The USA Cup is a chance for Brainerd's Xolos Academy FC youth soccer teams to compete against a high level of competition from around the country. For the U19 team, it was a chance to do something they had never done before.
The Xolos won the Silver I Division USA Cup by going 7-0 at Blaine's National Sports Complex. After cruising through the group stage of the tournament against teams from around the country, the Xolos went on to beat Chequamegon Bay SC 2-1 to hoist the cup.
"It was awesome," Alexandria's Kylee James said. "It's something we've been working towards the whole summer. To win at a higher level with older girls was a really good feeling. All of our hard work definitely paid off."
The Xolos 19U team is made up of girls primarily from Brainerd, with team members from Little Falls, Grand Rapids and Alexandria as well. James and Ellen Panther are the two Alexandria representatives. The Xolos aim to develop soccer players into elite talent while playing a team-oriented game.
What makes the USA Cup such a challenging championship to win is the number of games in a short period of time. The Xolos played seven 90-minute games in five days and outscored opponents 27-3.
"I didn't think the scoring was going to be that high," Brainerd's Avery LeMieur said. "In the past, our team has really struggled with finishing. We would get the ball in the offensive end, and we couldn't score. But last week, it just happened. We kept finding ways to score. To get all of those goals from so many individual players was really the finishing piece to a great season."
The Xolos had to beat the Minnesota Rush in the semifinal round on Saturday morning to get to the championship. A 1-0 win punched the ticket to the title game later that afternoon. The wait was long, and the nerves kicked in for the players.
"As a defender, we didn't have much of a challenge at the beginning of the week," James said. "It was kind of nerve-racking knowing the teams were going to be better the further we made it. I think we all found a way to put those nerves aside and come together as a team."
Xolos head coach Jonah Trout understood the physical and mental toughness a USA Cup championship required but was confident in his team's ability to push through those obstacles.
"This team really is a family, and it took us a few years to find the right 18 players to have out there with us," Trout said. "When they come off the field, and they're playing bad, they want to come off because they put the team first. I think what pushes them so hard is how much they care about their teammates. They've been playing together for so long, so they push each other to play their best and leave it all out there."
LeMieur knows that winning a championship doesn't come without solid leadership. The Xolos celebrated as Trout hoisted the cup on the main stage in front of supporting family members in the crowd.
"Jonah always believed in us," LeMieur said. "He encouraged us to do our best and that he was so proud of us in the end. He did a really good job, and I'm really grateful he was our coach. To have our parents and supporters there, too, is awesome. We can't do it without them."
Playing for the Xolos means getting to play with like-minded teammates who strive to be the best player they can be, even if that means teaming up with your rivals. James and LeMieur are teammates in the summer, but when the high school season starts in the fall, they will be on different ends of the field.
The Xolos have bridged relationships between two Central Lakes Conference rivals. When James arrived at her first practice four years ago, she didn't know what to expect.
"It was pretty intimidating," James said. "Brainerd was really good just from watching them and playing against them. When I got there, they were very welcoming. It was good for me to open my eyes and be able to play with higher-level girls. Honestly, they're some of my best friends now."
Playing against elite competition is the ultimate way to prepare for a high school season. As James heads into her senior year, she feels more confident in her game than ever.
"We play against a lot of the girls we would play at the high school varsity level," James said. "I feel very confident going into this season because I know that I can play at a high level. It helps me a lot, personally."
Raising the cup is the ultimate goal for the Xolos when they make the trip to Blaine, and ending the summer on the highest note is what LeMieur called 'Unforgettable."
"It was the best feeling ever," LeMieur said. "Our hard work paid off, and we got what we deserved. It was an even better feeling knowing we won because of the whole team. We've always focused on having that team aspect, but this year was just different. You knew you could trust the player next to you. To see that cup with my teammates is pretty surreal."
This is part one of a two-part Xolos story. Read about the history of the Xolos in Next Friday’s issue of the Echo Press.