Making History: Express Orange team not content with just reaching nationals

The Columbus Express 2008 Boys Orange team has made history by becoming the first Columbus Express Soccer Club team to reach the US Youth Soccer National Championships.

But the Orange squad is intent on making more history next weekend. They aren’t content just being the first to make it to the Preisdents Cup nationals.

“It’s exciting,” coach Sam LaVelle said. “It’s really surreal, especially for the kids. It’s an exciting time for them. But we don’t want to be known as the first (CESC) team to make it. We want to be known as the first team to win it. We want to go there on a mission and come home with the trophy. We want bigger and better things than we’ve already accomplished.”

Members of the Columbus Express 08 Boys Orange team warm up before practice at the Richard Wigh Soccer Complex in Columbus, Ind., Thursday, June 30, 2022. The team has qualified to play in the US Youth Soccer National Presidents Cup next weekend.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic

The Orange have accomplished plenty. They won the state title in early June at Grand Park in Westfield, then captured the Midwest Regional in mid-June in St. Louis.

“We were like the underdogs,” center back Brody Johnson said. “It was really cool beating all these huge clubs. We came from a little town, so it was really motivating.”

“It’s something that we never thought we would do, and to win is like a dream-come-true,” forward Aarav Nihalani added. “But the job is not finished yet.”

Members of the Columbus Express 08 Boys Orange team take part in a passing and possession drill during practice at the Richard Wigh Soccer Complex in Columbus, Ind., Thursday, June 30, 2022. The team has qualified to play in the US Youth Soccer National Presidents Cup next weekend.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic

Angel Espejel, who scored six goals in the regional, and Nihalani are the starting forwards. Johnson and Eduardo Aranda Michel anchor the 3-5-2 from the backline and Tanner Miller and Jesus Emilio Quintero Aguirre are the top midfielders. Goalkeeper Ryder Meek posted three shutouts in the regional.

The Orange won five games in five days in St. Louis, where temperatures reached triple digits.

“The heat was a little much, but some of the other teams weren’t as used to it as us, so we kind of had the advantage in that,” said Johnson, who will be an eighth-grader at Northside Middle School.

Ty Smith, director of coaching for the Columbus Express Soccer Club, explains a possession and passing drill during practice for the Columbus Express 08 Boys Orange team at the Richard Wigh Soccer Complex in Columbus, Ind., Thursday, June 30, 2022. The team has qualified to play in the US Youth Soccer National Presidents Cup next weekend.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic

“It was very exciting,” added outside back Nick Mann, who will be a freshman at Columbus North. “It was very hot, but we got over it and won.”

Next week in Greensboro, North Carolina, temperatures likely will be a little cooler when the Orange take the field for their pool play games. All three pool games will be in the morning.

The Orange open at 8 a.m. Thursday against 08 Boys Pre MLS NEXT from Pittsburgh. The Orange will face Azetecas FC 08 Boys from North Texas at 10:15 a.m. Friday and AVFC Boys 2008 from Southern California at 8 a.m. July 9.

Sam LaVelle, coach of the Columbus Express 08 Boys Orange team, sets up soccer balls for a possession and passing drill during practice at the Richard Wigh Soccer Complex in Columbus, Ind., Thursday, June 30, 2022. The team has qualified to play in the US Youth Soccer National Presidents Cup next weekend.

Mike Wolanin | The Republic

“We don’t know a lot about the teams, and they probably don’t know a lot about us,” LaVelle said. “We’re just focused on playing hard and playing our style of soccer. We’re here for a reason, and if we can stick to our strategy, stick to our game plan, I think we can compete with anybody. That’s what we did in the regional. We just played our style of soccer and played within ourselves and were able to come away with a trophy at the end of it.”

The top two teams from the pool will square off at 10:45 a.m. July 10 for the national championship.

“We have a good chance,” Johnson said. “A lot of people think we don’t, but we won regional, and now we can win this for sure. We’re trying extra hard now because we want to win it all.”

“I definitely think we can win it all,” added Nihalini, who will be a freshman, but has not decided on his high school yet. “We’ve been doing a good job of keeping our team strong and making sure that we know what we’re doing. Coach has got us game plans, so we should be good for the nationals. It’s just about who shows up ready to play, and I think we can definitely do that. We showed that in regional, and if we just continue, we should be able to win it all.”