This article appears in the December 2005 edition of SchoolSports magazine.
Believing for one second that Miami Sunset's chances of winning a third consecutive National Soccer Coaches Association of America title or three-peating as Class 6A state champion hinge upon the Knights' three returning All-State players is believing such a notion for one second too long.
Forward Niko Mosquera, central defender Stephen Grant and goalkeeper Diego Villegas, all seniors, are no more or no less important to Sunset's title hopes than they were last year as starters on a 29-0-2 squad that graduated 10 seniors the previous spring. Nor is the trio any more or any less important than it was two years ago as sophomore starters on a team that finished 30-1-0 after graduating eight seniors the year before.
True, Mosquera, Grant and Villegas (pronounced Vee-A-gazz) are far and away the best players on this year's team, which graduated 12 seniors last year. But nobody's foolish enough to believe they're the only keys to a three-peat.
"We instill a team psychology and concept at Sunset," says head coach Kevin Myers, 26. "We preach that nobody can be successful without the support of everybody else doing their job. It seems simple, but these guys really buy into that. Soccer is not an individual thing here. Getting your name in the paper and stats are not the most important thing when you play at Sunset. But if you play the way we ask you to play, your name will go in the paper and the stats will come."
Don't believe it? Try these stats on for size: In compiling a 59-1-2 record and a pair of state titles during the past two seasons, the Knights have outscored opponents 256-32. During that span, Mosquera has recorded 51 goals and 26 assists, including 33 goals and 12 assists as a junior, while Grant has anchored a defense that's produced 39 shutouts and surrendered a paltry 0.52 goals per game. Villegas, meanwhile, set a single-season school record with 20 shutouts as a sophomore and had a 0.58 goals-against average as a junior.
Keep in mind, that dominance was achieved despite the combined loss of 18 seniors in consecutive graduations. If the 2005-06 Knights are to overcome the graduation of a dozen seniors from last year's squad, having an All-State standout in every zone of the field may not be the key. But it sure will help.
"It's only an advantage for us that we're all playing different positions," says the 5-foot-7, 165-pound Mosquera, who played in his native Colombia as a freshman. "It's better than if we had three All-State forwards or three All-State defenders. This way, we have a very good presence at each important place on the field."
That's not to say starting big-time talents at what are arguably the three most important positions on the soccer pitch — striker, central back and keeper — doesn't up the ante for each of these guys.
"Do you find yourself feeling a little pressure to make each pass and each shot perfect? Yeah, absolutely," says Mosquera, who'll turn 18 on May 18 and will play in college at Central Florida next year. "You do feel like you have to stand up and make an impact with those guys around. The way they play defense and in net, if they're playing well, you know you just have to go out and get one goal. So you really want to make sure you get the one."
"Yeah, you feel extra pressure," says the 5-foot-8, 143-pound Grant, who will turn 18 on April 15. "We graduated the outside defenders on either side of me, so I feel a big responsibility to keep the goal safe. At the same time, you know that each person will pick up the slack for the other on this team and amongst the three of us. You know they're doing their best as well.
"I think it helps having won the national championship twice," adds Grant, who will play at Southern Methodist University next year. "We keep that in mind, and it's what pulls us through."
Coach Myers echoes that sentiment. As the stakes get higher, past success carries even greater weight, he says.
"They're three-year starters as of this season and they've been to the peak twice," says Myers, a former Miami Killian soccer standout. "When you handle those situations more and more, time after time, the pressure alleviates. It becomes less influential in your play."
Of course, that doesn't change things for the guy who sees himself as ultimately accountable. But even as the last line of defense for Sunset, the 5-foot-10, 145-pound Villegas draws strength from being part of the Knights' three-headed monster.
"If a forward misses a couple of shots or a defender blows an assignment, people forget about it in a few minutes," says Villegas, who will turn 19 on July 9 and rated Florida International, North Florida and Barry University as his top three college choices as of press time. "But if I let one in, nobody forgets. That really keeps you on your toes. It helps a lot to have confidence in each other, though. Stephen never leaves me and Niko is relentless up front doing his thing. We have each other's back."
Given the fact that two of Sunset's most decorated players spend the majority of their time within 18 yards of their own net, it'd be easy to say everything starts with the Knights' defense. But that's just wrong.
This year's team, like its predecessors, is built on balance. Sunset scored 128 goals and allowed only 14 during the 2003-04 season before scoring 128 goals and surrendering just 18 in 2004-05. In last year's state final, Sunset beat Sarasota, 8-0, to become the first team in Florida history to win a state title game by the eight-goal mercy rule.
With Mosquera, Grant and Villegas spread across the field, there's no reason to think this year's team will be much different.
"Stephen makes it very difficult for opposing forwards to find space to pass or take the ball through," says Myers. "Diego seems to make his biggest saves in the biggest games of the year and just when the team needs it most. Niko brings a never-quit mentality up front. He has natural scoring ability and he pursues the ball throughout the opposing third of the field, never allowing a defense to recover. They're a pretty dangerous group."
And he's not just talking about his big three.