February 10, 2020 - Miami, FL - Maryland Bobcats FC are coming back to Maryland as the United Premier Soccer League National Champions after defeating Santa Ana Winds FC 3-1 after extra time in the National Final.
The UPSL was formed in 2011 and currently includes more than 300 teams nationwide. Each UPSL team is individually owned and operated, and is responsible for maintaining UPSL National League minimum standards.
On a beautiful day in Miami, FL at Buccaneer Stadium on the campus of Barry University, Maryland Bobcats FC were able to overcome a 1-0 first half deficit in the final to bring the trophy back to Maryland. The early stages of the match saw each team feeling each other out until a 15th minute goal by Santa Ana gave them the lead. The Bobcats continued to battle, looking for the all-important equalizer to get themselves back into the game.
That equalizer came in the 45th minutes right before halftime as forward Elton Joe finished from the top of the box after a great run to free himself from the defender. At the half, it was all to play for and the coaching staffs on both sidelines tried to make changes and tweaks that they needed in order to be successful.
After a back and forth second 45 minutes, neither team could find a breakthrough and the National Final was forced into extra time. With both teams having some decent chances, the defenses held strong while the play on the field was crisp and fast with both teams playing attacking soccer looking for the winning goal.
What couldn't be done in the second half was don in the 107th minute as yet again Elton Joe found the back of the net to give us the 2-1 advantage. Joe was played in behind the defense by midfielder Alex Kao and was off to the races. Joe beat the Santa Ana back line, got around the keeper, and calmly finished to put one hand on the trophy. Not six minutes later, the game was all but won when defender Idrissa Sesay received the ball on the wing, played a ball across the box, and was finished smartly by midfielder/forward Levi Houapeu. The team could sense that the title was theirs to lose and just had to hang on for the last 13 minutes to kill the game off.
The last 13 minutes saw Santa Ana pushing the ball forward as quickly as they could trying to find their way back into the game. Our backline was strong and effective and each time we won the ball back, were finding players high up the field to kill the game off. After a nervy few minutes of play, the referee finally blew the whistle for the end of the game and Maryland Bobcats FC were named National Champions.
Celebrations ensued on the field as players danced, jumped, cheered, and hugged one another for a job well done and mission accomplished. For the entire roster, this was the first national final of any kind that they had played in and the emotions started coming out. After an introduction by UPSL Commissioner Yan Skwara, each player was given a medal and team captain Willy Kapawa was handed the trophy. The team celebrated with each other and the staff, took pictures, and thanked the fans that flew down from Maryland to watch the team take home the championship.
Yan Skwara, Commissioner of the United Premier Soccer League (UPSL) says, “The UPSL congratulates the Maryland Bobcats on a great run. The Bobcats came into the semi-final as a favorite and showed just why by batting it out, back-to-back. beating both Soda City in the semis and knocking out the Santa Ana Winds squad in the final.”
Skwara added “It takes a great squad to be a UPSL champion. The State of Maryland now has a great local club that the state can be proud of as a National Champion."
Elton Joe was named Player of the Weekend scoring 3 goals in 2 games to help lift the team to the title.
After a whirlwind two days, the team could finally call themselves champions and could celebrate and look back on what they had accomplished. The team went undefeated in the Fall 2019 UPSL season, tying just one game and winning the other 13 to become National Champions.
As Head Coach Phil Nana put it: "This weekend was nothing short of amazing. When good, hard-working people come together with a dream and drive, great things can be achieved. Not just this weekend, but this season was an embodiment of exactly that. I want to give a big thank you to the community and state of Maryland for all the love and support".
Thanks was a big theme when talking to the players and staff after the match and everyone was grateful for the opportunity to play in such a meaningful weekend. It wasn't stress-free, however, as Assistant Coach Ben Aryeetey said, "This past weekend was full of anxiety as well as joy as we were happy to be at Nationals. With the extensive hard work of both the players and management, a dream came true for us and not just us at the club but for the entire state of Maryland and the community that supports us".
As the players finished up taking photos and congratulating each other, they made their way back to the locker room where the party continued. The cheers could be heard from down the hall and everyone - players, coaches, and staff - were all excited to be able to call themselves champions.
The party couldn't last too long, however, as the team had a plane to catch back to Maryland and had to head straight out to the airport. In what was a fantastic ending to a long trip, Technical Director Paul Ngend said "It was an amazing thriller of a final that showed what the beautiful game is all about played by guys who became family. At the end was the ultimate reward...National Champions!"
This National Championship didn't happen by chance. It took a lot of work, dedication, and planning to get to this point. As Assistant Technical Director Tunde Banjo said: "Coming into the weekend we believed in our preparation throughout the season and knew if we trusted it we had a good chance at winning the National Championship". He continued with "The weekend brought the best out of our players and coaches, this win only sets the table for our future".
The team headed back to Maryland, trophy in hand, with a fitting end to a dominate season.
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