• Gautam Nayak
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WMFC 2012: Malmo Redux

The 2012 World Championships of Medical Football Teams took place in Malmo, Sweden this past summer.  Eleven teams from all over the world participated, and after a raucous Opening Ceremony punctuated by Maurcio Pleitez’s wonderfully directed Star Wars themed US introduction, Team USA found themselves in the Group of Death, with Great Britain, Brazil, and host Sweden.  Despite renewed confidence going into the tournament with new coach Stephen Merriwether, USMST clearly had it’s hands full.  The goal, however, was to advance out of the group, regardless of draw.

 

IMG_1920The opener against Brazil went as anticipated.  Brazil played strong ball control with crisp and directed passing, and while the first 25 minutes played to a draw, the Brazilians were able to score on a long shot from well outside the penalty box, deflating what had been a strong start by USMST.  A 2-0 halftime deficit eventually disintegrated into a 5-0 loss, though the score did not seem to reflect how close the match truly was.  USMST played organized soccer, but could not find a way to break down the Brazilian midfield, and the Brazilians were able to capitalize on some defensive breakdowns late in the game to put the game well out of reach.

 

The second match against Sweden was going to be critical.  USMST’s first win ever came against Sweden last year in Manchester, so confidence going into the match was high.  The red, white and blue got off to an early 2-0 lead with some great set piece play, but soon coughed the lead up heading into halftime with defensive miscues and mental lapses.   The second half was all Sweden.  They played a tremendous pressure style on both offense and defense, and forced Team USA out of any rhythm that had been established in the first half.  Termed “the Viking spirit”, this style of play would eventually carry Sweden all the way to the finals.  Unfortunately for USMST, the first glimpse of what was to come occurred against them starting in the second half.  Down 4-2 with minutes remaining in the game, Farnoosh Tinoosh took one for the team, getting fouled hard in the penalty area leading to a penalty kick goal to close the goal differential.  Unfortunately, the cost of this goal would be too high, as Farnoosh broke his clavicle and was out for the remainder of the tournament.  A 4-3 loss was a heartbreaker against a team USMST felt they could beat.  With Great Britain on the horizon, advancing out of the group looked to be a far fetched dream.IMG_1976

 

The final match in group play against Great Britain was billed as a formality by most watching the tournament.  The Brits were playing great football and looked to be the top team in the tournament.  USMST was coming off two big losses and the demoralizing fact that for the third straight year, they would not advance out of group play.  A respectable showing against Great Britain was the goal, however from the opening kickoff, it was very clear that Coach Merriwether’s bunch was determined to come out winners.  Great Britain’s style of physical defense and a fast, long ball offense was on full display.  USMST seemed prepared and countered with short passes and by “switching the field” at every opportunity.  Ball control kept the game close, and soon, USMST would break through on a set piece goal involving a header by Sammy Bechdach.  The Brits tied the game on a similar cross header, and soon, the game would devolve into a battle of wills between two very strong teams with complimentary styles.  Late in the second half, with the game still tied 1-1, Sammy Bechdach came through again on another set piece header to give USMST the lead with about 15 minutes left to play.  The rest of the second half was a defensive struggle for Team USA, with all 11 players packed in and giving the Brits a taste of their own medicine with some highly physical play.  An incredible kick save by goalkeeper Afshin Gerayli highlighted a tense, but proud, few minutes as the clock wound down and USMST emerged victorious.  It was a shocker by all standards, and earned the US team a modicum of respect from the international medical football community.  Clearly, USMST was an improving squad who would need to be reckoned with as each match evolved.

 

Despite this victory, Team USA was unable to advance out of the group stage, barely losing out to Sweden on goal differential.  This would prove ironic, as Sweden would take their one victory against the US and ride their Viking Spirit all the way to the finals.   Catalonia, Austria and Catalonia (again) awaited USMST in the losers bracket.  For USMST, not advancing despite an incredible victory against Great Britain would prove to be an enormous disappointment.  Losing on goal differential only compounded the pain felt from giving away some easy goals against Brazil.  This, however, will likely prove instructive as USMST looks to build on what they learned in Sweden and improve on their performance in Hungary.

 

IMG_2035The matches in the loser’s bracket were characterized by incredible play by a short-handed Catalonia squad and an aggressive, opportunistic Austrian squad.  The performance by USMST in all the games was valiant, but it was fairly clear that Team USA was having difficulties overcoming deficits.  Catalonia scored early in both games, and played a strategic ball control game in the midfield to beat Team USA 1-0 twice.  Austria, also playing shorthanded, played aggressively and had strong goalkeeper play to keep the match close until the second half, when they broke ahead and eventually won 3-1.  With three losses in the loser’s bracket, Team USA finished last in the tournament.

 

After the last game against Catalonia, USMST found itself taking stock of where they had come from and where they were.  Views were mixed.  Some felt the team was clearly better but just could not get over the hump consistently in games to emerge victorious.  Others felt the lack of victories trumped any progress, citing a “bottom line” mentality.  Regardless of viewpoint, nothing could take the sting away from a last place finish.  The Closing Ceremony was more subdued for Team USA, but everyone left Malmo with a better sense of how the team could improve.  Whether that will involve different players, a different strategy, or a combination of both remains to be seen.  Going into Hungary, the possibility of attrition after three years is high.  How USMST emerges in 2013 is not yet known, but what is clear is that the highs and lows of Malmo will be remembered for a pulsating victory against a great team, four close losses, and Brazil.  Next year in Hungary promises to be more challenging, with the perennial champions hosting, the return of South Korea, and the addition of Russia.  With Malmo in the rearview mirror, USMST will need to step on the gas to achieve their ambitious goals.IMG_1996

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