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!

Monday, June 27, 2011

Daily Life at the Games

Ok, ok. Enough about soccer. Mostly. This post will be more about everyday life at the games.

The first thing you need to learn about the World Games is the obsession for pin trading. Every country has a pin specially issued for the games. Each athlete gets about ten of them, and they are obsessive about trading and collecting them.
Larry Mills trading pins with a Kenyan ladies player
Larry's collection has grown since the Opening Ceremonies, when this picture was taken. Earlier today, a girl from Moldova asked Coach John to trade a pin, and before Coach could answer, Larry had his pin out and stole the trade!
Even administrators have the addiction
Another part of daily life have been the morning naps at the stadium. As the team gets used to a transportation system that requires them to leave at 6am, and arrive at 8am, for an 11:30am match, they have taken to sleeping in the same far corner of the upper level at the stadium:
Notice the pillows, which the players have been instructed to bring. They make for a funny scene when we walk on the field with them, but at least we're well rested!
Then there is the community of athletes. An international group of coaches and players who love the game and enjoy meeting new people. Every day brings new connections!
Brandon Chan and a pin-trading friend from Maylaysia
Coach John with (Dave) Teng Pak, the coach of Singapore and a friend the coaches made on the first day in Athens
Coach Ken juggling with the Irish striker who scored twice against us in Rhodes.
The team with John, our fast, talented, and talkative Namibian friend
Finally, and inescapably, there is the beach. Whether at Rhodes, or now at our beachside hotel south of Athens, daily walks on the beach have been a great way to recover from hectic days and very close games:
The Greek beaches we've seen on Rhodes and here at Anavyssos have both been more rock than sand, but very dramatic. As the guys are showing here
A less dramatic picture from the rocky beach across from our current hotel
So, that's a peek into the usual goings-on around here. But let's be serious. We're here for the soccer. And we did play Italy to a 0-0 tie today:
Wes Thompson watches as Larry Mills beats an Italian defender
For more on the matches, please click on the "Match Reports" link in the sidebar to the right. Tomorrow's entry will feature a discussion of the tournament and our team tactics as we enter the business end of the competition!

Updates about Updates

Please check out the updated Match Reports and Extra Photos links to the right! A full briefing of the team's day will appear later today, but the team's final Preliminary Match against Italy ended as a 0-0 tie. The Americans outshot the Italians 7-1, but continue to have trouble scoring. Still, their passing and defense are improving with every match, and the team will have a light shooting session this afternoon, as they continue to work on the problem ahead of tomorrow's opening Tournament match.

The tournament schedule will be discussed in the full post later today.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

It's been a busy 24 hours for TEAM USA, between Opening Ceremonies and the beginning of preliminary play today, so here's a summary of what's been going on in Athens:

The Good
The Opening Ceremonies can only be described in one word: Olympic. They were artistic, inspiring, and on a colossal scale. We arrived in the afternoon at the staging area, but had some time to walk around. First, we saw the Ivory Coast, sporting traditional clothing:

Then the guys were approached by the Kenyan women's track team, and although several played coy, they eventually gave in and posed with ladies:

The march then started. As is often the case at these kinds of events, we had to walk about a half mile before we got to the stadium, and the march came in fits and starts as other countries ahead of us entered at an uneven pace. Coach John made the most of the down time, showing our anti-dancing team how to break it down (with the help of a Greek volunteer):

Then things picked up and we approached:
The Discus Thrower, cast for the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896...the Opening Ceremonies were in the track stadium from those Games!
Then entered the stadium, greeted by American fans peering over the edge:
..and in the stadium:
Entering the Panathenaic Stadium
The ceremony interpreted the creation of the world according to Greek myth:

...and also offered a staged version of Homer's Odyssey, challenging the athletes and fans to face discrimination with the determination of Odysseus:

Then we had the obligatory speeches, though two were memorable. A tribute to Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver:

and the introduction of Special Olympics' Global Ambassadors, 12 athletes with remarkable stories of success and integration:

Then came the first:
Representatives of Law Enforcement from every country...they were the torch runners over the course of the last year

 All told, it was a moving way to open the Games.
The final moments of the Opening Ceremony
There was more to the Good than just the Opening Ceremonies. The guys opened preliminary play today, and performed very well. Although they lost to Canada 1-0, and tied Austria 0-0, they had more shots on goal in both games and dominated possession. Again, only the finishing was missing. The team will continue to work on this, though some of it was just bad luck. Wes Thompson rattled the crossbar in the Canada match, and Avery Long just missed the corner of the goal against Austria. Full match reports can be found here. But for now, here are a few pics:
Introductions before the match with Austria
Action during the Austria match, which ended 0-0
The Bad
Unfortunately, the guys have had some challenges on this trip, as logistics and organization continue to be a problem. The Opening Ceremonies ended at 12:45, and after a glut at the bus station, we did not get back to our remote hotel until just before 3am. Departure for today's games was at 7am. Then it turned out that our Austrian opponents missed their bus while trying to sneak in an extra hour or two of sleep, so we didn't play our first match until 1:30pm, and then played immediately afterward at 2:30pm. As a result, the guys slept at the stadium for an hour or two in the morning, but in addition to the difficult ferry ride, they were clearly running short on sleep. Most of them hit the hay at 9pm tonight, as we must be up at 5am for mandatory arrival before 8am tomorrow (3 hours before our final preliminary match against Italy).

The other logistics problem has been food. Breakfast at the new hotel consists only of corn flakes with warm milk, and hard boiled eggs. And meals at the Opening Ceremonies and stadium have included only a thick french loaf with a single thin slice of cheese or meat, along with a small granola bar. Hydration resources have been excellent, but the guys have needed additional food on a regular basis and the coaching staff was challenged to supply it today, since most groceries are closed in Greece on Sundays.
Terrell Nowlin showing the complete contents of his dinner sandwich before the Opening Ceremonies
Both of these difficulties, the transportation and the food, result from the difficult economic circumstances in Greece. The organizing committee is clearly short on resources, and the Games have received criticism from workers complaining that the government should not be spending money on an event like this during such a crisis. Indeed, a general strike is planned for Tuesday and Wednesday, which could affect transportation to the venues. We'll keep you posted.

The Ugly
Another of the organizational snafus is more comical than truly problematic...the new hotel outside of Athens will only wash clothes at the outrageous price of 4 euro per item ($6 for a shirt)! As a result, necessity required the players to learn to do their wash in sinks and bathtubs over the last two days. Happily, we'll all be smelling fresh and clean tomorrow, and friends and family will rejoice to learn that the players have a newfound respect for washing machines. Perhaps their laundry duties at home will increase?

The Take-Away
All of this is to say that the last 24 hours have given us everything we expected in terms of experience and competition. Some things haven't run perfectly, but those problems have taught us new skills and a new appreciation for the differences that exist in other places around the world. Plus, we've learned to challenge ourselves and perform in the face of a little adversity (and it is just a little, considering what the Palestinian, Iranian, Afghan and other delegations face at home on a daily basis). Tomorrow, we'll put those lessons into action against Italy at 11am in our final preliminary match. Scores have been improving (1-3 vs Ireland; 0-1 vs Canada; 0-0 vs Austria), so we expect that to continue tomorrow. Go USA!