Orlando, FL – The final day of competition has arrived and no alarm clock was needed to wake up at 6am. 16 teams arrived at ESPN Wide World of Sports with the intent to win their pool play to advance to the semifinals. Only 4 remain in contention for the Danone Cup. Barcelona USA, Coral Gables Toros, Weston FC, and Miami Elite FC.
We arrived to the fields 45 minutes prior to kickoff. The weather was much cooler since it was an 8am match and the humidity levels had eased up. I think we had all adapted to the conditions a bit more. However, I couldn’t take the chance of our boys not playing at 100% so a good pep talk was in order.
A little brainwashing per say was just what the doctor ordered. I explained to the boys that our fitness coach, John Eshom, had phoned me the night before to give me some great news. What was the news? That after 3 days in the heat and humidity that was killing them and hindering their performance, their bodies had adapted and they would feel perfect on the 4th day. So there would be no holding back! You run like savages to recover the ball in 5 seconds when we lose possession.
After the brainwashing, there was tactical instruction before our warm up. Toros played a 3-2-2 formation. Most every team sticks to a traditional 3-3-1. I explained what it meant for us offensively and defensively.
When we have the ball, our attacks must be built quickly to our outside mids who would have acres of space and good numbers to attack with our outside backs creating a 2 v 1 on the wings. When we lost possession, our outside mids needed to shrink immediately to have a numerical advantage in the middle of the field.
I then informed the defenders of what players on the opposition were right or left footed so they could be forced to their weak foot in our defensive third.
Last bit of instruction was set piece offense on how to expose a Toro weakness noted in pool play games. Our offensive corners needed a driven ball to the near post where they had no zonal marker in the area.
Warm up went smooth. Then I asked questions and had the players give me answers about the important tactical instruction. Their answers were spot on. It was game time.
Back Line: Togo, Mikey, John
MF: Alex, Charlie, Jona
Game kicked off, and to my surprise the Toros had a game plan. They just sat back deep in their own half of the field and allowed us tons of space and time to move the ball as we pleased. The Toros were putting all their hopes in their counter attacks and set pieces a la Chelsea. This was great news! It would let us find our rhythm, monopolize the ball, and most importantly not demand too much out of us physically with the possible final looming later in the day. Props to the Toros coaching staff for having a game plan in place. They showed our boys a ton of respect with this cautious approach.
The patience to build our attacks was superb. The boys circulated the ball side to side and chose when it was time to change the pace and launch an attack. We created several goal scoring opportunities but couldn’t put the finishing touch and went to half time 0-0.
More good news? The sun would now be directly in the eyes of the opposing keeper, which in my opinion was amongst the top 2 of the tournament.
The bad news soon followed as Toros struck within 10 seconds of starting the second half. We pressured their kick off as they played their center back. Their coach smartly told their CB to play back through the middle of the field. They executed to perfection and found one of their midfielders with 20 yards of space. He attacked it and unleashed a low drived 25 yard shot that went under Jesus for a goal. Down 1-0 and all 8 men back defending. We had 29 + minutes to attack and I calmed our boys down.
We struck for two quick goals midway through the half. The first from Misa after a rebound following a great left footed shot from Jona. Then Alex supplied a sublime diagonal ball that Jona took off the volley to give us the 2-1 lead.
Toros now had to step out and play the remaining 14 minutes instead of sit in their own box. They turned up the pressure and created some half chances. It wasn’t until they got a corner kick with under 2 minutes to play that we felt threatened. They got their equalizer off a rebounded clearance with 2 Toros players in a clear offside position. The home Floridian crowd went bananas and into overtime we went.
We decided to put an attacking line up and shifted John Hilton to midfield to get the game winner. Toros was content with sitting and counter attacking seeking to reach the pk shootout stage. John Hilton raced onto a through ball and nearly finished but the ball was deflected out for a corner. The final whistle blew moments later and the lottery of pk’s would begin.
This is where things got really crazy!
Penalty shoot out
– Toros shot first and scored. 1-0 Toros
– Jona stepped up for us and hit a driven ball to the keepers right who ended up making a great save. 1-0 Toros
– Toros 2nd shooter cooly steps up and finished to the right for the 2-0 lead.
– Charlie steps up for us and hit a low driven shot that deflects off the right post and out. 2-0 Toros after 2 shots.
THING ARE LOOKING GLOOM BUT I’VE EXPERIENCED CRAZIER THINGS IN SOCCER.
I was busy picking up our boys on the bench beside me who were in tears seeing how our chances were fading away and didn’t realize that the linesman had flagged the Toros GK for moving early and off his line. Charlie had to retake the 2nd shot. We caught a huge break.
– Charlie steps back up and finishes the 2nd time around. 2-1 Toros
– Toros 3rd shot attempt was saved by Jesus!!! Momentum was shifting! 2-1 Toros
– John Hilton steps up and shows his Brazilian class by teasing the goalie with body fakes to even things up 2-2
– Toros score their 4th. 3-2
– Alex steps to take the 4th and shows his ability under pressure to tie things up 3-3
– Another shot, another goal for the Toros 4-3.
– Uly “Neymar” steps up with all the pressure in the world on his shoulders to tie thins up or we are out of the cup. Crowd chanting Neymar miss! Uly calmly slots home and silences the crowd. 4-4
– Sudden death pk time. As the next Toro took the lonely walk from midfield you can tell in his body language the boy was terrified. I whispered to our players who were all in arms next to me that this was it. He would miss and sure enough he skied the ball way over the crossbar.
– It was Louie Arellano’s turn to step up to take us to the finals. This boy has balls of steel and I knew we were in. Louie drives a low bullet into the net that set off a wild celebration for the boys. 5-4 Barca USA to the finals!!!
Sidenote – The emotional strain left our boys weeping uncontrollably at the end of the game. The intensity and pressure that they felt taking pk’s in front of such a large crowd had taken it’s toll. The parents and I quickly reacted and took them away from the field where the Toros parents had invaded and were verbally abusing the referees. A hostile atmosphere for 11 year olds to experience. In the locker room the tears quickly turned into smiles as the boys realized what they had done – taken down another giant on their way to the final.
We had some bad news to deal with as our captain and center back Mikey had been taken out of the game with a brutal challenge to his ankle. He couldn’t even walk on his own power to leave the field. Chances of him competing in the final? Zero.