USMST Finishes Strong in Budapest
World Medical Football Championships 2013
The US Medical Soccer Team arrived in Budapest following an extremely productive practice weekend in Indianapolis in early June. The core of the team was relatively unchanged from 2012, but a few key additions to the squad helped focus our strategy. The Opening Ceremony took place on June 29, 2013 at the Ramada Aquaworld Resort in Budapest. The US contingent was well-received and an incredible video presentation directed by Mauricio Pleitez was universally applauded as the best overall presentation. The draw was less friendly as the US was grouped with defending champion and host Hungary, perennial medical soccer powerhouse Lithuania, and newcomer Ukraine, whose roster was stocked with players in their 20’s. Needless to say, USMST left the Opening Ceremony motivated and ready to go.
Game 1: USA versus Hungary
Two years ago in Manchester, USMST was crushed by Hungary in the opening game, conceding three goals in the first 20 minutes of the game, and eventually losing 4-0. While this game was in the back of their mind, USMST was convinced this game would be different. And it clearly was. USMST battled Hungary to a halftime draw, coupling intense offensive pressure with tight defense. In the second half, Hungary changed their offensive alignment with a focus on pushing four forwards, and eventually, this pressure led to a fluke goal shot from about 30 yards out through crowd of players and off the left goalpost. A second goal was scored off a setpiece later in the half, and this proved too much for USMST to overcome. Though they fell 2-0, USMST left this match more confident given the circumstances.
Game 2: USA versus Lithuania
The last time these two teams met in 2010, Lithuania dominated the game, winning 6-1. This game took place at an old Hungarian stadium in the heart of Budapest with an architectural feel straight out of the Cold War, or perhaps the movie “Victory”. Things started quite well for USMST with aggressive ball control and multiple early shots on goal. A questionable foul in the box led to a penalty kick for Lithuania about ten minutes into the game, which they converted for an early lead. The game was back and forth for the rest of the half, with Lithuania’s fast forwards constantly putting pressure on team USA’s defense. Ultimately, Lithuania capitalized again at the end of the first half after USA failed to clear a corner kick. Some halftime adjustments with an emphasis on getting the ball to the outside midfielders and moving the ball down the sidelines led to multiple opportunities in the second half, but unfortunately, team USA couldn’t get a goal for the second straight game. After a hard fought second half with neither team scoring, USMST fell to Lithuania 0-2. While the outcome was certainly disappointing, the US contingent got some consolation in competing for the full 80 minutes against one of the traditionally stronger teams in the tournament for the second straight game. This would prove important in the days ahead.
Game 3: USA versus Ukraine
The Ukrainian medical team was one of four teams in their first year of competition at the World Medical Football Championships. Their team was notable for being very young (relatively speaking) and extremely competitive. Early in the first half, it was very clear that Ukraine’s offense went directly through one player, Koropetskyi, a small forward but incredibly fast and skilled with the ball. His ability to maneuver through Team USA’s midfield and defense with minimal assistance became obvious quickly, and before USMST could establish any tempo, they were down 3-0 in the first half. The defense was able to eventually contain Koropetskyi, but not without physical play that isolated him and forced distribution to his teammates. Unfortunately, the first half ended 3-0 and Coach Merriwether’s halftime speech was a gutcheck that lit a fire under the team. The start of the second half was emblematic of what Team USA could accomplish if they focused on a gameplan of distributing to the outside and working the ball down the wings. With fresh legs on the field in the midfield, USMST put constant pressure on the Ukrainian defense, and eventually, Pasha Hakimzadeh converted from 15 yards out on a cross. Koropetskyi scored again shortly after (completing his hat trick) and for much of the second half the game went back and forth. Down 4-1, it would have been easy for Team USA to give up, especially in light of our history at the tournament, but after Brian Blair scored a brilliant goal from the right midfield position on a long run down the sideline, USMST had renewed hope. With a new constant stream of fresh legs and a tiring Ukrainian team, Team USA had momentum in their favor in the final ten minutes. A flurry of opportunities occurred near the top of the 18 yard box keyed by constant pressure from forwards Ky Tran and Quentin Ray, who forced a Ukrainian defender to make an errant pass onto the foot of Rafael Cilloniz. Rafa made the Ukrainians pay with a bullet shot off his left foot into the right lower corner of the goal, making the score 4-3 with a few minutes to play. With a constant stream of strategic substitutions in the closing minutes, Team USA nearly tied the game when Sammy Becdach attempted a shot from the left side from 5 yards out after a ball had squirted free following a free kick, but the Ukrainian defense proved too stout. Team USA fell 3-4, but there was a renewed sense of confidence building. Team Ukraine turned out to be amazing competitors and even better new friends as their incredible gesture of post-game drinks led to a celebration that will become legendary in USMST lore.
Game 4: USA versus BEAC (Hungarian Club Team)
After losing their first three games in the group stage, Team USA moved on to the consolation bracket with a palpable confidence given their performance in what was widely considered the “Group of Death” at the tournament. The outcomes were not particularly satisfying, but USMST was competitive in every game and improving. BEAC was a local club team with a mix of young, fast players and older, extremely skilled players. They had performed well in the group stage, finishing third in their group, and were not to be taken lightly. The team was invited to the tournament to complete the brackets since 15 countries were represented, and one additional team was needed. In the first half, BEAC gave the US all it could handle. The game was very evenly played, with BEAC’s strength coming on long passes to their quick forwards, and Team USA establishing an identity in the midfield. Though the first half ended in a scoreless tie, it seemed the US had found a hole in BEAC’s gameplan, with many opportunities potentially developing in the midfield with a significant amount of space opening up. In the second half, Team USA’s superior conditioning allowed many more runs into the heart of BEAC’s defense, and Rafa again scored a goal from the left side to give USA a 1-0 lead. Team USA dominated play at that point, but could not capitalize with more goals. While BEAC had few early opportunities, they began to shore up in the midfield and this, coupled with an inability to clear the ball at times on the defensive side, led to a BEAC goal with under 15 minutes left. In prior years, this may have drained USMST, but on this day, it only strengthened their resolve. Keyed by some clutch midfield play by Juan Carlos Velez, Team USA held the ball on BEAC’s side of the field in the waning minutes of the game. After a key steal by Velez in the midfield and distribution to the right corner, Rafa made a brilliant pass to Pasha Hakimzadeh on the left side. An uncovered Pasha calmly collected the pass, lined up his shot, and put the ball in the back of the net in what turned out to be extra time. With the final whistle coming within seconds after this goal, Team USA took the game 2-1, their first victory in Hungary. A collectively relieved but ecstatic Team USA walked away from this match with a palpable energy and eyes on winning the consolation bracket.
Game 5: USA versus Australia
Australia has been a veteran team in the Championships, hosting the tournament in the recent past, and always fielding competitive teams. More importantly, they are incredibly gracious colleagues and have become a favorite of Team USA. Regardless, USMST was focused on winning the game to allow them the opportunity to play for first place in the consolation bracket. The only previous match between the two teams was in 2010 in Innsbruck, when Australia prevailed 3-2, coming back from a 0-2 deficit after team USA had scored two early goals. This weighed on many of the Legacy players as an opportunity lost, and making up for it in this game would go a long way. Australia’s team was relatively young, with many residents whose youth would serve them well. The first half was full of scoring chances for both teams, but remarkably, no goals were scored. Team USA had multiple chances distributing from the wings into the center, but were unable to penetrate Australia’s stout defense and excellent goalkeeping. At the same time, both of USMST’s goalkeepers, Paulo Carvalho and Milo Chavirra, kept the game in play for USA by managing to hold Australia’s speedy young forwards from scoring on many legitimate shots on goal. The second half was characterized by physical play in the midfield with both teams battling for goal scoring chances. Ultimately, regulation would end in a 0-0 draw. A winner needed to be established due to the bracket set up, so a penalty kick shoot out was next. Buoyed by two incredible saves by Paulo Carvalho, USMST scored enough to win the penalty shoot out 3-2 and advanced to the finals of the consolation bracket. Within two days, team USA had parlayed their initial “Group of Death” experience into two close, gut-wrenching victories and a trip back to the “Victory” stadium for a re-match against Lithuania.
Game 6: USA versus Lithuania (Consolation Bracket Finals)
This was payback. The truth of the previous game between USA and Lithuania in the group stage was that there was very little love lost between the two teams. Both teams were hungry for a win and physical play was a given. For the US, a victory would position them at the top of the consolation bracket, in ninth place. This was no small feat and would be their best showing in their four year history. The first half was characterized by a concerted attempt by team USA to establish an early lead. This would not yield immediate results, but clearly wore down an already tired Lithuanian squad. Numbers would work in USA’s favor on this day, as their roster lended itself to an influx of fresh legs and constant pressure. The center of the field was dominated by team USA, with the Charleston combo of Teach Caton and JC Velez distributing well to Puya Hosseini, Rolando Celis and others up front. The Lithuanian defense was on it’s heels for much of the first half, and eventually, Rafa netted his third goal of the tournament to give Team USA a 1-0 halftime lead. With a lead against a tiring Lithuanian squad, the start of the second half would determine the game. Team USA had been keyed by their defense throughout the tournament, with Brett Lorber, Roy Thomson, Ray Klug, Amir Saz, Chris Grybauskas, Chun Chen and Felipe Lobelo battling to keep opposing teams at bay. This game would be no different, with strong tackling, quick distributions out, and occasional offensive pressure up front. Despite this, a determined Lithuanian squad capitalized on a corner kick with a goal on a deflection following a goal line flurry. At 1-1 late into the second half, USMST was in for a fight to the end. And opportunity met preparation. In this case, three years of preparation. On a beautiful corner kick from Rafa, Roy Thomson busted through the Lithuanian defense, leaped higher than two couched defenders, and headed a ball into the back of the net. This was special for Roy and team USA — a culmination of three years of headers over the crossbar, crosses just deflected away, or just plain great goalkeeping leading to no goals despite countless attempts. On this day, at the most opportune time, Roy and USMST would be vindicated. The goal gave USA a 2-1 lead, and a clearly deflated Lithuanian squad never recovered. A late goal by Rafa on a loose ball near the goal gave USMST a 3-1 lead, though the score could have been more lopsided with a number of late opportunities for the USA, the most memorable of which was a staggered nutmeg through a Lithuanian defender by Teach Caton inside the penalty box, though his subsequent shot just missed the left upper corner of the goal. Regardless, Team USA won the game, avenging the previous loss, winning the consolation bracket, and finishing in 9th place out of 16 teams.
Budapest proved to be an incredible venue and the well-organized World Medical Football Championships by our Hungarian hosts was beyond words. Packed with the typical drama that has been a staple of these Championships for team USA, from challenging the legitimacy of players “too damn good to be a doctor”, forming international alliances with unlikely partners such as Ukraine, navigating the inner politics of the World Medical Football Federation, and ultimately, getting an ovation at the Closing Ceremony for our on-field accomplishments and our off-field collegiality. The US Medical Soccer Team is based on strong bonds grounded in shared professional experiences, a common world outlook, a passion for competition, and a growing commitment to community service and education. We invest heavily in our organization, both monetarily and with our valuable time, all in preparation for a week to represent our country and profession on a world stage. But ultimately, we do it for the friendships we have forged and will continue to cultivate. The 2013 World Medical Football Championships exemplified the true meaning of our endeavors and was a huge step forward for our organization. Brazil 2014 — here we come!