Sisters Tracy and Kaylene Pang bucked unlikely odds to take each of their teams to National finals this summer
By Brian Beaky, Editor, PlayOn!
It’s one of those stories that is so unlikely, it would be laughed out of the office of any Hollywood producer.
Two sisters, playing on two separate Washington Youth Soccer teams, reaching the National Championships in the same year? Heck, the same week?
To understand the odds against the summer that David and Suzanne Pang, and their two youngest daughters Tracy and Kaylene, just experienced, you have to first understand the enormity of US Youth Soccer. Each year, over 3 million youth soccer players sprint onto fields across the nation, many dreaming of winning their State Cup title. Few bother to dream of a National Championship: of the approximately 30,000 teams nationwide who will enter their state’s State Championship and Presidents Cup events, fewer than 100 — less than one third of one percent — will find themselves lining up at the end of the season with the chance to win a US Youth Soccer National Championship or Presidents Cup National Championship.
Multiply those odds together, to represent the combined probability of any two specific teams, like Tracy’s and Kaylene’s, making it to Nationals in the same year, and you’re left with a figure so small — 0.001024 percent — as to have almost nothing to compare. It’s just half as likely as either sister’s odds of being struck by lightning, and 10 times less likely than their being in a plane crash.
In other words, it just doesn’t happen. But it did.
Tracy, 17, and Kaylene, 14, have been playing soccer since kindergarten, each making the decision to transition to premier teams at Eastside FC around the fourth grade. In the years since, prior to 2013, neither sister had ever been on a team that advanced even within a sniff of Nationals — Tracy’s best teams topped out in bracket play at Regionals, while Kaylene’s Eastside FC 98 Red had never even made it to a State Cup final. Competing for — or even winning — a National Championship was far from either sister’s purpose for playing competitive soccer.
“I love playing soccer,” says Tracy, a senior at Issaquah High School. “It’s helped me learn how to balance my time wisely, and improved my social skills. It’s helped with academics, too; I get better grades in-season than out of season.”
Kaylene agrees with that statement, while mom Suzanne notes that each of the girls indeed excel in school — Tracy maintains a 3.97 grade-point average, while Kaylene holds a perfect 4.0. Older sister Jenna was also an academic and athletic standout, though she chose to shine on the volleyball court, not the soccer field.
In June, however, as each of their teams moved from Washington Youth Soccer State Cups into Regional play, each sister allowed the idea of possibly traveling to Nationals to creep into their mind.
Tracy’s Region IV Presidents Cup was first, in Boise, Idaho, June 12-16. David and Suzanne both attended, with David leaving after semi-finals to travel with Kaylene to Hawaii for the US Youth Soccer Far West Regionals, scheduled to begin the following week, June 17-23. As Tracy’s Eastside FC 95 White rolled past their first four opponents by scores of 9-1, 4-1, 3-0 and 5-0, the possibility of a trip to Nationals became real. A hard-fought, shootout win over the host Idaho team put Eastside in the final, where they would face a Utah squad that had outscored opponents 20-3 entering the championship game.
“It was a surreal game,” Tracy recalls. “No one on our team had ever been that far before. It was nervewracking; our adrenaline was going. We scored a goal late in the game and then just played hard, trying to hold on. When the whistle blew, it was just an amazing feeling. We were going to Nationals!”
Tracy’s team had won State Cup on Mother’s Day; now, they had added a Regional Championship on Father’s Day. David, who had already planned to take two weeks off from his job as an engineer at Boeing to attend the consecutive Regional tournaments, suddenly found himself scrambling to coordinate a second vacation — this time, to July’s National Presidents Cup in Florida.
“Fortunately, my work was very supportive,” he says, adding that the same was true for Suzanne. “They said, ‘It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and who knows when it will end? Go now, while you can.’”
With one ticket to Nationals already booked, it was now Kaylene’s turn. Surely, lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it?
Where Tracy’s squad had gone a perfect 6-0 in winning their Regional, Kaylene’s Eastside FC 98 Red was slower out of the gate, winning its first match and drawing its next two to finish second in its group and advance to the eight-team quarterfinal. Indeed, the team’s five points and plus-3 goal differential tied for the lowest total among advancing teams — though their one goal allowed in three games was an early sign of a defense that would come to be team’s hallmark in the weeks to come.
“The Regional quarterfinal was a hard-fought game, but we won, 1-0,” Kaylene recalls. “That was the first time where we thought, ‘We’re just two games away. We can win this thing.’”
She was right. After another hard-fought, 2-1 win over a Colorado team that up to that point had not allowed a single goal in the entire tournament, Eastside FC 98 Red faced Utah’s La Roca FD in the final, a squad they had played to a 0-0 draw in the group stage.
“We were so tense. Our old coach [U.S. Soccer veteran Michelle French] had come to support us, and we were nervous about the game,” Kaylene says. “But once it started, we really just dominated.”
In their biggest moment of the team’s life to that date, Eastside FC 98 Red played its most impressive game, scoring three times while keeping a clean sheet to clinch the Far West Regional title and a berth at the United States’ most prestigious youth soccer tournament, the US Youth Soccer National Championships in Overland Park, Kans.
Once again, though, it was Tracy who played first.
“We didn’t know any of the other teams [at Nationals] and were nervous about the humidity in Florida,” Tracy says. “We knew, though, that these would be our last chance in the Presidents Cup, and we wanted to make every game count.”
Just as they had at Regionals, Eastside FC 95 White stormed through bracket play, winning three straight games to advance to the championship against New York (East). A 3-0 defeat in the finals, though, brought an end to the team’s run — and, at the highest age group, to their Presidents Cup careers.
“I was trying to act like it was just another tournament,” says David, who attended the National Presidents Cup with Suzanne while Kaylene stayed home to prep for her own Nationals the following week. “But when they lost, it was heartbreaking. It was an emotional moment. But boy, what a way to go out!
“And then I thought, ‘"Oh my gosh, now I have to go do this whole thing again.’”
A week later, the Pangs were back on the road, this time to Kansas for the US Youth Soccer National Championships. The day before group play began, teams were invited to a special luncheon where the National Championship trophies were on display, and highlights from the four Regional Championships were shown. U.S. legend Mia Hamm gave the keynote address. The message was clear to every Eastside player — you’ve worked so hard to make it this far, don’t hold anything back now.
Eastside opened group play with a 2-0 win over Illinois, displaying that dominant defense and superb finishing by forward Joanna “Jojo” Harber once again. With each successive game — a 1-0 win over Rhode Island, and a 0-0 draw with Georgia, the excitement began to build throughout the soccer community, both in Kansas and back home. KCPQ TV had featured the team prior to their departure and was reporting the girls’ scores each night, while social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were abuzz with stories about the team.
For Tracy, back home in Issaquah with her silver medal from the National Presidents Cup, it was a mixed bag of emotions.
“I wanted them to do well, but it was also hard seeing her have all that success, having just lost,” she recalls.
Asked whether the two sisters have a competitive relationship, they both chuckle. “Oh, yeah,” Tracy says. “But obviously I was supporting her. I mean, having two sisters both in national finals? That’s crazy.”
Entering the championship game against Eastern Pennsylvania, Eastside FC 98 Red was well aware of what was at stake. Kaylene says the game itself went by like a blur.
“Honestly, it was one of the fastest games I’ve ever been in,” she recalls. “We scored on an early goal by Jojo, where the keeper misplayed it and Jojo was able to put it in. Then right after halftime, Ellie [Bryant] got a header, and we just started scrambling after that, trying to clear everything. They got a goal back late, and we were just trying to hang on. That last period between their goal and the end of the game felt like forever.”
Led by Kaylene — who would go on to be named to the tournament’s prestigious Best XI — the Eastside defense held firm. At the final whistle, the team rushed the field, screaming in celebration at having become the first Washington Youth Soccer girls team since 1996 to win a National Championship.
“We tried pouring the ice bucket over our coach, Tom Bialek, but we couldn’t lift it,” she recalls with a laugh. “It was just crazy. It was the best feeling in the world.”
Two sisters, two National finals — and one National Championship. It’s hard to put it into perspective in the moment, but both sisters recognize just how special this summer has been.
“At the time, I didn’t really appreciate what we’d done, because I was disappointed that we lost,” Tracy says. “But after I got home, all of my friends were so excited, and the soccer community was very encouraging. We were second in the entire nation. It’s taught me that good things can happen if you’re willing to work hard.”
The lesson in victory, it turns out, is almost identical to the lesson in defeat: “Hard work pays off,” says Kaylene. “You have to keep working, even if you’re tired. You have to work hard, and be willing to sacrifice for your team.”
For the parents, David and Suzanne, the summer was an unforgettable affirmation of the years of practices and games their girls have endured throughout their careers.
“All the practices, all the weekends, all the hard work – it was all worth it,” Suzanne says. “I’m so happy for them to have made it. It was very special.”