We did not accomplish what we set out to do upon our departure a little over two weeks ago. However, I have never been one to dwell on the negatives. I firmly believe nothing good ever comes from worrying or focusing on the past. One must learn from his mistakes, gain knowledge from failure and study history but never let it control him. Used as motivation, failure can lead to great things. Case in point: Since losing to Mexico at the Pan Am Games in 2011 by one point in one of, if not the worst performances from any USA team I have been a part of, I have made it a personal goal to never lose to them again. And we haven’t, none of the games since then have been even close. I prefer to focus on the positives and grow as a team for the next competition.
Finishing sixth sucks. It hurts, and I hope the guys use it as motivation. After the loss to Uruguay and our chances of qualifying for Worlds out the window, all we had to play for was pride and ourselves. I was proud of the way the guys responded. We played terribly against Guatemala but got the job done and then put together our best overall performance of the tournament together against Mexico.
Some of the positives of the tournament: Adam El-Zoghby exploded offensively and looked like his old self, pre-knee injury. He was excellent, aggressive, and on point against Guatemala and continued with that mindset throughout the weekend, ending the tournament in the top five in scoring. Gary Hines proved to everybody in the tournament that he can be the most exhilarating player in the gym at any given time. His offensive explosion against Greenland is something we have come to expect and rely on perhaps too much over the last few years, but is something we need from him constantly to compete with the best in the Pan Americans. At one point in the game, a Greenland player simply stopped and watched, uttering “Mein Gott” (My God) after watching Gary jump over him and fire a ball past the helpless goalie. Divine Jackson was called upon to play middle defense against Mexico after Lewis Howes was injured and he proved that he is still highly capable of not only playing highly active defense, but also communicating and being a leader on that end. He provided a much-needed spark to our defense and produced on the offensive end, making defenders lose their jocks with his surprisingly quick one on one moves. Lewis, pre-injury, is obviously becoming more and more comfortable with his mainly defensive role, and he and I had begun to gel after limited time working together. His enthusiasm and constant effort helped lead the comeback charge against Uruguay and helped us avoid dropping an embarrassing loss to Guatemala. Our offense overall against Greenland finally fell in sync--we moved the ball crisply, finding our big finishers in stride, and giving them opportunities to score. If I hadn't hit the goalie five times and played the worst defensive game of my career, we would have been in the game.
Where we can improve: I have played against quicker and stronger players in my career, almost every weekend during my time in Germany, in fact, and have never performed so poorly. The backs from Greenland embarrassed me; I let my team down and for that I am sorry. I haven’t stopped thinking about that and it will motivate me to no end for the rest of my career. I am not the quickest guy on the court, but what I lack in quickness, I usually make up for with positioning and brains. The Greenland game was an anomaly. Apart from driving me to do better, I have erased it from my mind. I hope you and my teammates will as well.
Uruguay proved that our goal of qualifying for the World Championships was not so far fetched. They beat a better team in pool play (us, I firmly believe we can beat them 9 out of 10 times and I know we are the better team) to qualify for the chance to play for Qatar. And boy did they put on a show. Everybody involved in team sports knows that in any one game, anything can happen. That is why most championships are decided by a series of games, so that the best team usually wins. Uruguay outplayed Chile in the battle for third place and the right to go to Qatar in January. Chile is the better team, without question, but Uruguay for one game, for 55 minutes, completely outplayed them and made believers out of everybody who watched the game. A few timely saves and big goals from the Chilean side ended up being the deciding factor but watching that game reminded us that anything can happen, a la the Miracle on Ice in 1980.
Everybody grew this tournament, and many younger players gained valuable experience that I hope will amount to future huge contributions. Five players scored their first goals and four earned their first appearances for the USA Men’s National Team. As the talent pool grows deeper, I hope that the competition to earn a spot on the team will continue to increase, as this is the only way we will improve and challenge ourselves to get better everyday.
The result was disappointing, but as we move onward and look forward, we will be better come the Second Chance Tournament (this winter) and with a good performance there, give ourselves another chance to prove to each other, the Federation, and our fans, that we can compete on this level in Toronto at the Pan American Games in the summer of 2015.
The best part of these trips and experiences? Life. Meeting guys I never would have met. Seeing life from a different perspective. Adam is from Egypt, I am from Kansas. We have different religions, beliefs, and cultural experiences. Yet even though we see each other twice a year on average for perhaps 10 days, every time we get together it’s like we are long lost brothers. His son, the Prince, will eventually meet, my daughter, the Phenom, and that alone is irreplaceable. We can argue, disagree, fight, laugh, discuss, learn and know that at the end of the day, it’s nothing but love. The same goes for Martin, Divine, Ivan, Vlad, etc, etc. We learn from each other and share something most people never feel. The bond we build with each other is unbreakable and is something special; it’s something only people who have bled, cried, showered, won and lost together know. It’s where goose bumps come from. I believe Bill Simmons and the writers from Grantland refer to it as "sweat equity." We are spoiled to have these experiences, regardless of the outcomes and I can’t wait for the next chance to step on the court and battle with my brothers.
Thanks to all of our family, friends, and supporters who were behind us and continually encouraged us with messages, phone calls, and other forms of contact while we were doing our best to represent the USA. Your support and encouragement means more than you know. Thanks to the Federation for believing in us and making the effort financially to send us to the tournament. Don’t give up on us. It is worth it. Thanks to Ebiye for taking half the load and making my writing look like a 5th grader's. It was nice to share the blogging load with another teammate and see the tournament from a "rookie’s" perspective.
To all, keep up the good work. USA!