Arsenal tests its mettle in USA Cup

"They didn't win any games. But for a week earlier this month, the members of FC Kitsap Arsenal - a local under-17 Premier 2 select boys soccer team - got the best experience in the world.Arsenal, coached by Bremerton's Mike Meherg, played in the prestigious Swan's USA Cup tournament July 16-25 at Blaine, Minn., a massive boot-fest that drew teams from 34 U.S. states and 24 countries.Overall, we played well, said Meherg, who took the team to Europe last year for a similar primer on how the very best teens in the world are playing. I think there was an intimidation factor that we had to get over in some of the games. But we realized we could play with the teams that were there.The bulk of the team hails from Central Kitsap and Olympic high schools, but also draws players from the Bainbridge, North Kitsap and South Kitsap programs.Meherg said most of his players are seasoned for their age group, and are not strangers to pressure-packed games and tournaments.Nothing, though, could prepare them for the sheer size and scope of the USA Cup, which was played at a massive 52-field complex in the suburb just a corner kick north of Minneapolis-St. Paul.When you started playing, there might be a couple hundred people who would wander over to watch your game, Meherg said of the games. We have some boys who might never have played in front of that many people before.Just the number of teams and athletes competing - nearly 18,000 boys and girls in various age groups - could well have been daunting. Put all that young humanity in the middle of a posh complex on which Minnesotans spent more than $14 million, just so they could host the largest tournament in the Western Hemisphere, and you've got a spectacle to turn the head of even the most jaded elite player.You can't help but be impressed by it, Meherg said.In all, Arsenal played six games at Blaine. After they were eliminated from their age-group bracket in the USA Cup by a big, physical German team, they entered a simultaneous 6-on-6 tournament and advanced to the semifinals before being ousted by a team from Mexico.The boys split the team in half, around the two captains (CK's Nick Van Buecken and Olympic's Brian Meherg, the coach's son), Meherg said of the semifinal. One team played the first half, the other played the second half.After it was over, I think the boys realized that if we'd played our best players the whole game, we had a chance to beat them. But it was the boys' decision to split the team and play the game that way, and they were glad they did it that way.As if things weren't tough enough, a tournament rule placed Arsenal in the U-18 bracket, against teams that were bigger and more experienced.We handled it pretty well, Meherg said. We didn't win the games, but we played well. We were competitive with those teams, even though they were bigger. Like that team from Germany - those were big boys, good athletes.The local players, who engaged in a variety of fundraisers to earn the money for their tournament trip, did get some perks. They were bivouacked in graduate student housing at the University of Minnesota, which meant most of them had private rooms throughout their stay.Team members included Brian Meherg, Ryan Butts, Thomas Horn, Andrew Nelson, Joel Nelson and Paul Struwe from Olympic; Van Buecken, Broc Gaboriault, Adam Paulin and Caleb Peterson from Central Kitsap; Kaj Hauschulz, Calder Just and Mitka Von Reis Crooks from Bainbridge; and Chris Kendall from South Kitsap. "

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