Express Orange wins regional, heads to nationals

ST. LOUIS — A Columbus Express soccer team is headed to the national final four for the first time.

The Express 08 Boys Orange team captured the U.S. Youth Soccer Presidents Cup Midwest Regional 14U title on Monday with a 2-1 win against the Chicago Rush. The Orange had captured the state title two weeks earlier.

“It was a shock to all of us,” coach Sam LaVelle said. “I don’t think any of us expected us. It just shows the grit and determination of all of these kids. They were on a mission, and they accomplished it.”

The Orange beat the Chicago Rush 2-1 in the regional championship game on Monday morning. The Orange led 1-0 at halftime on a goal by Emilio Quintero Aguirre, then added a goal in the final 10 minutes from Aarav Nihalani. The Rush scored their goal with about three minutes remaining, but the Orange on for the win.

In Sunday’s semifinal, the Orange trailed the Chicago Fire 3-1 at halftime before rallying for a 5-3 victory. Angel Espejel scored for an early 1-0 lead before the Fire scored three times. Nihalani, Espejel, Tanner Miller and Alfredo Madero scored for the Orange in the second half.

“It was just a matter of readjusting, refocusing in the second half,” LaVelle said. “Once we started doing that, we started putting the ball in the back of the net. Once we did that, we just kept pushing and got a couple more.”

The Orange began pool play on Thursday with a 5-0 win against Dakota Alliance from South Dakota. Espejel netted three goals, and Nihalani and Jaren Jackson each scored once.

On Friday, the Orange eadged Minnesota Rush 1-0 on a goal by Espejel. The Orange capped pool play Saturday with a 1-0 win against the Madison (Wisconsin) 56ers on a goal by Nihanani and a third consecutive shutout by Ryder Meek.

“This is a major accomplishment for the boys and the club,” Express director of coaching Ty Smith said. “This group battled through Indiana Presidents Cup and then showed that they are capable of competing at a higher stage against higher competition. I think their best soccer is ahead of them. Our coaches have done a fantastic job this year. Coach Sam LaVelle took the reins of this team and has invested a lot of time and effort with the boys. Our SPF program led by Dylan Andrew and Nathan Frasier proved to be a key asset as we were in a different fitness level than our opponents. It was a total team effort all around: players, coaches, and parents. I am very proud of the team and the club.”

The Orange advance to the US Youth Soccer Nationals July 7-10 in Greensboro, North Carolina.

This is the first regional title and trip to nationals of any kind for Columbus Express Soccer Club.

“It’s massive,” LaVelle said. “The kids are super pumped, and they are super excited. This is something that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives, and they’ll have that bond for the rest of their lives.”