US Youth Soccer Assistant Coach Darren Marshall traveled to Russia to coach the ODP Girls U-17 Region I team in the Kuban Spring Tournament. Check out his blog as he recounts their experiences on and off the field!
Wow, what a fun filled day! We started this morning with a pool work out to stretch and get our muscles ready for the day’s events. After a little complaining and coaxing, the girls all got in and started out the day. Afterward we got breakfast, and then had a little downtime before the game.
Coach Ken and I went over to the fields to watch the North Korea vs. Krasnodar game (Group A), and the Turkey vs. Slovakia Game (Group B). In the North Korea game, North Korea went up 1-0 on a great goal created by the team, and then ended the game by winning 2-0. They were surely the dominant team. We left the fields at the halftime of the Turkey vs. Slovakia game to get back to the girls. The score was 0-0 at the time and Turkey was the stronger of the two teams. When we all got back, we heard that Slovakia had beaten Turkey 2-0. That was an upset for sure.
We got lunch with the girls, had a quick tactical meeting and then went off to the opening ceremonies and the game. The stadium was excellent and right in the center of Sochi, Russia. There were about 1,000 people in the stands and we were ready to play. We started our warm-up and then stopped to see the opening performance, but we missed most of it because we were preparing.
It was now game time, and we started to play against Russia. The game went back and forth. You could tell the girls were a little nervous about the environment as they showed moments of real quality, but also allowed Russia to start to play on our side. After a half, it was a well-deserved 0-0. Russia had about five good shots, all from the outside, but none really troubled us as we had Darien D. towering in goal and calmly dealing with all of them.
We talked in the locker room about the things we needed to do in the second half, and then we went back out to fight and try to take the game. Unfortunately, the half did not start out as well as we wanted, and Russia put us under pressure and had a close range shot which they hit wide. They also got two free kicks outside of our box that were dangerous, but thankfully we had Darien in goal to keep us the game. Fifty minutes… 60 minutes… we were getting tired and Russia was getting stronger. Darien came out to collect a ball at the top of the box and a crafty Russian forward beat her to it and we watched the ball heading towards the goal. Out of sheer commitment and desire to have us succeed, our player Peyton raced back and launched herself into the air to barely tip the ball wide giving them a corner kick instead of a ball in the back of the net. Whew! Close call! They almost broke us down, but they were not able to get the one killer ball due to our committed back line and keeper.
We started to make a few subs to change the game, and we started to get a little stronger. We put in Tina in the back, and she did a good job of keeping up the pressure on the left by continuing to attack from that side. We added Rachel U. to the mix and started to give them a little trouble on the outside. We then put in Sarah M. in the midfield. With her first few touches, the game started to change in our favor. She brought a calmness to the game which we were lacking, and we started to dominate things on the field. At the 75 minute mark, Ken’s experience showed through. In a masterstroke of a move he added Kylie to the outside to run at their outside back, and moved Rachel U. to the middle to utilize her pace. Within seconds that switch started to pay off, and Sarah joined Emma and Amber to send Kylie down the flank with a ball. Rachel looked like a threat. She got the next ball but had a shot right at the keeper. Time was running out…78 minutes… 79 minutes. The referee then shows that there are five minutes of added time. We have only gotten three shots off in the last three minutes and in my mind, we needed to preserve the point as one point for the tie was good.
Then all of a sudden, Rachel got put through on a ball, splitting the two backs. She ran on to it, took a small prep touch, and before the backs were able to close her down, she cracked a thunderous strike to the far side of the goal and it whizzed by the keeper in the 84th minute!!! The bench erupted! Rachel went wild giving out hugs and screaming to all of her teammates. Peyton, who was in the back all by herself, looked up, raised her hands, and let out such a joyous scream, I am sure everyone in the stadium heard! What a wondrous moment, due to the desire, commitment, and great work of the team as a whole. One more minute passed and then we heard the final whistle blow! We won! Joy and hugs surrounded the team! It was a great win!
We all went back to the hotel, the girls took an ice bath, we all got dinner and then we had some downtime. The girls started to talk to the Estonia and the Ukraine girls to make friends. Tomorrow is a slower day. We get to train, go to the study hall, and then relax a bit for the first time since we have been traveling.
Next up, Turkey in 2 days.
Currently the groups look like this:
1) North Korea – 3 points
2) Moldova – 0 points
3) Iran – 3 points
4) Krasnodar – 0 points
1) Slovakia – 3 points (they have 2 goals, we have 1)
2) USA – 3 points
3) Russia – 0 points
4) Turkey – 0 points
1) Ukraine – 3 points
2) Romania – 3 points
3) Azerbaijan – 0 points
4) Estonia – 0 points
If you'd like to check out photos from the game, click here
or check out our Facebook page. Now we are off to bed; training tomorrow to prepare for our next opponent. Turkey here we come!
I apologize for the delay in this note, the internet has been acting funny and I have not been able to send it until now.
Today was a light training day. We made sure we had everything ready for our next game against Turkey. We have watched their game, we have seen them train and now we are ready for the battle.
In the afternoon we took the girls to a study hall. We got a room on the beach overlooking the sea.
After dinner, we had a short meeting to get the girls’ minds focused for the upcoming task ahead. That night, Turkey’s head coach came up to us and said hi to a few of the girls. Then we realized he had studied our team so much he knew everyone’s name and position and was creating a plan to counter us.
Off to bed, and we will see what tomorrow brings.
- Big D
Day 6: Friday, March 8, 2013
"Dobre Utra" (Good Morning)!
We headed to the pool in the morning to start our preparation. There was an excitement in the air; we were getting ready for the battle ahead. Then, it was time for us to depart. The bus schedule was a little screwed up though. Our bus arrived, but our opponent’s didn’t. Since Turkey’s bus was 25 minutes away, we all squeezed into one bus and allowed them to travel with us to the game.
It was a beautiful day outside! It was about 55-60 degrees, the sun was out and it was a great day to play. We were playing on field 1, the "prized" field. Warm-ups looked good. The teams were ready. We heard the whistle blow and we were off!
The game was a little cagey for the first few minutes as we were trying to feel each other out. They had done their homework and were trying to stifle every touch from our towering center midfielder Amber S. As the game started to calm down we started to take control. About 20 minutes in, with a beautiful flowing move started by our fullbacks, Eva G. was released on the left flank. Slalom-like, she broke down three defenders and let loose a fierce strike towards the goal. Aahhh, save! Their goalkeeper just barely got a hand to it and tipped it over.
We started to play again and a girl on the opposing team got hurt. The doctor on Turkey’s team ran onto the field, and it was nothing but a knock and the player was fine. The weird thing was we then saw that the doctor ran directly to their team’s goalkeeper. Her hand had still hurt from Eva’s shot so she got it checked out.
Three minutes later we had another move down the right and Kylie H. was not taking any prisoners. She took on their right back, cut inside and then struck a hammer blow with deadly accuracy as she scored the opening goal of the game. It was 1-0! Excellent!
Halftime was approaching and we had a lead. Turkey got a mini break and got a free kick on the left side of our box. With the sun in her eyes and wind in her face, Turkey’s forward put in a bent ball just outside of the six inch danger area for our goalkeeper Meg "Stu" Hinz. Our keeper leaped into the air on a full extension, and got a hand on the ball to make a brilliant save in the midst of traffic. As she got up and was trying to clear the ball, a Turkey midfielder poked the ball into the back of the net.
The score was now 1-1 and we were not having that! We started to press. We had broken down their back line a few times and fizzed shots wide or at the keeper, but we were keeping the pressure on. The clock was ticking and we were getting stronger and stronger. With about 10 minutes to go, we received a free kick about 15 yards outside of their box on the left side. Christina I. was playing left back. She picked up the ball confidently as she was going to take the kick. The referee started to walk back the wall and things were going in slow motion, all falling in to place. You see every game we’ve had a fan or two that comes to watch and cheer us on but today we had someone very special in the crowd. Christina told me that she wanted to play well for our fan today because it was his birthday and she had dedicated the game to him. What a sweetheart. Turkey was ready, lined up on the top of the box. The ref blew her whistle. Christina paused for a second, took a deep breath and then started her run up to the ball. Seeing her standing over the ball reminded me of Cristiano Ronaldo. As she struck the ball we heard a "crack" as the ball was perfectly hit. A beautifully bent ball went towards the back post. Their goalkeeper launched herself into the air and could not reach the ball, defenders and attackers jumped and none touched it and the ball sailed in to the top far corner of the goal! Wow, what a thing of beauty! As the team ran over to Christina to give her a bear hug she looked at me with a smile on her face and a tear in her eye. What a great kid. The celebrations wrapped up and Christina headed back to her position. She glanced up to the stands and looked at our fan as if to say, "That one’s for you."
The clock was winding down. We had four minutes left in the game and we were still in control. We were in Turkey’s end. Every time they got the ball they were just clearing it out time after time again. We were doing well but they seemed as if they were desperately defending and just kicking the ball down the field. Almost over; it was the 89th minute. They cleared another ball down the field. It was headed towards their forward. Our center back pressed her and gave her a little room to receive the ball so then she could contain and win the ball, but then Turkey does the unexpected. Twenty-five yards away from the goal, their forward didn’t control the ball, and she winded up and hit a wonder strike to the far post that hit the side netting about an inch from the post. WOW! There was nothing Meg could have done on that one. It was now 2-2 with four minutes of added time. We were tied. We tried to rally together to get things done, but anytime the ball went out, Turkey started walking and acting really slow to waste time and run down the clock.
The final whistle blew. Turkey jumped and cheered for joy as they got a point vs. USA and to them that was a victory. Their hopes of progressing were still alive! For us there was a somber mood. We got a point that put us on top of the group, but we felt that we should have gotten so much more out of that game.
We went back to the hotel where we were celebrated National Women’s day and were presented with flowers by the staff of the hotel. It was also Payton’s birthday and the staff that knew how to only say "Hello" in English, came over and sang "Happy Birthday" to her in English. She started crying. When we got upstairs, the team gave her a hug and got her a piece of cake. She was so overwhelmed she started to tear up. Then, in a very surprising but kind move, the Turkish coaches heard it was her birthday, quickly ran back to their rooms and came back with a gift for her - a little Turkish teddy bear. Yep… she started gushing as she smiled from all the love she had received.
Off to bed now. Tomorrow is a relaxing day as we start to prepare for the last group game vs. Slovakia.
Good night everyone, "Spokóynoy nóchi!"
Day 7: Saturday, March 9, 2013
On to a new day, today was a rest day for us so we decided to train in the morning and have the rest of the day free. Training went well, ready for Slovakia. After training, we went back to the hotel for a quick workout in the pool for regeneration, and then we went off to the center of Sochi for some sightseeing.
We got the chance to do a little shopping downtown as well which was nice. We had a special treat for the girls as we took them out to dinner in downtown Sochi.
We had "Shahslik," which is a grilled version of meat cooked over open coals. We also ate local bread, amazing hummus, pork and chicken, grilled veggies and fruit for dessert. The girls devoured the meal and loved it! We got back to the hotel and it was an early night for the girls. They started to practice for their cultural night on Sunday.
The girls also got together to help Coach Ken get technologically updated. It was entertaining. They taught him how to use face time on his iPhone, and who do you suppose his first call was to… to his daughter Ali Krieger in Portugal where she was with the U.S. Women’s National Team just after their game vs. China PR. The girls went crazy as they got the chance to see Ali Krieger, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn. It was a great way for the girls to get pumped up for the rest of the week.
Day 8: Sunday, March 10, 2013
"Dobre Utra" (Good Morning)!
It’s game day. We got to sleep in a few extra minutes and we woke up at 9:00 a.m.
for a pool workout, and then had a 9:30 a.m. breakfast. At 10:15 a.m. we had a pre-game meeting. We are so lucky to be led by Coach Ken, his experience and knowledge is invaluable as we prepare for the game today. As we sat in the room and had our tactical talk, you could look around the room and see the determination on the girls’ faces as we talked about the game. Coach told us about a conversation he had with his daughter Ali Krieger the night before her game. Ali played against China PR and scored a beautiful goal for the USA, and she was the player of the match. It all came down to the inspiration that came from her father, Coach Ken! He relayed the quote to the players with dramatic effect. The girls had an excitement in the room and were ready to play and take on Slovakia. We needed a win to get to the top spot, a tie put us through definitely, but I wasn’t sure at what position.
The game started. It was warm, about 50 degrees. It was just barely drizzling; the grass field was a little muddy. Slovakia lined up in a very defensive formation against us and wanted to counter, but through the directions of Coach Ken, we started to break them down. Four minutes in, Rachel Ugs got a quick touch through their back line and then played a "1-2" with Eva who then took a shot. It rebounded off their goalkeeper and Rachel was there to tap it in. Coach Ken yelled in a bellowing voice, "YES!!!!" and "That is the impulse I want to see!" We were ahead but a weird pit in my stomach told me the game was not over yet. We were dominating the game. Our back line was solid and sparking every attack as we went forward. We had a few more half chances and then the half time whistle blew.
We got back from the locker room and little did we know the "fireworks" were about to start! We got out and started to play. Both teams went back and forth but we were stronger at first. Rachel again in her pesky way received a ball, turned and started to accelerate past their defenders. There was just one player left to beat, the goalkeeper. Their keeper launched herself feet first at Rachel and totally took her out. Rachel, who is made of steel and has the focus of a hawk, bounced up unfazed and was ready to chase the loose ball but stopped when she heard a whistle. Then we heard, "Krasnyee! Krasnyee!!!," or, "Red! RED!!!" You could hear yelling from the staff on our bench and we were all calling for a red card. The goalkeeper was the last defender that had stopped us from scoring. Then, the referee ran over and let us all down as she placed the ball outside the box and gave their goalkeeper a yellow card. We took the kick and as it soared just over the bar, we knew we had our work cut out for us.
All of a sudden our outside players came alive. It seemed as if Eva and Kylie H. were taking turns breaking down their back line time after time, and either a desperation tackle or a quick blow of the breeze threw the ball off target and kept us from scoring more. Down came Slovakia on a counter attack and then as we got in to a routine tackle, their forward jumped over our defenders foot and we heard, "bbbbeeeeeppppppp!" and a free kick was given to them outside of our box. What, really? Clearly the ref could see she played for that and took a dive? The resulting free kick was saved by our keeper, half cleared off the line, and then one of their players ran from behind jumped and hit the ball. Our defender and keeper tried to bumble all three of them but the ball went over the line, 1-1. We had 20 minutes left to play and we gave up a goal like that. What do we do? But we are Region I, we are American, and with a never say die attitude, immediately Bloz in the back stepped in to win a ball and played it to Amber in the midfield. Then Amber combined with Emma and Sarah in a graceful move that set us free down the right flank. Kylie got the ball and slipped it to Eva who then with a very deft touch laid a ball through their two backs so that Rachel could run on to it. From inside the box on the left, at an impossible angle, Rachel Ugs cocked back her foot, and with the power of a navy flagship let loose a cannon of a strike that flew in to the far netting and almost took the goalkeeper along with it!
Whew, we were up 2-1 and there was nine minutes left. Coach Ken stepped to the touch line and yelled to the girls, "Nine minutes left, you can do it!" Rachel Ugs with a smile on her face turned around and said, "Yes we can coach!" The game started and we wanted another one. They got a chance to come in our end and one of their players went down under a challenge and they got a free kick. Three minutes left. They took the kick, and it hit the cross bar, then suddenly they found and poked home the rebound. The score was 2-2 with two minutes remaining.
Tick, tock, tick, tock, the game was over. The Slovakian girls yelled, and dropped to their knees as they advanced and were happy and excited that they made it. Our girls were furious. We did not win the game, a fighting spirit that was not satisfied today. If you looked at the standings we had 6 points and stood undefeated. We were in the top spot in our group, Slovakia was in 2ND place and Turkey was in 3rd (since they beat Russia). Rachel Ugs got named player of the match and was now our leading scorer with three goals in three games.
Time for the next thing on the agenda, Cultural Night! We were up first and put together a dancing routine that would make you all proud. The other teams came to watch and loved our girls! This group of young ladies has made such a positive impression on the other countries here that we have been invited to bring our team to Turkey, Moldova, and Romania in the future. You can be extremely proud that our girls are some of the finest ambassadors this tournament has seen.
We found out we are up against Krasnodar next in two days. Time to rest tonight and get back to the drawing board to take on the next challenge.
The final brackets are:
- Iran vs. Turkey
- USA vs. Krasnodar
- Ukraine vs. North Korea
- Slovakia vs. Romania
"Spokóynoy nóchi!" (Good night).
Day 9: Monday, March 11, 2013
Yesterday we trained and started to get ready for the quarterfinal game today. We found out we were playing Krasnodar. It was raining during the day and when we went to train, we saw that the field was a little muddy so we trained on the turf field instead. As we prepared, we saw some good things from the girls. It started to pour down rain, but the girls stayed focused and kept to task. Then we finished, and had a relaxing night.
We have a little creek right outside our hotel that appears to have formed by a river running off a nearby mountain. It was a little more rapid this morning, a clear indication it had raining the night before. We all got breakfast and then went off to the field. When we got there, Iran and Turkey were playing on the stadium field, which had a nice pitch and had been drained really well. One of the other fields had standing water and the field we were scheduled to play on was super muddy. Our field was so muddy that when I walked on it with sneakers, the water was coming up around my shoes. We told the officials we did not want to play on that field. For a brief moment the officials said we had no choice, and the Krasnodar team started to cheer. When we refused again, they gave us the option of playing on the main stadium field after the Turkey vs. Iran game finished. We agreed and took that option. We tuned in to the Turkey vs. Iran game right as Turkey went up 1-0, but in the end they lost. Iran got lucky on a few goals and won the game 1-4. This meant that if we won, we knew our next opponent.
Then it was time for us to warm up. It started to trickle a little bit with rain. The girls looked ready and determined to play. The warm up was good, crisp and clean. The whistle sounded and right away we started to establish our dominance on the field. Three minutes in and you could see we were the better team. The rain started to come down harder and then it started pouring. The coaches slid under the bench covering for protection. The game continued. We had a number of good spells, but were holding the ball in the back as we were patiently looking for an opening. Then is started raining down cats and dogs. We played the ball from our outside back, to our center back, and then to our goalkeeper who took a big touch and changed to the other side of the field.
The rain was coming down so hard, that you could hear it beating on the ground as each mammoth size droplet fell from the sky. It was hard to communicate over the rush of water and the girls could barely hear us. At that moment, a lone forward from the other team ran, and our goalkeeper did not see or hear her coming. She tipped the ball just past her and scored. We were stunned. How anticlimactic! We were 100% in total control of the game and then we went down 0-1 at the six minute mark. There was an eerie silence and no one knew what to do or say. Our player Tina then yelled above the rush of the rain storm, "Let’s go girls! We’ve got this!" As our girls took the kick off, you could see the determination in their eyes.
The game started to get a little sloppy. All Krasnodar wanted to do was kick the ball up the field. We started to slip because the ground was getting slick. What we did not want to happen was coming true and the ground was becoming very muddy and we could not hold our feet on anything. Half time was approaching and Krasnodar looked exhausted. It looked like every tackle, every clearance, and every kick for them was completely out of desperation.
We started the 2nd half and it looked like Coach Ken had given the girls all a glass of vinegar in the locker room, as they were completely soaked to the bone, but had a stone faced look on their faces that said nothing was going to get in their way. Time passed…50 minutes, 60 minutes. We were in complete control of the game, but still could not break through to get a clear cut chance. In the 67th minute, the ball went out of play for a throw-in deep in their end. Without hesitation Tina looked at Kylie and winked. She threw the ball in quickly to Kylie who took a touch and then whipped in a low driven cross. Out of nowhere, our clutch player Emma Firenze dove in front of the goalkeeper, and headed the ball into the back of the net! Yes! We were now on level terms with 12 minutes left to go. Krasnodar’s players on the field appeared to be deflating. They looked worried and were going to try to hold on for the next few minutes. Our girls on the other hand seemed as if they got a shot of V8 as they stood up taller, ran faster, and seemed to get stronger at the possibility of going through to win the game. Four minutes later, the ball bounced and Emma stretched for it, poked it over a girl’s head and Rachel Ugs ran on and smashed the ball in the back of the net! Before the celebration could get started, the referee blew her whistle and Emma was called for a high foot. It was so frustrating!
The game progressed and we could not find the breakthrough. Then we heard the final whistle blow. I ran over to the referee and in my broken Russian asked if we were playing a 20-minute overtime. The ref stared back at me and said, "No, penalties." My stomach dropped! We were going right into PK’s. What a way to decide the game. As I walked back to the sideline, I looked at the girls. Payton, Tina, Amber, Emma, and Meg were all getting excited and focused. Bloz, Ugs, and Erin all had a determined look on their face. Then, my thoughts and feelings completely changed as I then started to feed off of the girls’ energy. I started to feed off of the strength of this team, completely, and I now became ready to go!
The girls decided on their own who was going to take the kicks. Bloz decided to go first. She went up to the line and buried her kick. Krasnodar’s first player stepped up and also scored theirs. Our goalkeeper Megan was going through a ritual that seemed like she was making a huge step and stomping on the ground to prepare. Sarah stepped up. Cool and collectedly, she buried hers in the corner. For the next kick, Megan stepped in and dove the wrong way. The score was now 2-2. Emma was next, and calm. After the whistle, she stared the keeper down and then powered her kick past her with confidence. All of a sudden the rain started to slow down. There was a little light spot in the sky as the sun was trying to break through. Megan stepped into the goal and stomped both feet like an All Blacks New Zealand rugby player. The ref blew the whistle. The player stepped up. She struck the ball and our keeper "Stu" got a good read, dove to her left and got a rain soaked glove on the ball to palm it wide off the post! YES!!! We were now up 3-2, but we still had kicks to go. Ugs stepped up for the next pk. She looked at the ref, turned around to smile and wink at the bench, and blasted her shot by the keeper like if she was standing still. It was now 4-2! One more goal by us and we win. "Stu" stepped back into goal for the next Krasnodar kick. She did her ritual and then did the unbelievable. She read the player right and puts the ball around the post, again!!!
It took a second to sink in, and the players on the side wanted to run on the field. The ref blew her whistle and then the game was done! We won!!! The girls ran on the field and hugged each other. We were headed to the semifinal match vs. Iran! Coach Ken turned around and shook the hands of the staff and walked off the field. As I watched him stroll across the field, I realized that it had stopped raining, and the sun was peaking through the clouds. We had accomplished our goal. We were a goal down and through hard work, dedication, and fight we came back to win the game in PK’s.
We went "home" to the hotel and the girls took an ice bath and got ready for Cultural Night. We relaxed and started to prepare for the next task ahead.
"Dosvedanya" (goodbye). Until tomorrow.
So we had a chance to rest and relax after our last game and when we woke up this morning we turned our attention to our next task, our semifinal match versus Iran. Iran’s players seemed a little older than our players. After asking questions, we found out that we were playing against Iran’s full national team. Their team was a last minute addition to the tournament, and they brought the best players their country had to offer. Their ages ranged from 19-31. When we watched the game yesterday, we saw they had a really good forward, who scored three goals in the game. When we got back to the hotel we looked at the stats and we found out that she was the tournament’s leading goal scorer with eight goals. Our player Rachel Ugs was the second leading scorer with three goals. We watched game film, we trained and we mentally prepared. A battle is in our hands the next day and we are a little nervous but I think we are ready. To break up the tension, we headed to training early so we could watch Russia take on Azerbaijan because we have made friends on both teams. We saw a lot of cheering and a lot of smiles as both teams appreciated the support.
Day 12: Thursday, March 14, 2013
We woke up to do our normal warm up, and wow, it was beautiful outside. Yesterday it rained and was cloudy. Today was about 60 degrees and there was barely a cloud in the sky. We walked to the pool and the girls had giddiness about them. We went through our normal morning routine. Then it was time to get ready for the game. We were told game time was at 3:15 p.m. so we started the trek:
- 1:45 p.m. – Bus ride to the field. The bus driver hugged me as we entered and said "Un Dache Comrade" (good luck friend).
- 2:00 p.m. – Arrived at the complex.
- 2:05 p.m. – Took a walk down to see the field. We were playing on turf today, no jackets needed.
- 2:25 p.m. – Walked back to the locker room and the girls got changed. The pitch man, multiple reporters, and transportation heads all wished us good luck.
- 2:45 p.m. – Walked to the warm-up area, stone faced and focused, ready to prepare for the task at hand.
- 3:00 p.m. – Walked back to the locker room for the final pregame talk and then, game time.
- 3:05 p.m. – We were told that we were given wrong information and that the game wasn’t until 3:30pm so we waited 25 minutes for the start of the game.
- 3:20 p.m. – Walked to the field to hear the national anthems.
- 3:30 p.m. – Kick off.
- 3:35 p.m. – Various high ranking officials arrived to watch the game (mayor of Sochi, head of the Russian Women’s Football Federation, head of Ministry of Sport of Russia, members of the FIFA delegation and a ref that looked familiar).
As we started the game it was a little cagy. Iran appeared to sit back and let us pass the ball around and then tried to stop us on every chance we could get through. We quickly saw what we were up against. Also, any time they thought they had an advantage they would go down and feign an injury. In the first 20 minutes, their team’s doctor went on the field five times. When we had the ball though, they were playing very aggressively, trying to throw us off our game. Their player, #7, was always a threat, but we kept her pretty bottled up and didn’t allow her to get room to breathe. About 20 minutes in, she latched on to a pass, beat three of our defenders and let loose a rip that was goal bound. Darien, our goalkeeper, came to the rescue and saved her thunderous shot. For the remainder of the half she didn’t have many chances and we had one or two that we did not convert.
The 2nd half started and the referee that looked familiar came over and said hi to me. He had remembered me from previous years and then it struck me that he was the top Russian referee. I had seen him on TV before refereeing numerous Champions League and World Cup games. He left and wished our team good luck.
We started to play and then the assistant referee on our side kept making calls that were not correct. She gave them a corner kick when we hadn’t touched the ball. She gave them throw ins when the ball belonged to us. Time was winding down. We had a few chances. They had gotten about two. With about five minutes left in the game, the assistant referee marked a free kick on the right side of our box. The ball ended up on the other side of the box. They attempted a cross and then they ball hit one of our defenders on the underside of her arm. The last thing we wanted. We heard the whistle blow and the ref points to the spot, a penalty kick for them. Two Iran girls drop to their knees and cheer as this is their chance. Number seven, their tough player, grabbed the ball and lined up to take the kick. She ran, moved, changed direction, and shot the ball. This was a tough task for us to try and overcome. Darien had the sun in her eyes, the wind in her face, and the pressure of having to stop this PK with five min left to play in the game. Iran’s player struck the ball with a thunderous blow towards the left upper corner of the goal. Like a springing of gazelle Darien guessed right and propelled herself towards the corner of the goal. As she flew gracefully through the air with immense power she got her hands to the ball and deflected it straight up in the air. She landed and before the other players could get to her she got up, reached into the air and collected the loose ball! Awesome! The crowd went wild! At this game because of the all of the high ranking officials in attendance, there were about 35 police security officers there. All week long they had not acknowledged, interacted, or noticed anything other than their job and each other, always straight faced. When I looked at them, I saw three of them huddled together, smiling, and clapping. We were still in the game.
As emotional as that play was, Darien still had her head about her and she quickly threw the ball to the right to Kylie. As she ran down the field, it was like letting a raging bull out of its rodeo pen, and the girls came out with a fury and fierceness that was unbelievable! Three passes later, the ball found Amber on the edge of their area. She received the ball, opened her body, and gracefully struck a stunning ball that flew to the back post destined for the goal. Then we all heard a "ping." It had hit the back post and rocketed out of bounds! The ball started to come down the field and then ref blew the whistle. It was the end of the game, time for PK’s again! We won the coin toss and elected to kick first. Our player Kelly then commented, "I wonder if they have studied our PK’s from the game before?" Either way we step up to get the job done. This is how the PK’s went:
- Bloz – The keeper guessed right, but Bloz powered it past her.
- Iran – Iran’s keeper stepped up to take the next one. Darien expected a firm kick so she dove and missed as the ball softly dribbled down the middle of the goal.
- Sarah – Their keeper guessed right but Sarah’s precision was too much and she scored.
- Iran – Darien guessed correctly but the ball squirted under her. Kelly commented, "They definitely tried to study our PK’s."
- Emma – Emma must have mentally heard the keeper as she stepped up. She looked at the keeper, took a long run up and then hit the ball off the right post and in the net. As she turned back to jog back to the team she blew a kiss to the bench with a smile as if to say she meant to do that.
- Iran – Their player shoots, and Darien guesses right. She gets a hand on it, but it goes just past her and into the net! The score was 3-3.
- Ugs – Rachel steps up with a smile puts the ball down, starts her run up and the ref has to stop her. Ugs was so excited to take the kick she never waited for the ref to say go. She smiled, winked at the ref backed up . . . . . and if the rumors are true she looked the GK in the eye, smiled at her, heard the whistle and proceeded to let go a hammer strike past the GK who barely got a chance to move.
- Iran – Oh boy, #7 was up and she was back for revenge. She confidently picked up the ball, placed it on the spot and was ready. The ref blew the whistle. It seemed like time stopped for a second as Darien looked her straight in the eye with a piercing stare. Number 7 ran up and struck a powerful shot to the lower left corner. Darien, with the wingspan of an eagle, launched herself through the air, reached out, got a fingertip to the ball, and with the power of the team surging through her body, channeled the energy to make an inhuman save. It appeared that she had tipped the ball around the post. Darien had outmaneuvered the best player on Iran’s team and come out on top!
- Tina – Tina was our last kicker. If Tina made this shot the game was over. She coolly stepped up to the ball, walked back a few steps, and then proceeded by placing the ball in the back of the net to secure our place in the final!
Wow what emotion! Tina ran over to Darien and jumped in to her arms and as they hugged, the team arrived and surrounded them for an amazing group picture. They had now accomplished another great feat together.
With tears in Payton’s eyes and joyous grins on all of their faces, it was an emotional. It was a hard fought game and they deserved the win. Both teams lined up to shake hands. As our players stood there, the head of delegation gave Darien a big hug and told her she was the Player of the Game. Then he proudly presented her with a trophy. I had to control myself as I was overwhelmed with emotion. I looked in the stands and saw everyone applauding our girls. The reporters, the transportation representatives, the pitch men, fans from the hotel, bus drivers, coaches from Estonia, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Romania, and Moldova, the mayor of Sochi, the Minister of Sport, the head of Russian Women’s Football, Russia’s top ref and FIFA officials all applauded. What a sight that was as we walked off the field as one – Region I!
Now we have to prepare for the final. I was informed that the final will be streamed live on the Russian Football Union website (www.rfs.ru) at 6:30 a.m. EST/3:30 p.m. Moscow time. The closing ceremonies will be immediately following, if not try this link: http://rfs.ru/main/news/ct131/75974.html.
"Spokóynoy nóchi!" (good night) everyone, and talk to you tomorrow.
Day 13: Friday, March 15, 2013
Today was a unique day. It was a training day but we had a lot planned for the girls. The day before, after we won our game, we stayed on the fields for a few minutes to watch the Romania vs. Ukraine final. Just as we were leaving, Ukraine scored a volley from a set play. We had to fill Payton in since she was still crying tears of joy from the game we had just finished playing. We have the game film and will be looking for things we need to do to achieve our final goal - winning the tournament. We went to training early today for a morning session. The girls were a little sluggish at first and you could tell the all of the days of the tournament were wearing the girls down, but like true champions, by the time we hit 15 minutes they were flying around the field and looking like a winning team!
As we got back from training it was time to go out. We wanted to do something for the girls to break up the week and get their minds away from the tournament and relax a little. After lunch we took a bus to Mt. Akhoon. As the bus climbed to the top of the mountain, we were winding around roads that were extremely small and had to pull over to let cars pass. At the top, we climbed to the summit of a small castle and saw an incredible view! You could see all of Sochi, Adler, and the surrounding villages. It was super breezy but it was a WONDERFUL photo op for the girls. A ton of pictures were snapped. As we took a minute to take in the breath taking scenery (yes it was beautiful, yes Payton cried), we turned to see the Olympic Stadium in Adler. We turned 30 degrees to see the city of Sochi and the black sea, then turned 30 degrees more and saw the snowcapped Caucasian mountains. Wow!
After the view and a few more pictures we went off to dinner. Our Regional Director Bob Palmeiro took the girls out to a local Russian restaurant to have dinner before the big match. We ate like kings and queens and with a smile on our faces and belly’s full, Bob stood up to address the group. He told the girls how proud he was, and that he had seen them as ambassadors off the field and true champions on the field. He thanked the staff and wished us luck as we were about to battle for the crown in the game tomorrow afternoon. It was an awesome way to end the dinner! And yes for those keeping track, Payton cried. It was cry number 17 for the trip. She was a little emotional since everything meant a lot to her.
When we got back to the hotel, tired and drained, we decided it would be best to have a little chat with the girls. We walked them out to the beach. It was a little cloudy and the waves were crashing against the shore. We got all the girls in a circle, arm in arm, and started talking about the time we had spent here together (yes Payton started crying). We have now covered about 7,000 miles getting here. We have endured five degree temperatures in Moscow, hurricane force rain, sunshine, mud fields, turf and 10 teams spanning from three different continents. We have come from seven states and three countries together as Region 1, and are now in Sochi, Russia competing in this final event. We talked about what each person has brought to the event and how they have helped to affect our lives forever by sharing in this experience. A few more eyes started to get teary, and then Coach Ken spoke and he told us how much we meant to him and how this has been a special trip. Then the water works started coming. By this time there was not a dry eye in the group (yes Payton was balling, but she had company as I was too). Tina thanked everyone for making this her last and one of the best Regional team experiences she had ever had. Hugs were given all around to each other. It was wonderful to stand back and watch the love that was being shared amongst these girls. In a short space of time they had become a unit, a formidable force that represented USA - Region I.
We walked back together with tears in our eyes and smiles on our faces. We were spent but had such a great feeling in our hearts. Tonight we rest, tomorrow we focus and the battle begins at 2:00 p.m.
Good night everyone, see you tomorrow.
Day 14: Saturday, March 16, 2013
So today was the day of the final against Ukraine. I could barely sleep the night before because I was very excited for this opportunity. We woke up and the sky was overcast. It was a grey day but it quickly brightened as we were walking to the pool for our morning session. On our way there, the girls started to sing. You could feel the excitement in the air. We got in the pool and Rachel Ugs was excited to tell us a dream she had last night. She was in an unknown location and she turned and saw Abby Wambach sitting down next to her. Of course in true Ugs fashion, she struck up a conversation about the trip, the tournament, stuff like that, but it ended with Abby looking at her and just saying, "Bring it home girl!" I wondered if that was a sign. Only time would tell. We had our pre game meeting and got ready to head to the field. I watched as the girls climbed on to the bus. You could see the determination, focus, energy, and excitement from all the players in different ways as they climbed on board for their final trip to the field.
We got to the field and saw that the third place game was underway - Romania vs. Iran. Romania was up 1-0 and was just starting the second half. We stopped to watch for a few minutes. Iran came out, scored two goals and then Romania did the same to secure a 3-2 win for third place. We then took the field to start our warm-up. The sky was still overcast. It was about 55 degrees and the girls looked ready to go. We set the lineup and the rest of us walked to the bench. As I crossed the field, I took a deep breath. The air was crisp. I turned around to hear our national anthem. I put my hand on my heart and looked at the girls as they stood tall, proud to represent their family, friends, coaches, mentors, idols . . . . . proud to represent their country! Peyton was leading us out as captain today and as the anthem played. We saw the glimmer of a tear in her eye as she was determined to put in a performance to make us all proud.
The whistle blew and the game started. Ukraine was backing off of us and allowing us to have possession of the ball in the back. We were going to have to break them down but were in firm control of this game from the start. At about the 37th minute, we got a free kick about 35 yards out. Tina stepped up to take the kick and made it over the wall and in to a cloud of bodies. Emma Firenze fought off the crowd and latched on to the ball and buried the ball in the back of the net. We were up 1-0 and it was well-deserved. Little did we know this was when the real action was about to start. Then, it was half time. We came out in the second half ready to try to get another goal. We knew that Ukraine had to venture out to try something different and we had to be ready. It started to gently rain as we played. We were still in control of the game. We had chances and hit the crossbar, hit the post and were still pressing. Forty five minutes went by and we were still pressing, working the ball around the back like normal. Then suddenly, we had a slight touch that was a little off, and their forward quickly ran, took the ball, rounded our goalkeeper and placed the ball in the back of the net. We tried to stay calm because it appeared we were still the stronger team. We started to play again. At 60 minutes, they came down and got a corner kick, their fourth of the game. They took the kick, and on a half clearance one of their forwards went for the ball and then the unbelievable happened. Their player went down and we heard the whistle and saw the referee run and point to the spot. They got a penalty kick. Ukraine’s player stepped up and scored the penalty. I could not believe that we had 20 minutes left to go and we were down 1-2.
The game opened up and we were going back and forth. We were pressing, and in the 73rd minute we finally got the goal we needed. A shot was deflected and Rachel Ugs was there to clean it up as she put the ball powerfully in the back of the net. It was now 2-2 and we were looking for the go ahead goal. Time wound down and the final whistle blew. On to PK’s once more.
They took a few minutes to set up the field. The girls were ready and confident to take this. The sky was still cloudy and it had just stopped drizzling. Our athletic director Chris next to me said, "D, today is a good day, look up." As I took a second to look at the sky, I saw a lone eagle flying overhead. Our national bird was there as a sign saying that we had the strength of a great nation behind us as we entered the last competition of the tournament.
We stepped up to take our kicks:
- Bloz – The player who confidently likes to go first. She took a blast and buried it in the back of the net like she normally does.
- Ukraine – Our goalkeeper Darien guessed right, but the ball went out of her reach and Ukraine scored.
- Erin – New to our kicking line-up, she walked to the spot, took her strike and scored our second goal.
- Ukraine – Darien guessed right again, but regardless the ball went wide, off the post.
- Emma – She jogged to the spot, set up the ball, and with precision coolly put the ball in the back of the net.
- Ukraine – Darien was on fire as she guessed right every time but Ukraine managed to score.
- Rachel Ugs – She jogged to the ball and set it on the spot. That dream about Abby Wambach must have stayed with her, because she struck the perfect penalty at the upper left hand corner of the goal. It was unbelievable the control and beauty she possessed when striking the ball! Even Tim Howard would not have been able to save that PK!
- Ukraine – Now Darien’s confidence had been growing. She was getting closer and closer to every kick. The Ukraine player struck the ball and time started to slow down. As I looked, I saw Darien start to open up her body and stand tall. She started to let out a growl that reminded me of a 6’7" grizzly bear. Her arms spread wide covering the entire goal. The ball was struck and as it flew towards the goal at an incredible pace, Darien stepped forward, grabbed the ball out of midair, and just to show she had control, slammed the ball to the ground with both hands. I heard a loud thud and I think she left a dent in the grass. With the ball back safely in her hands, she sprinted to meet her onrushing team as she had just helped us make history to win the 2013 Kuban Spring tournament in Sochi, Russia!
What an awesome sight. The girls fought hard and well deservedly won the tournament! There were hugs all around - after the big pile on Darien - as the team celebrated the victory. The girls told Kelly, our administrator, to grab Coach Ken’s phone as they proceeded to take all their water bottles and empty them on his head. As the closing ceremonies began, there was elation amongst the team and a joke amongst a few of the girls. They were not sure if Coach Ken now wanted to be called "Master Krieg!" Then, the awards began. Emma Firenze was awarded Player of the Game for the final match! Excellent! They started to list the Top 11 players in the tournament, the "All-star Team," the best of the best:
- Best GK – Ukraine
- Best DF – Russia
- Best MF – Turkey
- Best FW – Our Rachel Ugs!
- Golden Boot – Iran’s #7
- Tournament MVP – To her surprise - but not ours - our Eva! Eva was named the most valuable player in the 2013 Kuban Spring tournament! Awesome!
We were extremely proud. Then we got up to get our medals. They were hung around our necks by the mayor of Sochi, the master of ceremonies and our Regional Director. Peyton our captain got her medal last and on behalf of our team raised it to show that we had made history! Region I has attended this tournament for six years and this group of incredible girls did what no one before them had. We won!
As the ceremonies ended and the teams were boarding the bus I looked around to make sure we had not forgotten anything and saw three of our players - Tina, Emma and Eva - in the middle of the field dancing around like they didn’t want to leave.
We went back for the last cultural night and began to pack since we were leaving at 3:00 a.m. to the airport. One last day together, our travel day, then we all go back home and wrap up this trip.
Until tomorrow when I will send you my last blog.
"Spokóynoy nóchi," good night!