In their inaugural season, the River Soccer Club Express won only one game.
That was then.
Fast-forward the better part of a decade, and the same team that started off winning only one game had earned not only their second State Cup championship, but their second trip to the Region 1 championships, held at Marshall University in West Virginia last weekend.
In what would turn out to be the now-U18-level squad’s last trip as a team, they’d earn their first win at regionals, taking down the New Hampshire State Cup champion 3-1 on Friday, July 1.
“The first game, we came out and played pretty well,” said head coach Duncan Smith, who has coached the Express since their days as 7- and 8-year-olds kicking around soccer balls on the Frankfort Elementary School playground. “That was a good way to start the tournament.”
Fittingly, it was one of the club’s original “Frankford Crew” who gave the Express a first-half lead in that game, when Indian River High School grad and current Wesley College midfielder Danny Garza netted a score to put his squad up 1-0.
Delmar grad and current Salisbury University back Josh Lord would go on to make it 2-0, with the hat trick coming on an own goal.
While the accomplishment was a historic one for the squad, and certainly one worth celebrating, they quickly set their sights on taking down the Baltimore Celtic the next day. The Regional representative from Maryland had not only won the tournament in 2014 and 2015, but was coming off a national title in 2015, as well.
Despite entering the game on Saturday, July 2, as an underdog, the Express jumped out on top roughly 25 minutes in, when another Frankford Original put the squad up 1-0.
That time, it was rising Indian River senior midfielder Mac Smith — who, after midfielder Ryan Spadin had won a ball from a Celtic defender in the corner, took the cross between two defenders on a one-touch and sent a hard shot right under the crossbar for the score.
“It was one of our only chances in the first half, and it really changed the game,” said Duncan Smith. “It really changed the way that they had to play.”
Despite the added pressure on the defending champs, they’d go on to tie the game on a controversial PK call in the second half, before netting the go-ahead goal.
Down 2-1 late in the game, the Express would refuse to back down, creating a chance for rising Indian River senior forward Mikie Mochiam as the game approached stoppage time.
“Mikie takes a great shot, we all think it’s going in and the defender just came out of nowhere,” Smith said of the late chance. “That almost felt like we had felt in the state championship — losing that game 2-1. It was a really disappointing loss, knowing the effort that we had put in.”
Understandably deflated from the loss, they’d go on to fall to Lehigh Valley out of Western Pennsylvania in their final matchup, on Sunday, July 3.
Despite losing their final two games as a team — albeit to the defending national champions and the team that would turn out to be the 2016 U18 regional champions (Lehigh Valley) — Smith said the team’s legacy would not be defined by their final 90 minutes together.
“I think, in the beginning, we were a team that struggled,” Smith said. “But we kept preaching to them that we were developing a team, and as we work through this process, we’ll get to a good place. Over the past 10 years, I think that we finally reached a level where we can definitely be considered one of the better teams not only in Delaware but in the region — I think that’s our legacy.”
More important than developing soccer players, however, Smith and the River Soccer Club Express had set out all those years ago to develop young men, which they’ve seen proof of with former players coming back to coach teams at River themselves — which Smith said he hopes will continue to have an impact.
“River’s been a lot to these kids as they grow into adulthood. It’s nice to see them come back and be a part of it,” Smith said. “We have some very good young teams and coaches in the club. The club’s been around for 20 years now. I think you’re really gonna start to see more of our teams start to be highly competitive because of the influence of some of these guys coming back now and being able to give back.”