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Dane Schnell, no. 6, holds the OFC U19 Championship trophy with teammates after New Zealand's 1-0 win over Tahiti. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / www.phototek.nz
Dane Schnell, no. 6, holds the OFC U19 Championship trophy with teammates after New Zealand's 1-0 win over Tahiti. Photo: Shane Wenzlick / www.phototek.nz

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Dane Schnell signed his National Letter of Intent to play soccer for Sacramento State back in March. But before he left his home in New Zealand to take the field in Sacramento, he had to help the U20 New Zealand National team clinch a spot in the 2019 U20 FIFA World Cup.

Schnell was one of 18 players selected to represent New Zealand at the 2018 Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) Championships. The team went undefeated in the tournament, clinching a berth in the 2019 U20 FIFA World Cup last Wednesday with a 2-1 win over New Caledonia. Then, on Saturday, New Zealand took down host Tahiti, 1-0, to claim the 2018 OFC U19 championship.

"The whole experience has been really incredible," Schnell said before heading into Saturday's championship match. "To represent your country is something which is very special. It's not often we get these opportunities so any chance I get to wear the fern I cherish."

New Zealand entered the tournament as the defending champions, having clinched the title in 2016 and a spot in the 2017 FIFA U20 World Cup. Being the reigning champs was definitely something that was present in the minds of this year's squad.

"There is always pressure coming into these tournaments for New Zealand because we are generally dubbed 'favorites'," Schnell said. "We were all well aware of the target we carried on our backs but we trust in the systems that the coaches have implemented and we also trust in ourselves to use that pressure positively."

Schnell and his teammates did just that and came out firing in their first group stage match, defeating tournament host Tahiti, 2-1.

The new Hornets midfielder played just 10 minutes in that first match for his country, entering the game in the 80th minute with his team already leading 2-1. That was the last match he started on the bench.

"For any player, they love to start, so for me there was definitely a sense of happiness to be named to the starting lineup after having not started in the first game against Tahiti," Schnell said of earning his place among the starting 11. "I knew I had worked hard in training so when I got my opportunity to start I did everything to make sure it wasn't the last."

Vs Tonga ????

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In New Zealand's second group stage contest, Schnell and his teammates dismantled Tonga, 14-0. Schnell, who started the match for New Zealand, scored his first goal of the tournament in the 36th minute to give New Zealand a 2-0 lead. His second goal of the match came in the 68th minute and made it 11-0.

"There were so many special moments on the trip," Schnell said when asked about how it felt to score his first goal. "Of course, one of my favorite personal moments would have to be scoring my first goal for my country, but qualifying for the World Cup next year in Poland and winning the tournament championship are both moments that beat that one out."

The team then defeated Papua New Guinea, 4-0, with Schnell again playing a full 90 minutes. That win secured them a spot in the knockout stage. With their 2-1 over New Caledonia, Schnell and the New Zealand team punched their ticket to the 2018 U20 World Cup, which will take place in Poland next summer.

Read more: NZ and Tahiti book World Cup berths

Read more: New Zealand wins seventh title

Absolute scenes last night ???

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"We're not sure when the group will be back together," said Schnell about preparing for the World Cup. "For me, my focus is just to ensure I do everything I can to be named to the squad. We have so many players itching to be involved in Poland so I can't think about being there until the ticket is booked and my name is on it."

"Of course, being named to the squad would be an amazing experience," he added.

Until then, though, Schnell has turned his attention to joining his team in Sacramento. The Hornets have already played three exhibition contests, but Schnell will join the team this week before they depart for their season opener at Portland.

"I'm very excited to join up with my teammates in Sacramento State and to play for the Hornets this year," he said. "Since I visited back in March I have been counting down the days."

"I've been watching from home and it looks as though we have a very strong team. I can't wait to get there and begin working with the team and coaches."