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Corona del Mar survives without Jack McBean

Brian Ford knows well how good Jack McBean is on a soccer field, but he finds the notion that his longtime friend and teammate has signed a pro contract -- and with the Galaxy, no less -- stunning.

“It's like a Freddy Adu story,” Ford said. “But if there's anyone to do it, it would be Jack.”

McBean, just 16 and a high school sophomore, is expected to arrive in Galaxy camp next week, soon after Sunday's CONCACAF U-17 Championship title game in Jamaica. It's the start of a process that, in another four or five years or so, might have the striker squarely on the street to stardom.

His biggest fans are the ones he's left behind, his friends and teammates at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach, and they're trying to win a championship without him. It's not easy.

“When he said he was going to leave, we supported it 100 percent,” Ford, a UC Davis-bound defender, said after a victory earlier this week sent the Sea Kings into Friday's CIF Southern Section Division 3 quarterfinals. “It's inspiring, but we've just got to worry about ourselves. Once Jack left, we started to realize: 'Hey, it's not about him, it's about us as a team, too,' so we've got to do our own thing, with or without Jack.”

Corona del Mar had McBean, just a freshman, for runs to CIF Southern Section and Southern California Regional titles last year, but that was a big, powerful, experienced side -- UCLA's Reed Williams was the marquee player -- that just overpowered opponents. This year's team (15-2-7), which plays Friday at Santa Maria (with a showdown against fellow Regional titlist Paramount looming in the semifinals), has had to find its own path after losing, for all intents, seven starters from that group.

“It's been a challenge, but I think we've grown through it,” said Sea Kings coach George Larsen, who also coached McBean and four of his CdM teammates to a national championship last summer with Slammers FC's U-16 team. “You know, last year we kind of got hot and stayed hot all the way through, whereas this year there was more of a learning process, there was more of a learning curve.

“It was about setting the proper expectations, because there's a tendency to want to compare yourself to last year. That's kind of been the tone of us, is just saying, 'Hey, you don't have to go defend what you won last year. You're not defending anything -- just be the best team we can be this year, come together, and whatever happens happens. You know?”

McBean joined the Galaxy's academy program last August, after the Slammers' triumph, and when he accepted an invitation late last fall to join the U.S. under-17 national team's residency in Bradenton, Fla., his time with Corona del Mar was done.

It was a little bittersweet, acknowledged junior defender Jack Gorab, to see him go.

“He's our best friend, and you don't want to be selfish and say he should stay here, because it's, like, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Gorab, who (along with midfielder Mason Case, defender Greg Allen and goalkeeper Connor Gaal) also was part of the Slammers' title team. We're crazy happy for him.”

But McBean's departure was followed by that of right back Matt Francini to play for Irvine Strikers in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. Injuries deprived the Sea Kings of midfielder Grady Howe (a Galaxy Academy player), who made an inspirational return in Wednesday's 4-2 second-round victory over Santa Ana Valley.

Case stepped up, moving from midfield into McBean's role, and he's scored 18 goals. Gorab, a All-CIF selection last season as a sophomore, has been sensational on the left flank. (He scored on a superb free kick and delivered a beautiful corner kick for Case to head home Wednesday). Ford, a natural right back, has been big in the middle. Allen has been the backline anchor in front of Gaal, another All-CIF pick.

Others have contributed, and Corona del Mar has absorbed blows from foes looking to knock off the champs and is playing its best soccer in the playoffs.

“We're kind of expected to do good things this year,” Ford said, “and we're starting to fill those shoes.”

How much better would CdM be with McBean? A different level.

“Oh yeah,” said Larsen, who has been McBean's coach half the youngster's life. “You're talking about one of the best players in the country. And he's a forward so … absolutely. We like our chances. You put Jack on the field as a forward, we like our chances.”

It also would allow Case to move back to midfield -- he was a force in the middle, a tactical switch, against Santa Ana Valley -- and “strengthens everything about our team,” Larsen said.

“You can't put it into words,” Gorab says when asked how good McBean is. “We've been growing with him, playing on teams with him since he was 6. He was just another one of us, maybe a little better, and then he just soared. At 15-16, he just soared up.

“He grew, he got bigger, he worked harder. And he has talent.”

And his story serves as inspiration. If McBean can make it to pro soccer, why can't Gorab? Or Ford? Or Case?

“It does [inspire you],” Gorab said. “Because he's been our best friend forever, so if he can do it, maybe I can. I don't know.”

Neither does Larsen. The coach calls McBean “the real deal” and predicts he'll “be playing professionally a long time.” Do others of his players have pro potential?

“Pro? I'd say … you know, I don't know,” Larsen said. “So many things have to go your way. Talk about kids who are going to be very good at the next level, which is Division I college ball, you obviously look at guys like Mason Case, Jack Gorab, Brian Ford. Those guys are going to do really well in college. Connor Gaal is going to do really well. Greg Allen.

“These are all guys who have everything on their playing resume. They have athletic abilities, and they're going to be ready for the next level.”

Only time will determine whether any of them develop into something greater.