Washington-Lee sophomore Eric Schmidt had his doubts prior to action. Bishop Ireton junior Danny O’Keefe was nervous.
Once play began, West Springfield sophomore Jannik Eckenrode realized how he could improve his game. And when it was all over, Lake Braddock sophomore Tyler Durbin filed in his memory the perspective of an influential English coaching staff.
Emotions and experiences were plentiful for members of the U16 Annandale United FC, who competed in the International Amateur Soccer Tournament — The Challenge for the Tiffany Cup during the final week of March. Annandale United, a travel team composed of high school athletes from the Washington D.C. metro area, took on high-caliber foreign — U17 Georgian National Team, West Ham United FC Academy — and domestic — D.C. United Academy — competition. Annandale United finished 0-2-1, but the opportunity to participate as the only travel team in the tournament should help the group in the long term.
The tournament was "the most useful [soccer] thing the kids have [experienced] in their lives," said Annandale United head coach Bo Amato, who also coaches the varsity teams at St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes School (fall) and Langley High School (spring).
Amato’s Annandale club entered the Tiffany Cup tourney ranked among the top travel teams in the nation, but was still considered an underdog against the older academy team of D.C. United and the talented foreign teams.
"I figured we’d compete in the D.C. United game," Amato said, "but the other two games we could get badly damaged."
THE FIRST PART of Amato’s assumption was realized. Annandale United opened against D.C. United on March 28, losing 2-1. Annandale took a 1-0 lead on a Schmidt goal, but failed to capitalize on chances late in the game.
Annandale United spent the rest of the tournament putting to rest any thoughts of getting "badly damaged." The Virginia travel team played the Georgian national team to a 1-all draw on March 30 and lost to West Ham United 4-2 on March 31. Annandale trailed West Ham 3-0 before goals by Schmidt and Josh Godec (Gonzaga) cut the lead to one. West Ham added a late goal.
"I think our team showed a lot of heart going into each game," Bishop Ireton’s O’Keefe said. "We never gave up."
Schmidt, who scored three of Annandale’s four goals in the tournament, called the experience "life changing."
"We hung in there, we competed," he said. "The teams were pretty much better than us, but it was definitely a good experience."
The Washington-Lee sophomore had his doubts prior to the tournament.
"We kind of thought," Schmidt said, "we were going to get blown out and embarrassed."
The University of Virginia and James Madison University have shown interest in Schmidt, a striker.
"Every time he steps on the field, he leaves everything he’s got on the field," Amato said. "If every youth player tried to emulate him, they’d be better overnight."
Amato described O’Keefe, a central defender, in a similar fashion.
"The kid just wants to win," the coach said. "He’s Eric Schmidt but he plays in the back."
ST. STEPHEN’S/ST. AGNES sophomores Ryan Huddleston, Parker Patterson and Ryan Harmouche, and Episcopal sophomore Ross Higgins are also members of Annandale United FC.
Amato said Schmidt and West Springfield’s Eckenrode "have developed a very good twin-strike partnership."
Eckenrode said he learned from facing superior competition.
"I realized how key movement off the ball is," he said. "I knew it was key, but when I saw West Ham put it to action we" got a better understanding.
Eckenrode added: "It definitely gave me some views on how I can change the game in high school."
West Ham coach Tony Carr and his staff spoke with Annandale United players after their match. Carr is "one of the most influential figures in English football," West Ham’s Web site says.
West Ham coaches said "since we weren’t really brought up in a soccer culture that we really need to try to watch the game as much as possible," Lake Braddock’s Durbin said, "so we really know the game."
West Ham defeated D.C. United in the championship game April 2.
Amato said the most important lessons Annandale United learned during the tournament were: be mentally tough, be vocal on the field and keep the ball moving. Even though Annandale didn’t win, facing top-shelf competition and being exposed to a different style of soccer should help the team in the future.
"The best thing that came out of this tournament on a personal level is we didn’t roll over and die," Amato said. "When the going gets tough, you find out what you’re all about. That was a really good eye-opener for me and that was a great eye-opener for my players."