Friday, July 8, 2011


With the games over, the team home, and the blog updated, it's now time to close this blog. Many thanks to the visitors who have been following us here, and to and St. Mary's College for linking to us. The guys were constantly impressed by the steadily growing number of hits...about 150 per day! It was just more evidence that indicated the importance of what we were doing. So, again, thanks!

And what we were doing was important in several ways.

First, as the first American soccer team to win gold at the Special Olympics, we have raised the profile of the sport within Team USA, hopefully urging the organization to field not just 5v5, but 7v7 and maybe even an 11v11 unified team at the next world games in 2015.

Second, in winning and attracting attention from readers like you, as well as media outlets around the world, we have contributed to the Special Olympics message about mentally challenged individuals. That message emphasizes the ABILITIES of challenged individuals, rather than focusing on their "disabilities." Indeed, the members of Team USA are not "handicapped" any more than so-called "normal" or "fully-functioning" individuals. We all have different abilities, and this team's members have a wealth of them -- an extraordinary sense of hope, a willingness to commit and learn and adjust, and most powerfully, a yearning to seek and enjoy happiness. These attributes are not evaluated in an IQ test. But they should be, because these skills hold the keys to improving and enjoying life. So, in the important areas of hard work and pursuing happiness, we can all learn a thing or two from Team USA.

Finally, while this team has taught others a few lessons, the guys also have learned a couple of lessons of their own. Mostly about staying positive in the face of challenges. Whether those challenges are on the soccer field, in the form of an unsatisfactory lunch, or a 24-hour travel schedule, the team has learned that staying positive is the key to overcoming difficulties. Simply put, these World Games were not organized well. But the team's success came largely from the guys' ability to look past daily nuisances and make the best of the situation. Eunice Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, always emphasized that the Games were not the end goal of participation. Rather, athletes needed to apply what learned from competition in their daily lives. In the end, the challenges at these games have prepared the guys to do just that, by presenting them with difficulties beyond the field of play. Whether at school, at work, or in daily interaction with other people, the team now knows that keeping positive will reduce frustration and bring out their best...and we know that their best is golden.

Congratulations to the team, and here's to a golden future!

It was a long road, but the journey was worthwhile in every way.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Bringing It Home

Apologies for the delay, but here is a recap of the team's final day in Greece:

We had hoped to visit the National Archaeological Museum, home to one of the five most valuable collections on the face of the planet:
The Mask of Agamemnon (ca. 2100 BC), perhaps the most famous item in the collection
But, sadly, it turns out that the museum is closed on Mondays. As an alternative, we hit the beachside resort of Glyfada, which is sort of like Athens' version of Ocean City. There's a beach:

...although the part we used was not connected to a particular club or management group, so it was small and pretty basic. Those of us who didn't want sun and surf strolled the main street of stores:

An organic honey stall in Glyfada...Greece is known for its honey, and these shops are all over the place!
This is no Plaka. The stores are European and American clothing chains: Timberland, Nautica, and Guess, plus their Euro look-a-likes. Nobody bought anything, and after watching some soccer highlights at a coffee bar, we all convened for lunch. Perhaps the location for lunch was an indication that everyone was ready to head home:

After lunch, we returned to the hotel to pack. The team was given another 24-hour travel itinerary for its return to the states:
-leave hotel at 5:45 for closing ceremonies
-closing ceremonies from 8:30-11:00
-bus back to hotel from 11:30-12:30
-leave hotel for airport at 2:30
-flights home, arriving about 2:30pm Baltimore time

Since there were only two hours allotted for sleep, the team wanted to maximize that by packing before heading to the closing event. Then we were off to the last big party of the World Games, and what a party it was! Despite only receiving a banana for dinner, the guys enjoyed the clothes trading

the Greek pop music:

and the retelling of Greek history (so, we sort of got the museum lesson anyway!):
It's the Trojan Horse! (How will it do if we build a large wooden badger?)
and the spectacle of officially ending the games:
The parade of athletes leaving, amidst clothes-trading and smiles!
After the ceremony, the squad said goodbye to Coach Ken, who headed off on travel (he's writing this from an airport in Cyprus). Meanwhile, by now, the team is home, enjoying the comfort of their own beds, their own food, and, of course, the warm welcome from friends and family who must be thrilled to have the guys back...with gold medals around their necks!

Please check back tomorrow for extra pictures and final thoughts that will conclude the blog.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Happy 4th!

fireworks as the Olympic flame is extinguished
Happy 4th of July! The guys had fireworks, too. But they marked the end of the games, not the birth of the country! Please check back tomorrow for a complete post about the closing ceremonies, and check back on the 6th for some final thoughts. Currently, the guys are on their way home, expected to arrive in Baltimore sometime mid-afternoon on the 5th. They can't wait to share their gold medals and memories with families and friends!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Handling the Hardware

The team spent today at the Awards Ceremony, a somewhat bizarre 4-hour parade of bronze, silver, and gold medals from each of the levels in 5-on-5, 7-on-7, and 11-on-11 soccer. The whole event lasted over six hours!
Team USA enthusiastically waiting to get their medals...along with a few hundred others
Unfortunately, the number of medals that had to be distributed meant that some of the anticipated pomp was missing: no flag raising and no national anthem. But the guys still looked great on the podium!

Then it was time to take pictures with the hard-earned hardware:
The obligatory photo with Special Olympics officials
An artistic picture of gold...courtesy of Connie Thompson
A close-up of the medal
Coach Ken with goalkeeper Alan Hill and his medal...coaches don't get medals, so this is as close as Ken will get!
In the evening, the guys repaid the gymnastics team for their incredible support at the gold medal match by visiting their "gym show," their closing event, which included performances by medal winners, including these Americans!
Lee Shannon finished her beam routine with a back-handspring dismount! Then she acknowledged the standing ovation!
Several rhythmic teams, including the Greek National Team, performed as well
In fact, these games have been remarkably successful for Team USA, and not just in soccer. USA won gold in EVERY team sport we entered: Basketball, Softball, Soccer, and Volleyball. Way to go USA!

Tomorrow, the team will head to the beach resort of Glyfada in the morning, before returning to the hotel to prepare for the closing ceremonies. It's been an epic two-week extravaganza, nine months of concentrated training, and nine years of playing together, and only a massive party with 7,000 other athletes from over 100 countries would be appropriate.

Please be sure to check the Extra Photos page for more pics from last night's victory celebration!
How could we leave out Alan Hill's celebratory plunge!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Golden Day

Team USA's final day of competition was scripted like a Hollywood movie...a Hollywood, Maryland movie, of course! After a rocky start that saw the Americans commit several fouls in an attempt to slow their skillful opponents, the team fell behind to Spain 1-0 on a 15-yard free kick in the 7th minute. But the Americans showed the resilience that has become their calling card since their last friendly against Ireland, and they immediately equalized -- just one minute later -- when Avery Long finished a Larry Mills cross from close range.
Avery Long ties the game!
Tied 1-1 at the half, the second period saw the Spanish threaten with dangerous forward runs from captain Markos Allejandro, but Team USA caught the Spaniards on a counter-attack in the 19th minute. A Wes Thompson pass cut out two Spanish defenders and Long ran onto it, then crushed the ball into the upper right hand corner to notch his second of the day and put the USA up 2-1.
Team USA stopping Spain in transition
Weathering the Spanish assault for the last ten minutes, Thomas Smith was assigned to man-mark Allejandro, and did a superb job keeping the talented captain at bay, as the whole team played smart defense in the final minutes.
Thomas Smith on his mark in the closing minutes
The tension built, and Alan Hill had to come out to cut off several crosses:
Hill triggers a counter-attack after cutting out a cross
But the boys hung on for the happy ending! USA 2, Spain 1! The first ever soccer gold medal for the United States at the World Games!!
The team's effort was aided by the huge crowd that came to support them. Besides the core of family who came to Greece, Team USA gymnastics led cheers, the bocce team added voice, and friends from Belize and Singapore -- made over the course of the week -- rounded out the cheering section. Chants of U-S-A drowned out the sqeaks of "Espana," and helped fuel the team to victory!
The core of family supporters
Part of the crowd that showed up today!
Then came the traditional post-game ceremonies, except for the medals, which will be handed out tomorrow afternoon. Check back tomorrow for pictures and comments from the medal ceremony!
No...Wes and Sam aren't emigrating. They traded jerseys with Spanish team members!
Now the team is eating dinner at a poolside pizza party, but be sure to check back later tonight for more pics and the full match report. Use the sidebar on the right to access both.

Friday, July 1, 2011

A day off!

The team spent its day off today exploring Athens. Thankfully, the demonstrations died down now that we are more than 24 hours after the government's controversial vote to pass economic cuts. So, with the tear gas gone, we had clear views of the Acropolis, our first stop:
Ancient theatres surround the acropolis:
The Odeon of Herod Atticus, still in use

...which is a good thing, since the guys are such comedians:
And just below the entrance, craftsmen are working to support the existing structures by creating new marble stones to fit between the ones that are already there:

Then you get to the top, and....
Well, actually, we waited in line first. Three cruise ships unloaded their passengers just ahead of us! It took 45 minutes to get in, and the line to get out took over an hour to move through. But it was worth it!
Then we made the long trek down and had a proper Greek lunch in the traditional shopping district of Plaka:

Alan and Mallory Hill. It was Mallory's birthday today!
Recharged with souvlaki, gyros, and moussaka, we took on the daunting shops of Plaka:
What are these characters looking for, I wonder?
Finishing the afternoon with gelato
Then the team returned home via the Athens Metro, which Mary Lu considers better than DC's. We arrived back at the hotel in time to relax, catch a nap, eat dinner, and have a team meeting about tomorrow's schedule. The championship match kicks off at 12:45 local time (5:45am EST), and after a day spent soaking up Greek hospitality, the guys are ready to finish their Greek vacation in golden style.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Talking Tactics

Team USA tied Spain 0-0 today, in a match that went pretty much as expected. The Americans outshot the Spaniards 5-2, and played very good defense, but neither team showed its full hand. Spain used its regular starters and subs, but they played slower than usual. Team USA mixed up its lines, using starters and substitute rotations from the Preliminary Round, not the Tournament Round.

Here are a few pics from today's match:
Terrell Nowlin heading for goal
Shaun Ridley squeezes in a shot
Cheering section (L-R): Mallory Hill, Shannon Snell, Connie Thompson, & Terry Summerfelt. Thanks for making the trip!
In case you didn't know who they were connected to!
Now, on to Saturday. What will the USA need to do to win the gold? Here's a quick break-down of the Championship match:

The game will be a classic battle of two styles. The Spanish are very skilled, and lead the group in scoring (6 goals in 3 games). The Americans are very athletic, and lead the entire competition (Prelims and Tournament) in defense, having given up just 2 goals in 6 games. More importantly, however, the two teams play two different formations. Spain uses a 2-2, and the USA uses a 1-2-1. What is the difference?
This graphic shows two teams playing a 1-2-1. Notice the diamond shape. Each team has one defender, two wing midfielders, and one central forward. As the graphic shows, in this formation, the goal is to get the ball to the center forward. That player then distributes the ball to wingers running toward goal, and all three attacking players (forward and midfielders) crash the goal.

In contrast, the 2-2 allows players more flexibility:

                 x                 x       
                 x                 x

Here, any player can become a winger, and forwards can be central or wide. The drawback is that the flexibility makes it hard to practice particular patterns, or ways to attack. The options are so numerous that players can find it hard to adjust and "be on the same page."

Here is what the field looks like when a 2-2 plays against a 1-2-1.

                        x                    y                      x
Sp                                                                                        USA   
GK                  y                                            y                    GK

                       x                    y                       x

In this match-up, the game is usually determined by the ability to "recover," or get back on defense. One of the wingers in the 1-2-1 must get back on defense to cover the extra forward in the 2-2. And on the other hand, one of the forwards in the 2-2 must get back on defense to account for the third attacker in the 1-2-1. Whichever team fails to recover will lose. For the Americans, this means that the wingers must run up and down the length of the field. However, Team USA has three lines of wingers, providing enough depth to cover the players' exhaustion. Today, and throughout the tournament, the Spanish have been slow to recover, and they do not have the depth the Americans have. Team USA hopes to have a particularly productive second half.
Thomas Smith recovers to pressure a shot from the Spanish captain, and Sam Huffman blocks it! Way to defend, guys!
So, now you're in the know about the gold medal match-up! But if you want to see everything else the players have been up to, click on the Extra Photos link in the sidebar to the right.

Tomorrow, the guys have no game. They will spend the day in Athens, visiting the Acropolis and browsing the shopping district of Plaka (as long as security officials decide it is safe). Alternatives include Technopolis, a craft community in West Athens, and watching the gold medal softball game. The team was present at the USA's 14-2 win over Canada today:
Cheering on the softball team, with hats courtesy of Team USA Gymnastics!
After spending the day out and about, the team will have a light walkthrough in the evening and then settle down for a good night's rest before trying to become the first American soccer team to win gold at the Special Olympics World Games.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

TEAM USA in the news

TEAM USA soccer has been making news on and off the field. Check out these stories:

-From the TEAM USA website
-From The Enterprise (St. Mary's County local paper)

And check out this article on Connie Thompson, captain Wes Thompson's mother, who was chosen to receive an expenses-paid trip to Athens as part of the company's program to support mothers of Special Olympians.

Medal Round Bound!

The Match Reports page has full coverage of today's game against Austria, but here's the gist:

Team USA won 3-0 in a completely dominating performance. Avery Long, Wes Thompson, and Larry Mills scored, while Steven Summerfelt recorded a pair of assists. Austria was held to just one shot on goal. Some pictures from the match:
Terrell Nowlin on the attack
Brandon Chan pressuring an Austrian winger as Wes Thompson looks on
Shaun Ridley gets a shot off just before the challenge
The Americans celebrate their third goal
After two matches, Team USA now leads the Group:

TEAM              W      L      T      Pts    GF     GA
USA                  2       0       0        6       5       1
Spain                 2       0      0         6       6       3
Canada              0       2       0        0       2       4
Austria              0       2       0        0       2       7

The team will complete group play against Spain tomorrow morning (3:15am EST). But regardless of the outcome, the U.S. and Spain will meet again on Saturday at 12:45 local time (5:45 EST) for the gold medal of the Level 5 tournament.

Because the two teams will meet again on Saturday, tomorrow's match will be approached tentatively by both managers, who are likely to rest starters and conceal their gameplans for Saturday. Spain is not as deep as Team USA, going 6-deep instead of 8-deep, and their top two players have played 110 out of 120 minutes. Tomorrow's post will explore the tactics of the gold medal match in greater detail, but for now, we conclude with some pictures of celebration:

After the final whistle!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Update on Demonstrations -- Still Safe and Sound!

As the guys go to bed tonight, Athens is again dominating world news. The European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund are awaiting votes in the Greek Parliament tomorrow and Thursday before they agree to loan the country enough money to pay its bills. Otherwise, the country will default and the foreign investment which is currently propping up a weak economy will entirely collapse. Still, many Greeks oppose the stern measures required by international banks before they give the loans. These measures include raising the retirement age, cutting state pensions and salaries, and privatizing many government services. As a result, demonstrations and protests have accompanied the general strike organized in opposition to those "austerity measures." The demonstrations today were more violent than previous ones, with large numbers of police called into action and tear gas released on protestors.

However, please note that these disturbances are entirely contained within the area around the Greek Parliament building in downtown Athens. This site is about 30 minutes away from the soccer complex, and over an hour from the team's hotel. So far, the only affect on the team has been unpredictable lunch times, as the strike shut down transportation and demonstrations further delayed the arrival of the athletes' lunch food to the soccer complex. Considering the slim contents of this lunch, we didn't miss much! And certainly the event has done nothing to quell the excitement in the team camp ahead of tomorrow's match against Austria.

For the latest, see the BBC report. But rest easy. We are.

The Tournament Begins!

After saying very little about soccer yesterday, the focus shifts back today because the Tournament Round began. The World Games is divided into three phases of competition: Preliminary Round, Tournament Round, and Medal Round. When the Preliminary Round ended on Monday afternoon, Special Olympics officials began the process of "divisioning." Divisioning involves grouping the teams into separate competitions, so that teams play against opponents with a similar ability level. In the past, the Games have been plagued by sandbagging -- in which teams purposefully underperformed in the Preliminary Round in order to get placed into a lower tournament which they could win. But this year, the officials announced a system of policing: large margins of victory and vastly superior play in the Tournament Round would result in immediate disqualification. As a result, the Preliminary Round featured honest effort, and no match in today's Tournament Round had more than a two-goal difference. Kudos to the divisioning committee!

The committee decided to keep the tournaments small this year, limiting them to round-robin tournaments of four or five teams, with a final Medal Round at the end of the week. This was done on purpose, in order to avoid scheduling matches in the hot Greek afternoons. All matches will be over by 2pm local time. So, each team will play three Tournament Round matches (one on Tuesday, one Wednesday, and one Thursday), and then Bronze medal matches will take place on Friday, and Gold medal matches on Saturday.

The United States has been grouped with Canada, Austria, and Spain in the Level 5 Tournament. There are 8 levels. Level 5 equals the highest placement for any U.S. soccer team at a Special Olympics World Games. More importantly, the team was excited to get rematches with Canada and Austria, who we outplayed in the Preliminary Round, but did not beat. Spain is the favorite in the group, having tied a team grouped into Level 4 and beaten Austria during Preliminaries. But Team USA does not play Spain until the final day of the round-robin, on Thursday.

Full coverage of the Americans' opening Tournament Round match is available on the "Match Reports" page, but we won't keep you in suspense. In a dramatic turnaround from the Preliminary Round match against Canada, the U.S. was outshot and gave up more corner kicks than in all Preliminary matches combined, but discovered their scoring touch and won 2-1! The Current Level 5 standings after the first day:

TEAM                    W             D              L          PTS    GF       GA         
Spain                       1              0               0             3        4           2
USA                         1              0               0             3        2           1
Canada                     0              0               1             0        1           2
Austria                     0              0               1             0        2           4

Check out the pics from today's match:
Steven Summerfelt turning the corner
Sam Huffman stepping in front to send the USA into attack!
Avery Long going 1-on-1
Laundry and Patriotism go hand in hand here!