Woke up nice and early to eat some breakfast and prepare the boys with a tactical walk through. We centered on how we wanted to attack in possession and defend against Soccer Stars USA’s 3-4-3 formation.
Boys looked ready and anxious. Got them prepped in our locker room and around 10:15 we took to the field for warm up. If there’s anything the tournament lacks, it’s proper warm up time on the field. Games start without delay every hour. Most facilities don’t have sufficient space to have a proper warm up with the ball so it’s just a little 15 by 5 strip of turf adjacent to the goals.
We opened with our 4-3-3 formation and came out with lots of intensity. We started our only early 2000 (in terms of age), Nathan at left back since Togo was having some pain in his foot during warm up. A few minutes into the game and we were in on goal. Misa cleverly dummied a ball at the half way line and the center back bought it leaving him in on the wing 1 v 1 with the keeper. Uly was making a dashing run on the weak side accompanying Misa directly to goal. Misa decided he was going to finish by himself and his effort went straight to the keeper. An early chance to take the lead was wasted.
It didn’t take long to create a second chance. Same scenario, but this one from the left flank. Misa was in the box and this time squared the ball to an open Uly. His first touch to settle got away from him and then his shot was blocked. Probably should have 1-timed it. Again, a chance wasted that we knew in a game like this had to be put away.
To USA Soccer Star’s credit, they knew how we play … building up out of the back and through our midfield, and did a great job pressuring us into mistakes. One of those mistakes almost cost us midway through the half. Our keeper, Jesus, made a brilliant foot save this time to keep USA stars off the board. Their pressure on our goal kicks never let us get comfortable on the ball. Turnover after turnover in the back. Our midfield was lacking the precision in our passing to get the ball to our front 3 who were all 1 v 1 with their 3 man back line. We suffered to get to halftime with the 0-0 scoreline.
At the half we quickly rehearsed with the boys how we wanted to come out of the back. How to play short on goal kicks and each time our GK had possession; but to bypass our 3 center mids who were all marked tight and get it straight to our forwards.
The boys understood the plan but, with little rehearsal in training, had a difficult time executing. Midway through the second half USA Soccer Stars broke through and scored after having a shot blocked at the top of the 18, the rebound was collected by an unmarked player and finished into an empty net. It seemed offsides to me since there was only 1 player between the ball and the striker when he received (as gk was on top of 18). We will look at the video later to confirm but the fact is we were now down a goal with just under 12 minutes left.
We switched to a 3-4-3 ourselves to: (a) match their numbers in midfield (b) attempt to get more men in the box when getting the ball wide to our winger, and (c) create 2 v 1 situations a lot easier on the outside with our midfield now having to cover shorter distances to get to offensive third.
We created a great opportunity through Uly on the left side as he dashed into the box, a clear hand ball by the defender was waived off by the ref (a clear pk, but the ref gave advantage) and Uly crashed his shot off the top crossbar. Again, we felt the pk would have been a lot better than getting the advantage call.
The minutes ticked on and we created one last half-chance off a corner that Misa headed high and wide. Out of the cup we went. The boys gave it their all in this closely contested match, but the athleticism and size of the older USA Soccer Stars proved to be too much. We give up 6 months to a year in age to most teams in the tournament.
After this devastating blow we addressed the boys in the locker room. It seemed like a funeral service as the boys were in tears. This group is not used to losing games. In fact, they’ve only lost one match in regulation over the last 2 years in all tournaments and competitions and it was when I was handed a 1 match ban for questioning a referee about a violent foul on our GK . Needless to say, we consoled the boys and told them to let this be a learning lesson. We use this pain to fuel the fire in each player – it will propel them through the upcoming season. As I’m sure you know, one can usually take more valuable lessons from a loss than a W. For the coaching staff, it was time to rehearse a plan B when playing older and more athletic opponents. We need the boys to know exactly what to do when being pressed inside our defensive third and how to solve this problem on the fly.
Ajax (yes, the real Ajax)
Lucky for us, the pain and tears didn’t last long. The Ajax head coaches contacted our tournament guide and requested a friendly for that same night at 8pm. They had scouted our team in anticipation of playing us in the quarterfinals and we both ended up losing in round of 16. We quickly accepted the invitation.
Danny and I spoke with the boys to inform them of the news. We got a mixed reaction as most of the boys were still crushed from being eliminated and didn’t really look enthused to play. It was time to share the significance of playing such an elite soccer academy like Ajax. The dutch school has provided one of the best pipelines to professional football in history. Also, the message was loud and clear. The sign of a true champion and competitor is shown the game after an adverse result. The boys eyes lit up and they were now ready to compete.
Kickoff was at 8pm local time under the lights at L’estartit stadium. We had seen Ajax play in their pool play games in which they went 3-0 with 34 goals for and 1 against. This was an aggressive team that wants to attack, attack, and attack. They play a 3-4-3 with a high line who wants to press you and keep you inside your own half. At kick off, we instructed the boys to play a ball in behind their high back line to our right winger Jonathan Estrada. Alex Mendez delivered the perfect ball and Estrada got in behind to round the keeper and give a 1-0 lead 10 seconds into the game. What a dream start!
Ajax quickly rebounded and 8 minutes later equalized off a clear offsides missed by the ref. Another quick note, in all preliminary games leading to the quarterfinals it was a 1 man ref system with no linemen. It’s not an easy job so you have to live with the close calls. Our boys kept pressing them with their high line leaving a ton of space for us to get behind. Alex Mendez again sprayed a beautiful ball behind their line that Neymar junior (Uly) collected and finished. Charly nabbed a 3rd goal to give us a 3-1 lead at the half. Again, our boys were having trouble finding a rhythm playing short out of the back with the high pressure Ajax was bringing, but never once did we resort to punting the ball a la americana.
We reviewed again how to beat this high press with playing our CB and him 1-timing it by our midfield to a winger that would check out and back to the ball to lose his marker. We changed half the team at the break to get all the boys equal time against such a prestigious rival. The team came out a little flat and before we knew it 3 goals in quick succession had us down 4-3 with under 10 minutes to go. You knew Ajax can score and score in numbers having won 19-0 the night before when we scouted them. Made some changes and brought our attacking firepower back on. Sure enough, on a quick restart after being fouled near the Ajax box, Alex Mendez used his smarts to pick out Jonathan Estrada who again calmly beat a defender and finished inside the 6 yard box. 4-4!!! What a game!
The final whistle came and boys were again sporting big smiles. Ending the trip on a high note playing against and tying Ajax was a huge accomplishment.
Sidenote 1 – Ajax players were all super super technical. They were amazing with the ball at their feet and all of them can hit a bomb from 30 yards. It was clear how they are being taught technique way before team tactics. Also, it is always attack mode for all 11 players. Defending is not their strong suit, although high pressure is definitely something they work on when losing possession.
Sidenote 2 – In between our r16 game and Ajax friendly I drove out to Torroella de Montgri to watch Barcelona vs Leganes quarterfinal game. Ben Lederman started and wore the mythical #10 shirt. He put on quite a show during the first 25 minutes. He has the cleanest ball-handling skills on his team. He is different, with an elegance on the ball rarely seen in a player his age. Hans Schonhoffer, a friend of mine and professional coach at Espanyol B watched the game with me. I asked him at half what he thought of Danny Lederman’s son so far. He asked me which player it is? It told him #10. He could not believe that was the American boy in the Academy. He truly thinks that Ben is a special talent and may one day make the break on the international stage if he keeps up with his development. Barcelona won the game 6-0 to secure a spot in tomorrow’s semis vs Manchester United.
Video with examples to follow.