Tag Archives: World Cup

First U20 World Cup game against Ecuador

Here is a quick recap of the game against Ecuador including my “commute” to San Juan, Argentina along with the usual pre and post-match behind the scenes stuff. Hopefully, some info and pics below are useful for future USYNT generations. Otherwise, if you are the casual reader, try to enjoy the content.

Trip

Dallas to Buenos Aires

My flight left Dallas Fort Worth (DFW) International airport at 9:20 PM on Thursday, May 18 (Match Day – 2). For an international trip, I normally like to leave at least three days before match day but it was impossible this time. It was a 10 hour direct flight to Buenos Aires; I arrived around 11:20 AM local time (2 hours ahead of Dallas). As we landed, my T-Mobile device took forever to receive a signal and I was beginning to panic. We rely so much on those mobiles and the trip to San Juan was going to be a long one without a working phone. As I made my way to customs, my phone service was restored. At last, panic mode was turned OFF.

Argentina is plagued with street murals like this one

Buenos Aires to San Luis

I quickly proceeded to the rental car counter (where I also exchanged currency -1 US dollar is approximately 460 pesos). By 12:30 PM, I was out of the airport driving to the province of San Juan. Due to the length of the trip (1118 Kms -~800 miles), it consisted of two parts. When I left, I honestly didn’t know how long the first leg was going to be…always love the adventure especially when I’m traveling by myself.

San Juan is about 14 hours away from Buenos Aires since 90% of the trip consists of one lane roads with very low speed limits (100 – 120 Km/hr). The first leg was a very dull drive of about 10 hours from Buenos Aires to San Luis (a different province/state) crossing 3 provinces (Buenos Aires, Cordoba, and San Luis) in the process. It rained (sometimes poured) for at least 8 out of the 10.5 trip hours. Leg two of the trip crossed two additional provinces (Mendoza and San Juan). FYI Argentina has 23 provinces/states.

Argentina’s 23 provinces/states

San Luis to San Juan

I spent the night in San Luis and the next morning, I left to San Juan around 6:15 AM for the last 3.5 hours of my trek. It was a bit of a treacherous drive as the first two hours were up in the cooler and foggy mountains, early in the morning (no coffee) and more one lane roads.

Game

As in any tournament, the most important game is the first one. The team knew it and they were mentally prepared for it. Ecuador is a solid team with excellent individual talent and speed at every position; however, they sometimes lack cohesion and discipline in the last third. To be fair, the roster they took to the South American qualifiers was a tad different than this group for the world cup. It was imperative that we won possession in the midlfield.

Pre-game

I arrived at San Juan’s AirBnb around 10:30 AM, took a quick shower and went straight to see Jogo at their hotel. It was 12:15 PM (game was at 3 PM) when I was picking up my ticket to the game from the front lobby and I used the opportunity to wish him well and possibly calm any nerves.

It was reassuring that he was perfectly mellow about his potential WC debut. He had known that he could be playing in a different role for a few days, practiced accordingly and was tactically ready.

Obligatory pre-match pic

As I was leaving the hotel, I said farewell to a few of the players as they were making their way to the bus. It was very moving (and emotional for me) to see how the non-coaching staff one by one lined up from the hotel exit all the way to the bus entrance, to high-five and wish each team member a heart-felt, encouraging farewell. The majority of the non-coaching staff rides separately from the players and coaching staff. This was another sign of the family environment that Mikey has created with this team in his short term as the coach. As I made my way to the car, I was hesitant to return to the AirBnb to rest a bit fearing that I’d fall asleep through the game since I was so tired so I made my way to the stadium instead.

Staff wishing players and coaching staff the best of lucks outside the hotel

I arrived at the stadium where I sat in the US section. Our section was pretty much empty except for one additional player family, the rest of the non-coaching staff, and two players who could not participate in the first match. Given the excitement, I really didn’t take any pre-match pictures until after the match.

Most of the crowd arrived after the ceremonies

1st half

The beauty of this game is that we all can have a different view point and that’s okay; thus much analysis is not needed as most of you witnessed what transpired. I’ll venture to say that we dominated the first 20 minutes or so and then Ecuador settled in and finished the half stronger than we did. Jogo had a good challenge with Nilson Angulo (#10) and I am glad they faced each other for their own development needs. It won’t be the last time they face each other. Did you all catch #19? He’s a 2007 born!!!

2nd half

Ecuador played a better second half with the crowd behind them all the time; fortunately, they never presented a real threat to our GK. The temperature was not extremely high; however, the sunlight hits differently here in San Juan. Our boys seemed a bit tired and the Ecuadorian players, accustomed to that climate, had the momentum especially in the last quarter of the game. Our subs came in, adjusted well, provided a much needed energy spark and they certainly made a difference. At last, we had won the first game of the 2023 U20 WC.

Post-game

I only saw Jogo for a brief moment after the game. Ironically, when he tried to approach me near the sturdy fence separating fans from players, the same fans who were strongly rooting against the US throughout the game were the same ones trying to fetch a jersey, selfie or even an autograph from the US players. In the end, I was glad we did manage to snap this selfie below.

I stayed after our game to watch the double-header game between group rivals Fiji and Slovakia. It was good to scout the level of the competition our team will be facing today. On Friday, the second header game after our match with Slovakia will be sold out as Argentina will be playing against New Zealand. It should be a good one to watch.

It was a hostile environment where 95% of the 14k in attendance were naturally rooting for Ecuador. Our boys were mentally prepared and had an importantly good first showing; they know that the task at hand will should become more and more challenging.

As they continue their journey in this tournament, please remember that no matter what happens in the next games, these boys are giving their best for themselves, their teammates, their families, their communities, their clubs, you fans, and last but not least, their country. At the end of the day, this is a game, the beautiful game. Let’s keep it that way. The outcome of a football match (tournament) does not define us as individuals and much less as a country, nor should it define their careers. After each world cup game, Jogo will still be buddies with players from Ecuador, France, Slovakia, or whoever they play in the competition. As fans, we need to understand that there will be good games and not so good ones, that’s football and we can’t do anything to change that dynamic. However, how we react to their performance is within our control. Let’s not become the type of fans who use the outcome of a match as a justification for questionable behavior (ex. Valencia vs Real Madrid, El Salvador) physically or online. We owe it to the betterment of the game in this country to act responsibly.

That said, thank you for the tremendous outpouring of love and support received in the past couple of days. It will never be forgotten but we must keep a leveled head there as well. It was a great first win but there are far greater challenges lying ahead. Only few will probably know that, unfortunately, in this ephemeral, competitive profession, the good days are hard to come for a footballer. As I share that with you, please be sure to reach out to all US players (especially those abroad away from their families), when things may not be going well during their seasons. I’m sure they will appreciate hearing your unwavering support during challenging times as well. In the process, you will be contributing not only to their mental well-being but also to the betterment of the sport in this country. Every bit makes a difference in the life of a footballer. As you know, the summer will have a few important competitions for the USMNT; start reaching out to some of those players now if you can with words of encouragement.

As I wrap this post up, I’m heading to the second game against Fiji. They will feel your support from afar and the other two families and myself will do our best to permeate the good vibes onto the field. As always, thanks for reading. Let’s go boys!!! #theGomezway

PS Before I head into the stadium, I will stop by the Red Bull Skateboarding Tour Event taking place in San Juan, Argentina. This event is a qualifier for next year’s Olympics in Paris. Football does take you to unexpected places and events sometimes. I am so grateful to the sport…

Red Bull World Skateboarding Tour

PK shoot-out tips provided by YOUR coach

Two of the recently finished World Cup (WC) quarterfinal games reminded us that penalty kicks (PKs) shoot-outs are not the prettiest way to decide the outcome of a football match. PK shoot-outs are normally very dramatic, preceded by at least 120 minutes of intense (in most cases) action and some detractors tout them as the most unfair method to declare a match winner. Their argument is that the shoot-out relies heavily on luck rather than football skill. It has also been said that PKs are a dual effort instead of a collective team effort defeating the purpose of the team sport spirit.

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity” – Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Whatever your perception may be on overall luck and shoot-outs, a PK shoot-out is an approved method by FIFA laws to break a tie. Also, nobody can deny that being directly involved in the taking of even a single PK (more so a shoot-out) requires some level of technical preparation (sometimes years) and individual mental fortitude (aka nerve). Therefore, any edge that can be gained over the opponent to increase the chances of victory in a PK shoot-out is always welcome. Often neglected, that advantage can easily come from one’s bench. A coach’s experience is a very valuable tool if applied correctly and timely.

In the clip above LVG explains the selection of his PK takers prior to the WC

PK Shoot-out Preparation

I will not dwell too much on the pre-game efforts that the goal keeper (GK) coach, the team video analysis specialist, the team statistician, and the GKs themselves must undergo prior to embarking on a match that could be decided in a PK shoot-out. The preparation is not complex but indeed meticulous. It starts with trying to anticipate which five potential PK kickers will take a turn and study their PK kicking tendencies. On top of that, each GK has his/her own defensive diving tendencies to attempt to block PKs. Simply put, it comes down to video-analyzing the potential PK kickers to slightly increase the GK’s odds of stopping PKs.

Similarly, PK takers need to undergo a lengthier preparation which starts much earlier in their football careers than the upcoming game at hand. For example, in some youth leagues around the world, match ties are not allowed forcing PKs intentionally. Match outcomes are decided via a PK shoot-out with the underlying idea of developing better PK adult kickers who are not only more used to the added pressure but more technically sound in the art of PK taking via lots of repetitions. PK kickers rarely analyze GK tendencies as those diving techniques are reactive and situational.

All that pre-match preparation for PK kickers is indispensable and must be met at a minimum to be even considered as a genuine PK taker candidate especially at a world stage like a WC. However, there are meticulous decisions that must be made in the selection of the PK takers and the sequence in which PKs are taken by a team. Sure, luck (the coin tosses explained below) helps but the coach’s experience has a strong influence in the outcome of the shoot-out.

PK Shoot-out Execution

Some coaches will tell you that only those physically, and mentally fit prior to the taking of PKs should be eligible, listed and submitted to the referee as the initial five PK takers. Others will defer that decision to the players and captain. Ultimately, the coach knows his/her players best and it is best that those five PK takers are pre-determined and only changed in case of an unplanned event (ex. injury, red card, etc.). So, provided a manager has five physically and mentally capable PK kickers, then other decisions should be made by the coach and captain to maximize the chances of victory.

Normally, the referee will use two coin tosses prior to the taking of PKs. The winner of the first coin toss selects the side where PKs will be taken (Introduced in 2016). The winner of the second coin toss determines what team starts the PK shoot-out (Lloris won this one in the WC final). Yes, on this part of the procedure, there’s an element of luck but provided your captain wins both or either one of these coin tosses, instructions must be provided to the captain so that he/she choose the goal where most of your club’s supporters are; Messi probably conquered the Qatar WC the moment he won this first coin toss and selected the side that was plagued by Argentinian fans. On the second coin toss outcome, heed the following advice:

1.For advantages proven by simple statistics/research papers and psychological reasoning (beyond the scope of this simple post), a team captain, if able, should always elect to take the PKs first in a shoot-out. In a gist, it puts additional pressure on the players going second regardless of the outcome of the first kick. Therefore, ALWAYS elect to shoot first if you win the second coin toss. This is the way Morocco eliminated Spain from Qatar.

2. Always (I mean always) have your best PK kickers go first. In Brazil’s loss to Croatia in the WC quarterfinal game, Neymar was supposed to get all the glory by kicking last (5th). Unfortunately, quite the opposite took place. the team had the youngest (Rodrygo) of all PK kickers go first and that proved to be a decision they will regret forever. Neymar never had a chance to take his PK. It was possibly Neymar’s last WC game and to go out like that is unfortunate…Neymar and Tite (no longer the national team coach) will have to live with that decision.

As an additional data point, in the WC final game, both Mbappé and Messi went first. Both are no strangers to PK taking. Despite Mbappé having scored two PKs during the course of the championship game on Martínez, Kylian (and Didier DeChamps) elected Mbappé to go a third time (all kicked to the same side) against one of the best PK GKs in the world. He converted all three attempts and set the tone for the next PK (or at least that was the plan).

3. The first PK taker dictates momentum. Over 60% of the time when the first PK misses his/her shot, the following PK taker from the same team misses too. Therefore, carefully selecting the first PK taker is instrumental to the team’s success. If there are two medium quality PK kickers, do not, by any means, have them take kicks one after another in the round of five. In the WC final game, Coman missed his kick immediately followed by Tchouameni.

4. Managers sometimes forget that great players are not necessarily great PK takers. For example, in the Netherlands vs Argentina game, Van Dijk elected to take the team’s PK first; however, he’s not the normal PK taker with his Liverpool club (Mo Salah is). Unfortunately, the lack of practice became evident as his attempt was blocked by Emi Martínez. This proved to be a questionable decision by a very experienced Coach Louis Van Gaal.

The coin tosses are determined by an element of luck; beyond that, preparation pays off. In addition to field player and GK preparation, a manager (and his/her staff) has a lot of weight on the outcome of a PK shoot-out with careful thought-out decisions. Whether the manager and captain assume/want that responsibility is a different story. Either way, preparation is key and an initial 50% chance of victory in a shoot-out can easily become more like a 75% if preparation is taken seriously. As I was finalizing documentation to wrap up my post, I stumbled upon this article posted about 8 years ago titled “How to Win a PK shoot-out in soccer“. Ironically, a lot of the information presented in that article supports my post.

As I finish writing this post, I became aware of the passing of football’s legend: Pelé. Honestly, I can’t say this was unexpected as he had been hospitalized in Brazil for over a month and I tried to keep up with his medical progress which never seemed to improve. But even with that information, I can’t deny it was shocking; it’s hard to accept that in a little over than 2 years, the best two footballers, that in my opinion, have ever played the game now reside with the football gods…where they have cemented a place.

Until next time (tomorrow) when I will be posting our annual 2022 recap of events. Have a happy and safe New Year celebration. Be sure to follow us on Instagram below where we are more active. #theGomezway