Loyola Tops Brazil's Palmeiras Under-20 Team, 1-0, And Much More

March 4, 2009

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With the Loyola men's soccer team in Brazil over Spring Break, junior Greg Howard has been blogging for with updates from the team's trip to the fútbol-fanatical nation. Here is the second of Howard's blogs, through Tuesday. Please check back Friday for the final installment!

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL- Loyola Men's Soccer spent their first full day in Brazil on the resort, and by Monday, it was time to see a little bit of the country. After a healthy breakfast a 9am and a quick workout in the gym shortly thereafter, the team showered up and filed onto our tour bus to travel a half hour or so from the resort to Itu. Most of us donned sandals, sunglasses and hats; this clearly wasn't a soccer trip. As we got closer to Itu, the buildings and neighborhoods seemed to get poorer and poorer.

The buildings were broken down and decrepit, and the only people that we saw definitely seemed worse off financially than any other Brazilians we'd encountered. There was a sad, desperate feel to Itu, which was confusing for us. This wasn't the beautiful Brazil we've come to know.

After driving up a steep, winding hill, we reached our destination and were admitted through a gigantic gate. We learned that we were to engage in community service by interacting with Brazilian children between ages 1-18 who have lost their parents due to abandonment or violence. Social support like this was foreign to many of us, and no one really knew how to react on the bus as we rode through the site. It was an uncomfortable, intimidating situation, and we didn't know how well we'd rise to duty.

Once we walked off the bus, we convened in the main lobby of a large, dilapidated building. There was no air conditioning, minimal furniture and one tiny television. Three Brazilian women then met the team, and with Ricardo translating, gave us a little background on the orphanage. The orphanage served primarily as a roof over the fifty-eight children's heads; those capable still went to school, soccer and basketball practice.

The shelter was simply a safe place to return to home. As the women talked, a few Brazilian kids walked past our group into another smaller room, first pausing to gawk at us even as we gawked at them. One kid with gelled hair and earphones looked about 16 or 17. He flashed a few of us a smile as he walked past our team and into the smaller room. Shortly thereafter, we followed into the room, which we learned was the cafeteria.

Once in, we were quite suddenly let loose, no more guidance, no more background information. We weren't even given clear directions on what to do. There were about forty boys and girls sitting in small tables of four, eating rice and spaghetti served by a chef in the back right corner. They looked at us and we looked at them; someone had to make the first move.

Slowly, and then with more confidence, we fanned out to introduce ourselves and somehow entertain these strangers. First we shook hands and asked the kids for their names in broken English/Spanish/Portuguese, but few of us got anywhere. The longer we stayed, though, the better we got. A few of us learned a Brazilian secret handshake popular among the youth, and Cooper Tilton even got a few to duel him in thumb wars.

The one kid, about 11 or 12 years old, asked me the magic question. "Joga futbol?" Do I play soccer? I asked Ricardo for a ball, and within minutes the entire cafeteria emptied back out into the main room to see what the American boys could do. Coach Kyle Swarts broke the ice, before John Loaiza and Glenn Leitch showed their best tricks to the kids. The Brazilians loved it, and after a while even joined in. The preteen who asked if we played, named Emerson, was the boldest, and wowed us with his impressive dribbling skill as he challenged a few of us one-on-one.

Next was the boy with the earphones, named Andre, who was even more of a magician on the ball. Soon a lot of the team worked themselves into a sweat as we played around with the kids, dribbling and juggling. Finally, it was time to give out clothes to the boys and girls, and we eagerly handed out shorts and shirts as John Navas and Adriana Mason handed out Gushers and gum, which they seemed to like more.

We still weren't ready to leave though. After playing soccer for a bit, Karl Digbeu and Daniel Ankrah tried to show off a few of their dance moves. Big mistake. Emerson and Andre immediately jumped in the center of the room and started to break dance without music. Emerson was amazing for his age (or any age, for that matter), and Andre danced for about 5 minutes straight, capping his performance with a standing back flip. That was pretty much the showstopper, and it was time for us to get back to Itu.

Most of us still didn't want to leave, and we took pictures, hugged and waved all the way back to the bus. A lot of the younger ones, including Emerson, ran with the bus all the way back to the gate, waving and posing for pictures the whole time. It was a bittersweet experience, and judging from the silence on the way back to SpaSport, one we'll all remember for a long time.

Back at the resort, we ate lunch before our 3:30 training session with a Brazilian coach named Rodrigo. The boys were excited for the session; it was hot out, but Brazilian soccer is truly beautiful, and many of us thought the session would be both a lot of fun and less fitness-oriented than the ones we were used to back in Baltimore. We were half-right.

After a fun warm-up, which involved two teams carrying Wade McHugh and Charlie Hutton to midfield and back, Rodrigo broke the boys into two groups: forwards and central midfielders, and outside midfielders and defenders, respectively. The forwards and central midfielders dove directly into a half field 4v4 drill, whereas the defenders and outside midfielders took the other half of the field in a passing and crossing drill, pretty similar to some drills Coach Mettrick has the team do during preseason. Within minutes, we were sucking wind in the heat, even though there was still an hour left in practice.

After the two teams switched stations, we had a full field 8v8 scrimmage. Rodrigo mandated a two touch maximum, which caused even more running since we had to think ahead and move quicker. Still the pace of the game was rather fast, and by the end of practice we were exhausted but confident about our chances Monday against Palmeiras' U-20 side.

After a nap and dinner, the team hung out around the pool, then outside our rooms until 10pm. We had a 9:30am kickoff the next day and we had to get as much rest as possible if we wanted to compete with a much more dangerous foe in Palmeiras.

This morning, the coaches came around to knock on doors at 6:30am, or around 4:30am Baltimore time. It was very early, but after a breakfast of fresh fruits, yogurt, eggs, pasta and bread rolls, we forced our drowsiness to the side and took the hour or so before warm-ups to focus on the game.

This game had a much more serious feel to it, almost like an important MAAC Conference game. Unlike UniSant' Anna, Palmeiras is an Academy team that practices every day. They were guaranteed to field future professional players, and maybe even players currently on the payroll.

After completing our usual pregame rituals and garnering some last-minute advice from the coaches on countering the trademark attacking, Brazilian style, it was time to play, for better or for worse.

Cooper Tilton and Kyle Wittman registered their second consecutive starts after posting a shutout in the first game, and the Greyhounds lined up identically to their match vs. UniSant' Anna. The first half started off quickly, each team trying to get the upper hand and too stubborn to concede first. Wade McHugh received a yellow card in the 2nd minute for a late tackle. A few minutes later, Loyola registered the first chance of the game off a corner kick, but it was defended well by the Palmeiras defense.

Just after, a speedy Palmeiras forward managed to get behind our defense on the right wing, and managed to win a corner off of the leg of Glenn Leitch, who shifted over from the center of the defense to deal with the threat. Ten minutes later, Loyola had a goal called back when Jamie Darvill strayed offside just before he received the ball to assist Philip Bannister. The first half was a dogfight in every sense of the word. Tackles were thrown all over the field by both teams, and although the two opponents looked dangerous at times, neither was able to break through the other's defense. After an exhausting first half highlighted by the Greyhounds' flank play and Palmeiras' fifty and sixty-yard switches of the ball, both teams were even at 0-0.

The second half was, if possible, more intense and entertaining than the first as the game opened up and both teams conceded chances. Palmeiras dominated much of the possession to open the half and took a number of long shots from just beyond the eighteen-yard box, but Wittman showed when needed. Glenn Leitch was forced to slide to save a goal after a Palmeiras forward played a clever give-and-go with a midfielder at the top of the box, and Tennant McVea made a number of hard tackles to keep the opposing attackers honest.

Karl Digbeu came on for Wade McHugh and played relatively well, capped by one forty-yard run sparked by a double stepover that left the Palmeiras left winger grabbing at air. Palmeiras answered back with a nasty dipping shot from a central midfielder that missed the target by inches. Soon after, Darvill had his best chance of the game with about eighteen minutes to go when he was played a pass that left him at the top of the box all alone, but missed wide.

Loyola, seemingly inspired by the chance, pressed the issue. After a slick Daniel Ankrah move and through ball to Phil Bannister, the forward beat the central defender on the right side of the box with a clever dummy move. It seemed as if he'd surely score, but then ruined the chance as he was caught in two minds between shooting himself and passing it across goal to an open Eddie Dines, and as a result, played a ball across the face of the goal and out for a goal kick. McHugh subbed in for Ankrah with seven minutes to go.

With three minutes remaining, McHugh was fouled on the left wing, about twenty-five yards from goal. Hutton whipped in a free kick that Bannister met with his head, causing the keeper to make a desperate save that bounced right back to the forward. Bannister pounced on the rebound, and ripped a half-volley into the top left corner of the net. Loyola celebrated the miracle goal, and just a few minutes later, the final whistle blew, announcing Loyola as 1-0 winners over a strong Palmeiras side.

After the hard fought match, both competitors met on the field to take pictures, smiles on both teams' faces. After a large group photo, both teams spoke with each other and took more pictures together. Even some of the Palmeiras players had cameras to take pictures themselves. There was no ill will between teams, and a lot of the players traded jerseys and shorts to commemorate the event. After an early morning, an intense match, and a postgame speech by Coach Mettrick, we Greyhounds were ready for lunch, and more importantly, a nap.

At 3:30, after a dip by the pool or some quiet time in the rooms, the team got back on the bus and started the two-hour trip back to Sao Paulo. Palmeiras' first team was playing the Chilean side Colo-Colo in a La Copa Libertadores match (basically the South American Champions League). And as diehard Palmeiras fans, it was only right that we attend.

We arrived to Sao Paulo around 5:30 for the 8pm game; traffic was going to be horrible around rush hour so it was wise to leave early. After already attending one Palmeiras game and trading gear with their junior side, virtually everyone on the team, including Coach Mettrick, had some form of Palmeiras paraphernalia on. After killing time at a local mall by eating McDonald's, joking around, and taking in the many beautiful Brazilian women (none of whom seemed interested in us) it was time for our rowdy bunch to go to the game.

We walked down the street among a sea of green, and after maneuvering through thousands upon thousands of people, finally reached the gates to the stadium. After a customary weapons check, we were in. This time, we sat away from the organized cheering sections, and probably for our own good; this was supposed to be an extremely intense match, and if today was anything like Saturday, the environment could be downright hostile. We took our seats near midfield, relatively close to the pitch, and were singing as the Palmeiras first team kicked off.

Even with all the professional stars on display, it was hard to stay focused on the game. The stadium was packed to capacity, and there were FOUR cheering sections, each with hundreds of supporters each. There was the TUP (our adopted firm), Mancha Verde (the largest and most hostile), Pork's (new to today's game), and a fourth dedicated to Colo Colo, separated by two fences from the rest of the stadium. There were at least twice as many fans in attendance as on Saturday, and they seemed about five times as loud. We joined in with the singing, yelling the parts we knew and making up the parts we didn't.

The first half was all Palmeiras. They pressed the attack from the kickoff, and even though they didn't score they had some solid chances. Although their young forward Keirisson was supposed to be the star, their winger Willians held everyone's attention as he sliced through Colo Colo's defense time after time with his raw pace and trickery on the ball. Colo Colo, under pressure, began to lash out, and were handed four yellow cards.

Then, with three minutes remaining, magic happened, but not for Palmeiras. Colo Colo's lone forward beat two men in the box before slotting the ball past an off-balance keeper to put the visitors up 1-0. The entire stadium went eerily silent for about thirty seconds, trying to register what happened, before the singing restarted, louder and with more fervor. The fans were egging Palmeiras on; even though the home side was down it seemed as if they were destined to win. When the teams started the second half, everyone had a good feeling about the outcome.

The goodwill increased when a Colo Colo player was sent off around the fiftieth minute for his second yellow card. Down to ten men, it didn't seem like the Chileans would be able to hold off the Brazilian attack. But instead, they fought back. Two minutes after the booking, Colo Colo scored when their forward beat a player to a pass and played it across the box for a crashing attacking midfielder, putting the visitors up 2-0. Palmeiras had a mountain to climb.

After making two changes and throwing everything they had against the Chilean defense, Keirrisson finally came through with a great header goal with about twenty minutes left. We finally were within striking distance and we stood a good chance of scoring again with a man advantage. Three minutes later the young forward almost equalized, but missed a point blank shot over the bar from a great Willians cross. Then, with eight minutes to go, disaster struck. A great through pass by the Colo Colo attacking midfielder put a substitute forward in for a breakaway, and he buried it, making the score 3-1. The game was surely over, and Palmeiras supporters began to curse and complain their way out of the stadium.

A few short minutes later, the final whistle blew, with Colo Colo as the despised but deserving winners. Shocked and disappointed to see our newest favorite team lose, the Greyhounds sadly filed out of the stadium for the last time.

And just like that, after two pro matches and one match against the junior side, the Palmeiras chapter of the tour is over. It was a great ride while it lasted, and truly a good experience. Stay tuned, for the rest of the week is packed with activities: a visit to the Sao Paulo FC trophy room, a 7v7 match, a location switch, a final match vs. Santos FC, a trip to the Pele Museum and more. So until then, ciao!