Match Reports

2 July vs. Spain
The United States captured its first gold medal in football (soccer) at the Special Olympics World Games today, coming from behind to defeat tournament favorite Spain 2-1 at the Hellinokon Sports Complex near Athens.

Team USA came into the match after finishing atop the group standings in round-robin play, but their top seed was only due to goal difference, and the Spaniards paid no mind to the standings. The Iberians' possession puzzled the Americans in the opening minutes, and resulted in a number of fouls as the Americans' athleticism could not match Spanish guile. In fact, the Americans ended up committing 8 fouls in the match, and they had not committed more than two in any previous contest in Athens.

Halfway through the first stanza, the Spaniards capitalized on one such foul, as captain Marko Allejandro smashed a low drive from 15 yards out, which deflected off his teammate's foot and smartly into the left side of Alan Hill's goal before the keeper could react. The Americans were slow to set up their wall, and Allejandro took the kick quickly, putting the USA down 1-0.

Yet, again, the Americans showed a resilience they did not learn until after arriving in the Mediterranean climate. If the stereotype is about Mediterranean heat causing its residents to have quick tempers, the climate has had the opposite affect on the Americans. They regrouped from the Spanish goal faster than ever, and took the ensuing kickoff down the field, lost possession, won it back, and then Larry Mills slotted a low cross that Avery Long reached to tuck into the far post and equalize 1-1. The American goal came less than a minute after the Spanish goal.

As the half progressed, the Americans' quality improved. They began to string together more passes in each possession, and became more patient on defense, committing fewer fouls. The Spanish used another restart -- this time, a kick-in -- to apparently take the lead just before intermission, but their manager had signaled for a substitution. The goal was disallowed, and the stoppage allowed the Americans to get back on defense and preserve the tie when play started again. The Americans had dodged a bullet, and the half ended 1-1, with both sides feeling they had an equal chance at the gold.

The second half saw more of the same, a back-and-forth match that Special Olympics officials called "tightly contested" and "close." It was also well played, with good passing from the center to the flanks and smart defense sliding to contain without diving in. Yet every few minutes, the Americans caught the Spanish forward and their speed created strong chances. Larry Mills found a shot off a Wes Thompson pass in the 18th minute, cutting to his right against the only Spanish defender back, and just missing the goal. The Spanish had no such high-percentage chances, as the Americans' speed gave them a cushion on defense, as long as they recovered immediately after losing possession. Then, in the 21st minute, another Thompson pass caught Avery Long streaking down the right with his defender well behind him. Long took the one-touch shot from 7 yards out and it found the top right corner, putting the Americans ahead 2-1.

The Spanish redoubled their efforts and maintained the majority of possession in the closing ten minutes, but the Americans kept to their defensive shape. Allejandro moved up to forward, and the Americans countered by man-marking him with Thomas Smith. Patient defense from Sam Huffman, Smith, and Wes Thompson denied the Spanish captain any more of his threatening play, and the Americans ran out the clock to secure the gold.

30 June vs. Spain

In a match that was essentially a friendly exhibition, since both teams will play again for the gold medal of Level 5 on Saturday, the United States Special Olympics Soccer team did what the full national team could not, and held Spain to a 0-0 tie at the Hellinokon complex outside Athens.

In fact, Team USA owned the match, outshooting the Spaniards 5-2, and creating all three of the game's best scoring chances. Avery Long might have opened the scoring in the 10th minute, but Steven Summerfelts goalmouth cross was inches out of Long's long reach. In the second half, tight defending pressured Thomas Smith into shooting wide right from 5 yards out, then Terrell Nowlin, Shaun Ridley, and Brandon Chan came close as well. Larry Mills forced a diving save from the Spanish keeper in the final minutes, but the Americans did have fewer shots than in any other game. On the other hand, however, the Spanish were held to long range shots which were easily handled by goalkeeper Alan Hill.

The match actually got off to a strange start, as the referee crew confused the 7v7 rules with the 5v5 rules, and instructed Hill (as well as his opposite number for Spain) that the goalkeeper could not let the ball touch the ground before it left the box on distributions. Coach Ken asked for the game to be halted and requested a ruling from the Chief of Officials, who came to the game and told the referees they were wrong. In general, the coaches agree that the refereeing has been very good. All Tournament officials are professional referees who officiate in the Greek 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Divisions. However, this one episode created a delay that broke up the first half. Before it, the play was erratic and neither team controlled the ball well. Afterward, both teams' passing improved. Although the match did not produce many shots, it did display some of the best possession soccer in the group so far.

The only question now is, how much did each team learn about the other? There is only one way to answer that question: on the field Saturday at 12:45 local time. With the Gold Medal at stake.

29 June vs. Austria
The United States dominated from the opening whistle, and defeated Austria 3-0 in an afternoon match at Hellinikon, outside Athens.

While tension and unrest were building in the capital city, Team USA avoided both by taking control of the match right away. In an unexpected move, the Austrians shifted their formation from a 1-2-1 to a more defensive 3-1, in an effort to contain the Americans' speed. But instead, this tactic only opened more midfield space for the USA, who combined five and six passes in a row with uncommon regularity, while probing for openings in the Austrian backline. Not surprisingly, most of the early breakthroughs came from beating defenders one-on-one. Larry Mills came close in the third minute, and Steven Summerfelt was blocked shortly thereafter. Wes Thompson's early long range efforts sailed high, but the Americans were rarely troubled in defense, so he began to creep closer and closer.

Yet TEAM USA finally scored not off the dribble, but off a set piece they had only created while training in Rhodes last week. Instead of playing Larry Mills in the air, the team designed a near post play with a hard pass on the ground. Steven Summerfelt executed the pass perfectly in the sixth minute, and Avery Long's glancing one-timer found the far post corner, putting the Americans up 1-0. Wes Thompson doubled the advantage three minutes later, with another of his patented distance shots -- this one driven on the ground from 15 yards.

The Austrians deserted their defensive strategy in the second half, but it was too little too late. The Americans were full of confidence and goalkeeper Alan Hill only had to chase down balls that ran out of bounds! After Thomas Smith, Terrell Nowlin, and Shaun Ridley all came close, Steven Summerfelt again used a pinpoint pass -- this time from the run of play on the left wing -- to find Larry Mills just in front of goal, and Mills touched home to make it 3-0. Both sides then emptied their benches and ran the game out.

The win sends the Americans into the gold medal game on Saturday against Spain, who they still have to play in the group phase tomorrow.

28 June vs. Canada
The United States opened their Tournament campaign with a 2-1 victory against Canada this afternoon on the stadium field at Hellinkon, outside Athens.

The opening minutes of the match were very tense, as both teams felt the pressure of the stadium and the tournament. There was very little possession, although the Canadians had a couple of runs at the American defense and struck the crossbar just three minutes in. Meanwhile, the Americans presented no danger in return and could not settle into its attack. This trend brought Canada a lucky reward in the 6th minute, when a corner kick deflected off an American defender and into the goal.

Although TEAM USA had buckled in previous preparation matches when they fell behind, such was not the case today. The team immediately rallied, and began to control a bit more possession. Steven Summerfelt turned the corner on the right, and Terrell Nowlin and Sam Huffman triggered counter-attacks, with forward Larry Mills tiring the Canadian defense with constant runs and high pressure defense. So, when recently-elected captain Wes Thompson replaced Mills as the lone forward, he was able to take advantage of the tired defense. Winning the ball off a poor trap, Thompson took space in front of a tired defense and hammered a low 15-yard drive to the far post corner, scoring the team's first goal since arriving in Athens, and knotting the match at 1-1 just before half time.

The team's excitement over the goal did not translate into dominance in the second half. Rather, the game went back and forth, with each side seeing several good chances. Canada missed on two more corner kicks, with attackers left unmarked in box, and also missed the goal on a breakaway, though the shot was forced early by aggressive play from American goalkeeper Alan Hill. For its part, the U.S. nearly took the lead in the 19th minute, when Larry Mills took a pass from Avery Long, beat a defender, and poked the ball past the onrushing keeper. Only a desperate clearance from a sprinting Canadian back preserved the tie.

But Mills would not be denied. The Canadians had no answer for his sharp cut to his favorite right foot, and in the 24th minute, Mills used that move to laser a shot past his defender and the goalkeeper, into the upper left hand corner from 10 yards out. The goal triggered delirium on the American bench, and the players had to be reminded not to step onto the field!

But the goal only hardened the Canucks' resolve. They soon pressed forward and owned much more of the possession, earning six corner kicks in the last five minutes. The Americans responded with defensive substitutions, putting Thompson and even Mills into the back line to shore up the protection. But having scored two goals in two matches against the U.S. -- both with help from the Americans -- the Canadians could not create an equalizer on their own. Hill broke up all six corners, and the Americans punted clearances long and wide to kill the clock and secure all three points.


27 June vs. Italy
The answer is simply: YES! The Americans continued to get better with each match, thoroughly dominating Italy this morning. The official shots-on-goal count was 7-1 in favor of the Americans, though once again, fine goalkeeping and missed opportunities kept the Americans out of the net and resulted in another 0-0 tie.

The Americans' passing was much crisper than the day before, and combinations between Sam Huffman, Larry Mills, Terrell Nowlin, and Thomas Smith produced opportunities from the start. The team also enacted its pressure defence (soccer's version of a full-court press) for the first time in the tournament, and saw it produce breakaway chances for Mills and Avery Long. Italy's goalkeeper made two sprawling saves to deny Mills, and was lucky to have Long's shot hit his leg as he dove the other way.

In defense, Brandon Chan and Sam Huffman not only continued to improve their positioning (keeping the team anchored and preventing breakaways against us), but also were much calmer on the ball, delivering passes to feet instead of frantic clearances. Italy's only shot on goal was a real one, however, created from a lost tackle in the back just three minutes into the match. However, goalkeeper Alan Hill has been working on breakaways since the Canada game, and quickly came out and made a diving save to his left. After that, Hill's action was limited to tracking down long balls that had rolled out of bounds from panicked Italian clearances! After a second straight shutout, this time demonstrating better possession than in any previous match, the Americans are confident about their chances in the tournament itself, which starts tomorrow. Seeding will be released at 9pm tonight, and will be featured in this evening's update on the homepage.

26 June vs. Austria
The U.S. team clearly learned from their defensive lapses in the Canada match, posting their first shutout of the Games. In fact, Austria had only two shots on goal. The Austrians did narrowly miss on a header with 5 minutes left and a shot as time expired, but the Americans beat them in shots-on-goal by a 7-2 margin, and again only lacked final shooting or else they would have won the match.

Just three minutes into the game, Mills again was denied by fine goalkeeping. It is as if the opposing netminders know he is dangerous, and play their best game against him. Terrell Nowlin was next to hit the keeper, just five minutes into the game. Mills, Avery Long, and Thomas Smith all shot wide from the edge of the box in the middle five minutes, concluding the Americans' best chances.

Austria picked up their game in the closing moments, as the Americans showed signs of fatigue...playing their second match in a row while the Austrians had enjoyed an extra half-hour rest in between matches. Austria's large center forward helped them keep a little more possession, and he used his size to clear shooting space for himself and his teammates against the American defense, but few of the shots were on goal.

A 0-0 draw was an improvement from both the 3-1 defeat to Ireland, and the 1-0 loss to Canada, but could the Americans improve again in their final preliminary match against Italy on Sunday?

26 June vs. Canada
The team was already warming up on the field when they were informed that their scheduled opener against Austria was going to be delayed, because the Austrians decided to sleep in and miss their bus. So, the team had to adjust their eating and warm-up schedule on the fly and prepare to begin play two hours later than expected, and against Canada (originally their second match).

The game was closely contested, with the Canadians and Americans both missing several clear chances early on. But both teams were frantic in their first match of tournament, being played on the stadium field. After ten minutes, just as the United States began to settle down and enjoy the majority of possession, a giveaway in the back gifted Canada an uncontested shot from 5 yards out. The forward rammed the ball into the upper left corner, and the U.S. trailed 1-0.

However, the goal did not deter the Americans for a moment. They resumed dominance, and soon the chances came in bundles. A nifty set of passing between Steven Summerfelt and Larry Mills left Mills with a one-timer right in front of goal, but he was denied by a diving goalkeeper. Then Wes Thompson tried another of his well-known distance shots, and squarely struck the crossbar from 20 yards out with three minutes left. Avery Long sent a breakaway chance just left of the near post in the final minute. The U.S. defeat was a lesson in the importance of every play during a soccer match: scoring chances are rare, and you must make the most of them, as well as prevent giving your opponent easy chances.

22 June vs. Ireland (at Rhodes)
The team's final preparation match ended in a 3-1 loss to Ireland this morning at the Rhodes Paleidia School. The teams played two 20-minutes halves, rather than the 15-minute periods that will make up games in Athens.

The School's turf field is a bit smaller than the regulation fields that will be used in Athens, and the tighter quarters played to the advantage of the Irish team, who displayed better ball control and used physical defense to throw the Americans off their game.

After six minutes of high-pressure scoreless play, Ireland opened the scoring on a corner kick. The Americans have not perfected their corner kick defense yet, and Ireland's short corner left their top shooter uncovered at the corner of the 7-meter box. With time, the player looked up and fire low to the far post corner of the goal. It was a quality shot and the Irish led 1-0.

The Americans' opponents doubled their lead ten minutes later, when the Irish used two quick passes off an American turnover to get behind the defense, and then swing the ball from right to left, creating an excellent open shot from 5 meters out that snuck inside goalkeeper Alan Hill's near post. Hill came back to block a breakaway and a high driven shot, but then Ireland scored again just before halftime. A missed clearance created an open breakaway that was neatly converted into the lower left corner.

Down 3-0 at halftime, and having only created two good chances, the Americans regrouped and had the run of play in the second half. At the ten minute mark, Wes Thompson marked his return from a minor foot fracture by driving a shot off a dropped pass from Sam Huffman into the upper left corner from 12 meters out. The Americans now smelled a comeback, and created a series of breakaways -- including a three-on-goalkeeper and two two-on-ones -- but Shaun Ridley hit the post, the Irish keeper broke up the open passes, and other clear chances were pushed well wide of the goal.

Although the team lost this final preparation match, they learned valuable lessons about the physicality of international soccer, and the importance of quickly marking on defensive restarts, as well as quickly getting the ball forward on offensive restarts. Another day working on set pieces, and some time spent on defending (and finishing) breakaways should help ready the team for their opening matches of divisioning on Sunday.