Missoula Strikers U18 Soccer Squad Wins Regional Championship

By AUSTIN SMITH

The Missoula Strikers U18 squad made Montana history on Tuesday when they were crowned US Club Soccer Northwest Regional Champions, overcoming powerhouse Nor-Cal team Deportes Salinas in a 5-2 victory that even featured a bench-clearing brawl.

According to twenty-year U18 head coach Geoff Birnbaum, this week’s victory is the first time since 1998 that a Montana-based club has made it past the semi-finals in either US Club or US Youth Soccer Association match play.

“You could name every player on the team, but having two good forwards and two good goalkeepers, and having the balance of talent from the front of the field to the back, gave me an idea that this team might be special, which they are,” Birnbaum said Friday afternoon.

2012 Missoula Strikers U18 Soccer Squad Wins Regional ChampionshipThe win also comes on the heels of Montana Youth Soccer’s decision to drop out of USYSA tournaments, an unfortunate decision that discontinues USYSA state tournaments in Montana and forced Birnbaum’s squad to look to US Club’s regional tournaments to extend theirseason.

Deportes Salinas was the favored side heading into the final match, having only given up one goal through the preliminaries and touted as the biggest, strongest team in attendance.  The rainy final match proved to be their undoing however, as the Strikers one-touched their first goal at the 2-minute mark and didn’t let up until the final whistle blasts.  The Strikers were honored as champions of the ‘U19 Supergroup’ division with a final score of 5-2.

Salinas play was marred with intentional fouls, and in the waning minutes the favorites found themselves facing a 3-goal deficit with only 9 of 11 players on the field.  At this point, the first player to be ejected came off the sidelines to attack a Striker, clearing both benches and halting play.  As a testament to Birnbaum’s effectiveness as a mentor, the Strikers did not fight back.  As a unit, they took the high road, finished the match, and brought home the glory.

2012 Missoula Strikers U18 Soccer Squad Wins Regional Championship

“When the other team fell apart at the end…and they went crazy, our kids were restrained and handled it incredibly maturely,” Birnbaum said.  “I’m as proud of that as anything else.”

Birnbaum is a unique coach in that he works just as hard to make his players better people as he does better players.

“The thing you realize when you’ve been around for a while is that most of your players will retire from soccer.  Then you’re stuck with what kind of human beings you develop[ed].”

The Missoula Strikers have been educating young players in sportsmanship, physical health, and mental alertness for thirty years.  Many of their players utilize the Striker organization as a stepping stone to collegiate or professional athletics.

“The US Club Soccer Northwest Regional win is a fantastic accomplishment for our U18 Strikers team.  This win is attributed to years of hard work and good coaching,” Strikers Director Heidi MacDonald said.  “Many of these young men have been playing together since first grade and this tournament was the last time they will ever play all together as a team; what a wonderful way to end the season!”

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Austin Smith in a tie

Austin Smith is a 21-year resident of the Missoula area, and an ardent fisherman, hunter, and snowboarder. When not working on the University of Montana campus, taking classes in the Journalism program, or contributing to the social media efforts of several local organizations, he enjoys spending time outdoors with his Akita and his family.