PDL League Update: Charlotte Eagles Capture Championship in Historic Final

Three months, fourteen regular season matches, and five rounds of playoffs later, a champion has finally been crowned. A season filled with excitement, drama, heartbreak, and history, 2017 has been everything that PDL fans had hoped for. All around the country, teams had been going toe-to-toe to earn their spot in the final, and on Saturday, August 5th, just two remained, and one was crowned as champion in the third-straight U.S. vs. Canada PDL Final.
Premier Development League
Photo Courtesy: Premier Development League

Historically one of the most successful clubs in the Premier Development League, Ontario-based Thunder Bay Chill have been the team to beat during any given season. Building a team mostly from Chill Academy prospects to be coached by some of the best coaches in North America, the Chill have captured seven Heartland Division titles and five Central Conference titles in their eighteen-year history. Speculation began to creep up over the last few seasons, however, that Thunder Bay had been losing its appeal, as the Chill had not won a division title since 2013, and clubs like K-W United FC and Calgary Foothills FC had begun to their ascent to power in Canada, with both clubs reaching a PDL Final over the last two years (K-W United won the league in 2015 over New York Red Bulls U23, and Calgary lost to Michigan Bucks in the final last season). 2017 put all of those rumors to bed, however, as the Chill went 9-3-2 on the season, winning the Heartland Division and Central Conference en route to a fourth championship appearance.

Charlotte Eagles are a relatively new team to the PDL, but they are no strangers to the sport. Founded in 1991 as a member of the USISL, the Eagles were active participants in the second and third tiers of the United States Professional Soccer Pyramid until 2014. Seeing relative success over their twenty-two years in the various incarnations of the modern-day USL, Charlotte were crowned champions of the third tier twice, once in the 2000 USL D-3 Pro League, and again in the 2005 USL Second Division. 2008 marked the last time the Eagles would be on top of any table for seven years, however, as they finished USL Second Division regular season champions, but lost in the playoff final. Following the 2008 campaign, Charlotte's success slowly dropped off as a member of the Second Division and USL Pro, falling all the way to twelfth on the table in 2014 before self-relegating to the PDL in 2015. What seemed to be a hasty decision turned out to be the right one, as Charlotte has dominated the PDL since their arrival, never missing the playoffs and capturing the 2015 and 2016 South Atlantic Division titles. 2017 marks the first time the Eagles have won the Eastern Conference and their first finals appearance.

3 PM Eastern marked the kickoff of Saturday's championship, and things got exciting quickly at Sportsplex at Matthews, the brand new home of USL's Charlotte Independence. The first twenty minutes went exactly as expected: two sides who have never seen each other try to feel out their opponent and understand the way they will play the match. As that period of the ninety minutes came to a close, the scoring opened. In the twenty-first minute, it was Thunder Bay who got the early lead as German Alfaro crossed his corner perfectly into the box, Chill defender Patricio Arce leaped over everybody to head the ball far post, and keeper James Pyle could only watch as the ball crossed the goal line. With the league's best defensive team up a goal early, it was going to be very difficult for Charlotte to pull level, but don't tell Joao Costa that. Just five minutes off the opening goal, Charlotte's Gio Bejarnao made a run toward the endline, and with space running out, he made an excellent cross across the box to find Costa, who scored four goals in the Eagles' 4-1 victory over Seacoast United in the conference semifinals. Costa did what you expect any great striker to do when he has space and left his feet to scissor kick the ball to the near post. In utter disbelief, keeper David Elias reacted too late and could not stop the power that is Costa's foot, and against all odds Charlotte Eagles drew level. Costa nearly added a second just moments later, but his cheeky back-heel effort was saved brilliantly by Elias. The two sides swapped close efforts for the remainder of the half, but neither could get their nose in front, as they went into the break knotted at one.

The Chill, who had not conceded a goal throughout their entire playoff run, had just seen their lead disappear for the first time, and how they were going to handle it would be the deciding factor in this championship final. Coming out of the locker room, it was more of the same, as both teams tried to settle down the nerves followed an exciting first half. Both sides saw chances, and both sides saw misses. The physicality began to pick up in the second half as well, with both sides committing hard fouls and receiving appropriate punishment. Fifteen minutes after the second half whistle, it was Charlotte who would benefit from one of those fouls, as instead of shooting, Joao Costa took a foul twenty yards from goal, and the Eagles were awarded the free kick. Stepping up to take it was Hawai'i native Ryan Williams out of John Brown University, and the captain made no mistake. With Elias' anticipating a ball to his left, Williams caught him off guard as he went to the keeper's right with an incredible right-footed effort. Elias didn't even move from his spot as Williams' free kick sailed easily into the net, and the Eagles found themselves up 2-1 with half an hour remaining. With the reality of their situation beginning to sink in, Thunder Bay Chill tried to pick up the pressure as much as possible, but it ended up costing them. Losing possession on a number of different occasions, Charlotte were able to keep the Chill off the score sheet, and the final whistle blew with the Eagles on top of the PDL for the first time ever.

In the first-ever PDL match to be broadcast on an ESPN network, it was Charlotte Eagles who were able to make history and win their first PDL title. With the conclusion of the playoffs, the next big marker of the PDL year will be the PDL Winter Summit, where representatives from every team get together and begin scheduling 2018 fixtures, work out any potential rule changes, and build excitement for the upcoming season. Heading into 2018, the competition will be fierce, as some clubs may decide to fold operations, while others will be created all around the USA and Canada. In terms of Peachtree City MOBA, the yellow and black will be looking for a successful 2018 after a 5-19-4 record over their first two seasons. MOBA will hope to bring in new and exciting college talent while also recalling some of the top players from a season ago. 2018 is sure to be exciting season, and things are looking bright for Peachtree City MOBA and the Premier Development League.

#MOBAProud

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