Don't change: Unbeaten WHS soccer team opens state tournament Thursday against unbeaten Willmar
If there’s a watchword for the Worthington Trojans high school boys soccer team right about now, it might be simply, “Don’t change.”
The Trojans, who open state Class AA tournament action Thursday in a 5:30 p.m. game in Waconia against Section 3 champion Willmar, are 19-0 on the season. They’ve allowed an amazingly low five goals total, and they can afford to play their own kind of game.
Willmar is also highly talented, armed with a 17-0-2 record. The 2021 Cardinals, in fact, are the only Willmar High School team to have accomplished an unbeaten regular season in school history. And the Cardinals are coming in as the higher tournament seed -- four, compared to Worthington ’s five.
“I thought we had our arguments to get at least a top three. But we don’t make those decisions,” said Worthington head coach Juan Flores on Monday. “The boys were pretty unhappy with that. We’re using it as motivation.”
Worthington not only has a more impressive record than Willmar (not that you can scoff at a 17-0-2 mark), but the Trojans are ranked No. 4 in state Class AA. Willmar is ranked No. 7.
Whatever. Flores said that his players will play their own game on Thursday. It’s been good enough so far.
“It’s an 80-minute game. It’s an 80-minute season, and the only game guaranteed is the one ahead of us,” he said.
In the upper bracket shared with Worthington, Orono (seeded No. 1) played unseeded Byron Tuesday at Eden Prairie. In the bottom half of the bracket, Mahtomedi (2) played unseeded Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Tuesday in Irondale; and Academy of Holy Angels (3) plays unseeded St. Cloud Tech at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in Monticello.
The semifinals are Nov. 3 at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, at 12:30 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. The championship is Nov. 6 at U.S. Bank Stadium in a 3:30 p.m. start. There will also be a third-place game set for 11 a.m. Nov. 4 at the West St. Paul Athletics Center.
“We’ve watched a couple games on them,” Flores said of the Cardinals. “They’re a good team. They’re a physical team. We expect to go into a battle on Thursday. This is the state tournament, it’s a one-game season, and the winner advances.”
Worthington sophomore Jonathan Banegas ranks fourth in the state in goal-scoring.
If there’s a Willmar player the Trojans need to be especially mindful of, it might be senior Abdullahi Mohamud, a tall midfielder. Flores said Willmar’s game goes through him, and if he can be controlled, Worthington’s chances for victory increase.
“We just need to be strong. We need to play a physical game but be smart about it,” Flores said.
Physical teams don’t bother the Trojans, who are often smaller of stature than their opponents. But the Trojans are also very fast, very quick, very adept at putting feet on the ball, and very much in playing shape. They’re often able to wear down their opponents in the second half, as they did with Mankato West in a 4-0 Section 3 championship game triumph.
“It kind of plays into our game,” Flores explained about Willmar’s physical nature. “If you don’t want the other team to be physical, you have to make good passes. Make good passes and play fast. … I think our team is very smart when playing against taller, physical teams. The thing is, our players know how to use their bodies. Get in front of the players, try to shield the ball and protect the ball. And make it hard for other teams to get around us.”