Well, since a combination of poor in-room Internet, long lines for the hotel computer and a lack of time made it virtually impossible to keep up while dragging the team around Sweden, I have to combine all our daily reports here into one post — now that we’re safely back to the wonders of a GCI cable modem (potential team sponsors please note the plug).
Saturday, July 17 After a tortuous wait to transfer to our new school, Ånässkolan, we were picked up in several cars by the wonderful folks from Åsa IF. The group was led by Anders Bäckman, head coach for the 98 boys group in their club, who also sent two cars to the airport to pick up our late arrivals, Drini and Veton Redzepi, plus the parents coming in late. We traveled to Åsa, a village some 40 km down the coast of Sweden from Göteborg, and prepared for our friendly matches. The first thing the boys noticed, of course, was the extravagance of the soccer facilities. Åsa is only asmall village, with a small football club in the fourth division, and yet we arrived at a complex with two turf fields and four grass fields. The boys were sent into a club house and given their own locker room to change and prepare, while the parents and coaches were treated to coffee and juice at the fields. There is a stadium nearby, with a “nice” match field, according to Anders, and a major club house, but we’d play our friendlies here.
The games began with two small-sided contests, as AKFC played each of the Åsa IF 98 boys teams. I don’t think they were quite prepared for our kind of quality from an American side, as within ten minutes AKFC led 6-0. The second 25-minutes went much better for the local team, as our Alaska boys only managed three or four goals, but again gave up nothing. After a break for juice and a small snack, again provided by the local parents, we played a full-sided half, which AKFC dominated. Then we ended the soccer day by mixing the two teams and playing a final half, which was quite fun for everyone, including the fans from both clubs.
For a final treat, the folks from Åsa led everyone to the nearby beach, where they’d prepared a barbecue to welcome our Alaska group to Sweden. While everyone enjoyed soft drinks and hamburgers, players from both countries mingled, swam in theocean and eventually swapped Facebook details. Now that we’re home, several players have already made contact with their new friends in Åsa. It also must be said that the hospitality and friendliness displayed by Anders and his group went well beyond any of our expectations. These were truly great people, and we all owe them a big debt of gratitude.
Sunday, July 18 A day of relaxation for the team, who had time to settle into their new digs at Ånässkolan. Our ony excursion of the day was a short trip on the tram to Hjällbovallen to check out the fields we’d be playing on over the next few days.
What a surprise! The facilities at Hjällbovallen are owned by Gunnilse IS, a Swedish club formed in September, 1950, and currently playing in Division 2 (Västra Götaland). A groundskeeper was present and let us into the stadium, where the team was allowed to walk on the field we’d start our tournament on. It was simply the best surface any of our players had ever walked on, and there was plenty of excitement for the games in the morning.
First up — Makati FC (Philippines) at 9 a.m.
Monday, July 19 There were very few nerves evident as the boys arrived at the fields for their first match, a tough test against a very large Philippines squad that had already been traveling and playing in Europe for nearly a month. That composure was proven as the match kicked off, with AKFC controlling the possession and tempo of the match right from the kickoff. Unfortunately, our domination did not carry over to the scoreboard, with our only real chance created from a Hassani Dotson free kick that barely swerved beyond the near post. It was something of a worry at the half, as we counseled the boys to keep working their possession and look for opportunities, but to be wary of these very quick Philippino players on the break.
Blake's shot heads for the back of the net.
They did just that, in fact, finally breaking through with a goal from Blake Hepler just before the midpoint of the second half. After the goal, the game opened up, as Makati was forced to try and play now, removing one of their two holding midfielders and throwing an extra striker up top. The change in tactics played right into our strengths, as the boys continued to play good possession soccer and now opened up the less organized defense in front of them with regularity. In the end, their keeper came up with a handful of great saves to keep the scoreline at 1-0, but AKFC went home satisified with a win to open the tournament.
What we learned: 1) As Alaskans, we weren’t going to be able to rely on size, speed or athleticism to win anything. As was proved over the course of the next three games, we were always going to be the smaller, less athletic team, and we’d have to rely on technique and game intelligence to compete. 2) At this level, game smarts are more important than speed. Everyone is fast, and so the timing and direction of runs are critical. 3) It’s not wise to make assumptions about a player, in this case a goalkeeper, based on our experiences in Alaska. Before the match, the boys were heard talking about how large the Makati FC goalkeeper was and how they’d just shoot low and hard — exactly as they’d do in Alaska, where a big keeper is probably just in the net because he’s big. Well, we learned that international goalkeepers are in the net because they’re technically good keepers, and being big is just a side benefit, as the Makati keeper pulled off a couple of incredible diving stops of shots just off the turf.
The second match of the day was just a few hours later, also at Hjällbovallen, and featured the 98-born players taking on BP Svart, the tournament’s defending champions and the top academy team from IF Brommapojkarna. This was something AKFC coaches were looking forward to, as IF Brommapojkarna, also called BP and from west Stockholm, is the largest football club in Europe in terms of the number of active teams of all ages – over 250 teams and 3,000 players. The men’s first team competes in the Allsvenskan, the highest level of football in Sweden, but the club is really famous for its youth academy, which has produced numerous top-quality Swedish players throughout the years. In fact, BP has produced more professionals than any club in Scandanavia and there was even a feature article on their academy teams in the official Gothia Cup tournament program, as BP has also won more tournament titles than any other club (this would hold true this year, too, as BP eventually won both the boys 11 and boys 12 divisions).
Our introduction to this level of soccer turned out to be a rude one, as we were down 2-0 before the boys even had a chance to breathe. The pace of the game was quite frankly frightening, and the speed-of-thought, technique and physicality of the BP players simply overwhelmed our Alaskan boys (and coaches!). Goalkeeper Chance Fannon kept us in the game as we came to grips with our predicament and through his heroics we made it to the half without incurring further damage.
After making several adjustments, both tactically and in attitude, our AKFC boys returned to the field with a new vigor and took the game to BP. After creating a couple of quality chances that were turned away, the boys in red and black caught us on the break to push their lead to 3-0. However, as a testament to the boys’ competitiveness, we immediately answered with a goal of our own and then continued to press the BP team deep in their own end. As the half wore on, AKFC gradually began to dominate proceedings. We forced a hatful of quality saves, we hit a post and a crossbar, and then we got scored on as a soft back-pass was intercepted and tapped into an open net. 4-1 but the lessons were learned. For one, we found out we could play BP’s game better than they could, so we were hopeful we’d have another chance to take them on, mainly to see if we could get them to play our game, which we knew we’d be better at.
Perhaps most satisfying, after the match our coaches and parents were approached by several spectators (BP teams draw a crowd whenever they play at Gothia), who all hailed our game, talent and spirit. Most were incredulous that an American team could push a Brommapojkarna side like that — one parent from another Swedish team told me, “No one ever challenges them like that.” In the end, that turned out to be true, as ours was the most competitive match BP Svart played on their way to a second consecutive Gothia Cup title.
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