NEW PRAGUE -- It was vintage Worthington Trojans soccer. Speed, quick feet. Efficient passing. Relentlessness.
And a victory in the most important match of the season.
The Trojans, in a 2-1 win over Mankato East, qualified for the Minnesota state Class A boys soccer tournament for a second consecutive year Thursday night. After falling behind 1-0 in the first half, the Trojans applied steady pressure in the second half to emerge with a signature triumph in the Section 2A tournament finals on the carpeted turf of New Prague High School.
“Second half we pressured more. And we played better,” said senior midfielder Victor Alvarez, who scored Worthington’s first goal.
“When they scored, we didn’t feel pressure. We still had a chance, because we were still creating them even when we were down. We kept pushing it,” said senior forward Jon Keodouangsy, who scored the game-winner with 19:49 remaining in the game.
On a warm and breezy night, the Trojans played with the wind in their face for the first half. In the second half the wind was at their backs. They had the Cougars just where they wanted them.
“When we took the coin toss, we took the wind in the second half,” said senior defenseman Chris Cerda. “We’re a team that can run all 80 minutes. And we thought with the wind on our side, and they’re going to be a little tired, it’s to our advantage.”
On Tuesday, Worthington will begin state tournament competition against an opponent and at a site yet to be determined. The semifinals (Oct. 30), finals (Nov. 2) and third-place game (Oct. 31) will be at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
A year ago, the Trojans lost a tough 3-2 first-round state tournament decision to Orono at Farmington High School. They say they’re going to be better prepared this time.
“We’re not done yet. We gotta do a lot more. Feels really good, though, back-to-back,” said senior midfielder Anthony Euceda. “We’re going to go with a lot different mentality. We gotta go all the time, 80 minutes.”
On Thursday, Mankato East broke the scoreless tie on a shot from Adam Megard, who aimed a 27-yard kick perfectly from the left side with 31:50 on the first-half clock. His shot flew high and it bent purposely for the upper right corner of the net, narrowly missing the bar and the leap of WHS goalkeeper Ben Lopez.
The second half was Worthington’s. Under constant pressure, the Cougars -- the tournament’s fourth seed, coming in with a 9-6-3 record -- could not hold up.
Alvarez knotted the game with a low 20-yard strike through traffic at 36:23.
Keodouangsy, the Trojans’ acknowledged offensive star, scored a would-be goal late in the first half on a sliding punch from the middle. But it was negated for an off-sides penalty. The Cougars were aware of Keodouangsy at all times, double-teaming him, even triple-teaming him whenever he neared the ball. On one occasion, they shoved him off the ball with a hard forearm -- happy to draw the penalty knowing that the net was safe, at least for the moment.
But with 19:49 showing on the second half clock, Keodouangsy got his goal anyway. It came on a penalty kick (he was tripped on a 3-on-1 breakaway) directly in front of the Mankato East goal. Keodouangsy kicked the ball into the left side of the net -- an easy goal, for him.
After that, the Cougars had virtually no chance. The Trojans were in command the rest of the way.
Their victory improved the No. 2 seed to 17-2 on the season.
For head coach Juan Flores, who took over the program from local legend Smitty Ektnitphong -- who retired after last season -- the state berth brought back personal memories. He was a soccer player, himself, at Worthington High School, but his personal dream ended with his graduation in 2010 without the desired goal.
“It’s a different feeling, obviously,” he said. “When I was a player, we had a chance to go to state, but we lost to Mankato West. But it’s all about the kids. They deserve it. They fought so hard. They played all the way to the end, and they deserved it.
In the second half, the Trojans were able to maintain their confidence.
“We just talked about staying calm and playing our game in the second half. We got that first goal, and that was the thing for us,” Flores said. “Having the wind on our back was a factor. We took advantage of it, and we made the best of the chances we had.”
Said Keodouangsy: “It feels really exciting. Another chance to play in the Bank. … It feels a little bit different because of new adjustments. New coach. But we played the same as we did last year. Same attitude and everything.”
Cerda recalled that returning to state had been etched in the Trojans’ minds since the 2017 state tournament became a memory.
“That was a mission since last year when we lost. So if we didn’t go back to state, it’s a failure. We’re going to go experienced this time, so we hope for the best,” Cerda said, adding, “Last year I had no idea what it was going to be like. This year I know.”