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For Warriors, big stage set

GREENVILLE, S.C. — The grass looked brown when Wallingford Warriors soccer coach Dave Rodriguez first stole a peak on Google Earth at the MESA Soccer Complex, the 16-field site eight miles outside this northwestern South Carolina city where his team will be competing over the next four days for the National Presidents Cup.

Just goes to show you there’s nothing like the real thing.

Rodriguez and his Warriors arrived at MESA for a training session on Wednesday and, mouths agape, stepped onto the soccer version of Ray Kinsella’s cornfield.

“Those fields were as green as green can be,” Rodriguez recounted by phone. “When we pulled into the complex it was like Field of Dreams for the kids. Their eyes just lit up.”

Any why not: 16 fields, each as well manicured as the next, each at regulation width, which fits the Warriors’ defensive style of play. It’s unlikely a bad bounce is going to be a factor.

Said Rodriguez, “It’s like playing on a gym floor, the grass is cut so short.”

This morning at 10 a.m. the Warriors will be on Field 7 to take on the SASA Spirits of Springfield, Ill. It is the first of three “preliminary” games the local boys will play in as many days. LV Neon 97 of Las Vegas awaits on Friday. The Cape Coral Cyclones of Florida loom on Saturday.

There’s nothing “preliminary” about these games, by the way. They’ll decide which two teams meet in Sunday’s championship game and which two meet in the consolation.

The Warriors have every intention of playing in the former. They’re almost 100 percent healthy (center back Nic Gagnon’s heel is the only issue, and he is expected to play) and Rodriguez is confident he has the troops coached up on the tactical points of tournament play.

The only drawback was Wednesday’s weather. The Warriors were just 20 minutes into their practice at MESA when a storm chased them back to the Embassy Suites, where they’re staying in Greenville.

Rodriguez and Co. arrived Tuesday night at 9 p.m. after a trouble-free ride on a coach bus that left Wallingford at 6 a.m. Traffic was light, the movie rotation deep. “Caddyshack” bumped up against “The Hunger Games.”

The Warriors are certainly hungry to stage a classic. They’ve been playing together since early childhood. They’ve played in their share of out-of-state tournaments, including at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Florida. They’ve won their share, including the Region 1 Presidents Cup in Pennsylvania over the Memorial Day weekend, which made them the first Connecticut team to ever qualify for the National Presidents Cup.

Their opponents are something of a mystery. The basic scouting reports indicate that the Las Vegas team, true to its home city, is fast and aggressively attacks. Springfield, perhaps equally true to its Midwestern roots, is reportedly very disciplined.

If so, that makes today’s opener a meeting of similar teams and Friday’s affair a collision of contrasts. Saturday’s game with the Cyclones could very well decide if the Warriors play for a crown or a consolation on Sunday.

First things first, and that’s today. In tournament soccer, an opening victory is big — bigger than big.

“It’s huge,” Rodriguez said. “You’ve got to get off to a huge start.”

The Warriors are coached by Rodriguez, Joe Murray and Brian Burr. They are Jeff Baska, Mike Beale, Alex Burr, Matt Cohen, Nic Gagnon, Dylan Hogan, Jon Jacobs, Alberto Maio, Jon Murray, Gianluca Perotti, Drin Pacuku, Zach Putnam, Javy Reyes, Andre Rodriguez, David Rodriguez, Carmelo Saia, Gardiner Schroeder, Justin Seledyn, Joey Slivinski and Zach Sola.

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