PASADENA – As the final whistle blew to cement the 2-0 result between the Francis Scott Key and International High School at Langley Park (IHSLP) in the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association (MPSSAA) Class 1A boys’ soccer state semifinals on Nov. 8, tears rolled down the eyes of some IHSLP players.

Some walked away with their heads buried in their jerseys, while others suppressed their emotions to shake hands with their opponent. A couple collapsed onto the turf, exhausted physically and mentally, finding solace on the cold turf.

“We feel really proud and sad at the same time ‘cause we have come so far as a team and we worked as a team today and tried to win, but it didn’t work,” said striker Jonathan Alvarado.

The Phoenix United (16-2) was the last Prince George’s County boys soccer team remaining in the state playoffs after Bladensburg and Bowie were both knocked out in the quarterfinals.  Coming into the semifinals, they knew the game was not going to be a cakewalk despite Francis Scott Key’s eight-win.

IHSLP entered the field as the veteran semifinalists, their third semifinal appearance after losing to Loch Raven in 2018 and Patterson Mill in 2017. Their team is completely made of immigrants and refugees, and their roster was packed with some of the county’s strongest players.

Alvarado scored 24 goals up to this point, while his teammate, fellow forward Elvis Maradiaga, trailed at a distant but respectable 14 goals. The team as a whole scored 81 goals.

“From the beginning of the game, we said we were going to be within two to three yards of him (Alvarado) at all times,” said Francis Scott Key Head Coach Larry Haines Jr. “We just respected it. You put up that many goals, you know he’s going to be good.”

The game was based on possession, as IHSLP looked to keep it for as long as possible. Francis Scott Key possessed less, but they took advantage of a shaky IHSLP backline that was making mistakes that would eventually come back to haunt them.

The Eagles’ defense held strong for the first half but were caught off guard by a fluid Phoenix United attack that saw Francis Scott Key struggle to contain them and predict their movements.

By crowding the penalty area, they were able to stop their shots. Goalkeeper Nathan Perry dealt with weak shots most of the time, a product of his defense swarming players like Alvarado and midfielder Santos Munoz Franco.

The shots on target were plentiful in the first half, but IHSLP could not find the back of the net. Francis Scott Key made a couple attacking plays, but were mostly caught up trying to defend.

The Eagles forced IHSLP to play an aerial game near the goal that limited their attacks and allowed the defense to use their height advantage to stop scoring opportunities.

In the last 10 minutes of the first half, Francis Scott Key sought to increase the pressure and caught IHSLP off guard. Controlling Alvarado was key to stopping deep runs and playing with fresh legs kept their pressure heightened.

“They were organized in the back, we had a couple of opportunities in the first half and couldn’t put the ball in the net,” said IHSLP Head Coach Daniel Sass.

Nine minutes into the second half, IHSLP’s defensive woes became their nightmare. On a stray ball headed into IHSLP’s penalty area, defender Javan Aching tried to control it but was surprised by striker Kolton Puckett, who came in and headed it into the back of the Phoenix’ net past goalkeeper Diego Ortega.

A subsequent all-out offensive push by IHSLP proved risky. On a push upfield, IHSLP’s half was  (an) empty save for Ortega. The play didn’t result in a goal but in a stray ball headed to the IHSLP’s side and pursued by the Francis Scott Key offense. A hustle by Ortega was the only thing that kept the ball from the Eagles’ feet, but the gamble that came from Ortega coming out was not worth the close shave.

As the clock wound down, it was clear that the shift in momentum favored Francis Scott Key. The IHSLP offense, who previously had multiple chances, now had fewer. With little time left, careless turnovers became costly and missed chances became regrets.

Forward Carter Shipley scored the last goal for Francis Scott Key after taking a shot from the middle right outside of the penalty box, 11 minutes before the final whistle.

IHSLP tried to score, but the Eagles held back defensively until the game was over.

“I just think about all my experience in high school and I just cry of happiness,” said IHSLP defender and graduating senior Evin Sola. “From zero to 100, just close and open my eyes, it’s just amazing, this group of players that we have at this school, a family more than a team.”

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