Santa Rosa coach leads NorCal Premier girls team to Gothia Cup title in Sweden

The NorCal Premier club soccer team for teen girls, led by a Santa Rosa coach and set to compete in the world-renowned Gothia Cup this month, almost never made it to Sweden for the tournament.

Yet they came back as champions.

It was a bomb threat at San Francisco International Airport on July 15 that delayed the girls’ flight, nearly forcing them to stay in a hotel. They ended up making the flight to Europe and stayed overnight in Paris; however, the team — which draws players from across Northern California — was already a full day behind schedule.

They finally arrived in Sweden on July 17. With their first game the next day, the girls were tired, and the nerves started to kick in.

“It was a long experience,” said Jayden Holdenried, a rising senior at Windsor High School and one of the NorCal players. “I think the first game was a lot of nerves, and just honestly being tired.”

Whatever nerves there were, NorCal Premier got rid of them quickly in starting the first of what would be six games in six days. Goals by Lauren Kenny and Lauren Hunter were enough for the win against Swedish club Piteå at SKF Arena in Gothenburg.

BK Häcken, another team from the host nation, was the next opponent for NorCal Premier. The girls from Northern California left no doubt in that match, cruising to a 3-0 win in Heden.

In the third round, the team played Djurgårdens, also of Sweden, and gave up an early goal in the third minute. A goal from Stella Etcheverry leveled the score in the 30th minute, and after that it was all NorCal. Second-half goals from Paloma Daubert and Kennedy Schoennauer saw NorCal take the win.

It was not until the fourth game, however, when NorCal started playing its best soccer, Holdenried said.

“I don’t think we possessed the ball as much in the first three games,” Holdenried said. “But in the fourth game we were able to connect and play well with each other and score the goals we wanted to score. One of our biggest goals was to play a type of soccer that everyone wants to see, and I really started to see that in the fourth, fifth and sixth games.”

And show it they did. NorCal went on to score four goals in back-to-back games. Against Lyn Fotball, a Norwegian club, Holdenried, Schoennauer and Erica Grilione all found the back of the net to lead NorCal to the semifinal round.

In that semifinal on Friday, it was the Elle Quinn show. Playing against Danish side Team Odense Q, Quinn scored three goals.

Holdenried, a University of Washington commit who moved up to center forward from central midfield for the game, added the icing on the cake with a goal in the 53rd minute. NorCal Premier was on to the final.

“After (Quinn) scored the hat trick, we had at least 10 people come up and ask her for photographs,” Holdenried said. “I’ve never experienced that before, so it made us feel like we were professional soccer players.”

The Gothia Cup is the world’s largest international youth soccer tournament. More than 1,600 teams from 80 countries compete in more than 4,500 matches.

The NorCal squad was playing for the Puma trophy, the tournament’s prize for the top U17 team.

To lift the Puma, NorCal had one more task in front of them — defeat German club Bayer Leverkusen.

“The game plan was to dominate the possession and try to put them under a lot of pressure defensively,” said head coach Justin Selander, who also coaches local club Santa Rosa United. “I think the girls responded to the tactics very well.”

With thousands of fans in attendance at Gothenburg’s Gamla Ullevi stadium, the Northern California squad took an early 1-0 lead behind Sophia Kurisu in the 24th minute. After Estrella Merino Gonzales of Bayer picked up a yellow card in the 29th minute, NorCal’s second goal came in the 36th.

Off a corner kick, the ball bounced back out and Mia McSweeney of Roseville, who came on as a substitute at halftime, took a touch around a defender and slotted it in the upper left corner for the second goal.

“It felt amazing,” McSweeney said. “It’s the biggest goal I’ve scored so far, so to score in the final was a great experience.”

Delice Boboy would pull one back for Bayer, scoring in the 56th minute. NorCal Premier held firm for the rest of the game, however, for the title.

“It was just insane, and I couldn’t believe it,” Holdenried said. “It honestly feels like a fever dream. Just being in front of the crowd that was excited for us, and being able to feel the trophy, it was the best experience ever.”

It marked the second time NorCal Premier PDP has won the Gothia Cup, with the other coming in 2017. The squad has made the cup final in all four times it has participated, and Selander has been the coach for three out of those four appearances.

“The atmosphere and the fans there are world class,” Selander said. “It’s certainly one of the reasons why we go … it’s an amazing chance for the kids to test themselves against great teams from around the world.”

The NorCal Premier 17-and-under boys team also made the trip to Sweden, where they tied twice, won once and lost once.

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