches last season, and the U17s gave up just five in the same number of games. Combined, the teams logged 17 shutouts, while never allowing more than one goal in a match.

"We take a lot of pride in getting clean sheets," Richards says. "We take pride in making teams play in front of us and around us, and keeping the ball away from the goal."

Both squads have solid back lines packed with Division I recruits. For the U18s, Emma Schneider and Alissa Hansen hold down the fort. Schneider has committed to Miami (Ohio) and Hansen will attend Samford. Molly Pitman of the U17 squad is also committed to Samford.

"We focus on being disciplined on defense," Richards says. "If you can stay disciplined and organized on defense, your offense will eventually score a goal to help you out."

This year, Carmel will be facing some of the most high-powered offenses in the ECNL. Carmel has to face Eclipse Select twice – the U17 squad from Eclipse has scored an unprecedented 47 goals in 14 games. Carmel will have to deal with Michigan Hawks, whose U18 team has scored 34 goals in 10 matches. For Carmel United, the impenetrable force will have to face a number of immovable objects in Flight A.

"Those two clubs are some of the best in the country," Richards said. "We're going in confident, and we know it's going to be a fight."

But this year provides a challenge beyond just the higher level of play. Indiana high school soccer concluded in late October, and after just a two week break, Carmel hosts St. Louis Scott Gallagher this Sunday in Indianapolis.

The quick turnaround, not unlike Utah Avalanche's difficult position from last week, could mean a sluggish start for Carmel. A number of players on both the U17s and U18s participated in the state tournament in late October, including those who play for state champion Carmel (Carmel, Ind.).

"It's tough, no question about it," says Richards of the quick turnaround. "But they all come back with a revived attitude to play quicker and stronger. They bring a great work ethic back, and it helps rejuvenate their play."

This weekend’s match is the only one in November for Carmel, allowing some extra time to prepare before their ECNL schedule goes into full swing in early December. By then, Richards says, they’ll be ready.