Falls Church soccer players panted in Tuesday afternoon’s 85-degree heat, hustling alongside the track while four of their teammates camped near the goal to conduct shooting drills during practice. One of those teammates, freshman forward Ahmed Elmataoui, jogged over to the water cooler, rinsed his mouth and spit every last drop onto the turf.
This week marks the most important stretch of these boys’ high school soccer careers. It also marks the start of Ramadan.
As the upstart Jaguars prepare for Friday’s 5A state semifinal, their Muslim quartet must also respect a sacred month of fasting that began Sunday night. A typical day for them this week mirrors junior midfielder Mahmoud El-Khatib’s routine: Fast before and during school, keep fasting at practice, take a nap, wake up at 8:30 p.m. to eat and drink about a gallon of water, sleep, wake up at 3:30 a.m. to drink some more, go back to sleep, wake up at 6:30, repeat.
No Falls Church soccer team has ever qualified for states, and no Falls Church team of any kind has ever won a state championship. As such, El-Khatib and company are opting for a temporary exemption from their religious obligations this weekend. The Jaguars face 5A South champ Mills Godwin at 4 p.m. at Lake Braddock.
“I wanted to make sure God knew that I have to make an exception on Friday, and if we win, then Saturday as well,” El-Khatib said.
Accommodating cultural differences is nothing new for a Falls Church squad whose roster reads like the attendance list of a United Nations conference. The Jaguars trace their roots to Brazil, Congo, El Salvador, Malaysia, Morocco, Nepal and Sierra Leone. One player is even from the United States.
Their nicknames, meanwhile, read off like the cast of some bizarre satirical play: Darth Bader, Georgie Bear, Mole Man, Water Boy, Gurkha and Chaps, to name just a few.
So who better to bring this ragtag bunch of international characters together than a 49-year-old Texas native who’s never left the country?
Previously an assistant, Joel Harrop took over the Jaguars’ head coaching reins this past winter, and it didn’t take him long to instill his message. He played Drake’s underdog anthem, “Started from the Bottom,” at the team’s first interest meeting in February, a fitting song for a woebegone program that won just one game last season. The next few months, Harrop declared, would revolve around only one thing: winning games.
“You have to be willing to reach into your opponent’s chest and rip their hearts out,” Harrop said.
Things didn’t work out that way, at least not at first. Falls Church dropped six of its first seven matches this season and was outscored 17-3 in the process. Goals were scarce, injuries were aplenty and cohesion was merely an idea.
Then, on April 18, the lowly Jaguars prevailed, 2-1, against arch rival Stuart. One week later they lost to George Mason by the same score, but even that felt like a victory. Mason rode into town on the wings of a 52-game win streak and had gone 611 consecutive minutes without conceding a goal.
Rather than trudge off the field with their heads down, Falls Church players walked away from the defeat with their chests out, suddenly confident they could hang with anyone. Harrop, proud of his boys, announced that they would have the following day off from practice.
“Coming off the field the captains came up to me and said, ‘We don’t want a day off’,” Harrop recalled. “That’s when the change happened.”
Five weeks went by before the rejuvenated Jaguars (11-8-1) lost another game. Goals spurted from the increasingly telepathic connection between Bimosan Ghimire and Vagner Marques Rodriguez up top, while senior defensive midfielder Jacob Merkel fortified their resistance in the back. Falls Church triumphed over Jefferson, 1-0, on a fourth-overtime golden goal from Ghimire in the Conference 13 final, then axed a heavily favored Broad Run squad that had captured two of the previous three 5A North region titles.
Muhammad Zulkifely, a soft-spoken Malaysian transplant nicknamed “The Silent Assassin,” nutmegged a defender so severely during the team’s 3-2 win over Atlee that one opponent raised his hands to his head in disbelief, then began clapping on his way down the field.
Following the Stuart game, Harrop’s girlfriend vowed to make chocolate chip cookies for the team after every win. The eight-game win streak nearly perfected her baking skills — it also confined her to the kitchen until midnight three times in one week.
A three-and-a-half-hour bus ride ended in a 2-1 loss against Albemarle in the region championship last Friday, but the Jaguars took solace in being the first Falls Church soccer team to reach that stage since the 1978 unit that fell to McLean in penalty kicks.
Harrop can’t take all the coaching credit for this gobsmacking turnaround. Cristian Alvarado, a fellow IT consultant who met Harrop while fixing a classroom projector last year, rose from junior varsity coach to varsity assistant midway through this season, and his tactical acumen from years playing in Peru made an immediate impact on the players. Alvarado’s endless supply of drills have ingrained consistency in the Jaguars, while his passion has rubbed off on everyone. The fiery taskmaster didn’t speak on the bus ride after losing to Albemarle, nor could he bring himself to leave the house the next day.
“I don’t just take it as a coach. I also take it as a player,” said Alvarado, 27. “I put myself in their shoes and feel how they feel.”
More than anything, the Jaguars are still standing because they play hard. Thirty minutes of sprint drills to start every practice has conditioned them to wear opponents down, and a rising desire to win at all costs has them throwing their bodies around like hockey players.
As the pep band filed into place and students filled the stands before the Broad Run game last week, the lyrics blaring through speakers at Paul Weber Stadium laid bare an unlikely scene: “Started from the bottom, now the whole team here.”
All that separates a lowly upstart from the very top are two games.
“Everybody wants it, not just one person,” Ghimire said. “We’re a team.”