Tyler Merren makes a save during the Goalball Men's Preliminary Round Group A match between Team USA and Team Brazil at the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on August 26, 2021 in Chiba, Japan.
TOKYO — Team USA men’s goalball match against Brazil was exciting even before the first ball was tossed.
A rematch two years in the making started with a penalty even before both teams were on the court. The only thing that could have made it more riveting was if a medal was on the line.
But two years ago, one was.
At the Parapan American Games Lima 2019, the U.S. men punched their ticket to Tokyo after winning silver. But given that the team they lost to had already qualified, the Americans were awarded the qualification berth instead.
The country that finished on top? Brazil. The two-time world champions were now looking for their first Paralympic gold — the only color they haven’t won yet.
After defeating Paralympic champion, Lithuania 11-2 the day prior, Brazil was now going to have to take on the U.S. in Group A.
With five Paralympic medals to their name, the last time Team USA won gold was in 1984. The same Games where the U.S. women won gold, a sweep no one has accomplished since.
Thursday’s preliminary match at Makuhari Meese Hall, against two of the best men’s teams in the world, was dramatic from the start. In the end, it was Team USA, the only country to have both its men’s and women’s teams medal in Rio, who went on to be victorious with an 8-6 win.
But it ended much better than it started.
After taking too long to report to the court, Team USA received a delay of game penalty before even a second was shown on the clock. And with Josemarcio Sousa’s swift throw into the back of his opponent’s net, Brazil was on the board.
The first four goals went back and forth with Calahan Young, the 26-year-old from Pennsylvania scoring the first two goals for the U.S.
Making his Paralympic debut, the 6’5” athlete was not only great in front of the net but made four of the eight goals for his team.
“This is my first Paralympic Games, and my first-ever Paralympic win,” Young said. “I couldn’t be happier with the team. I’m so proud of everyone. I’m so emotional.”
With less than a minute to go in the first half, the score was tied at 2-2 until Sousa lost his grip on the ball and scored on his own goal — something that rarely happens in goalball.
The humidity in Japan could have had something to do with it.
Team USA’s head coach, Keith Young, who took over the program in 2019 and was making his Paralympic debut, listed the heat as the reason why so many balls in today’s matchup were landing on the opposing team’s side first. The penalty is called “long ball” and results in a single player defending the entire goal for one throw.
“The humidity here is pretty high, and the ball is going to get wet,” Coach Young said.
It wasn’t long in the second half before Brazil’s Leomon Moreno — one of the top scorers at the last two world championships — brought the two teams back to even at 3-3. And a minute and a half into the second, he scored again.
Both teams were making full use of their six-man roster with five of Team USA’s players getting court time and four of them scoring points (four-time Paralympian Tyler Merren and two-timer Matt Simpson contributed one point each).
Three-time Paralympian Daryl Walker, who subbed in the second half, was quick to make his presence known when he scored his first point, advancing the U.S. to 6-5.
As the elder on the team at 39, Walker, explained why today’s win was a team effort.
“We just love playing this game together,” he said. “It’s more than a game to us. It’s a family. It’s a brotherhood. It’s just something that we just love doing.”
Their teamwork was definitely on display leading into the final minutes of the game with Young widening the gap even further to make it 7-5.
Having started playing goalball at 13, a podium finish at these Games would be “one of the biggest achievements and accomplishments of my life,” he said. “It would be such an honor. And it would probably be the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
His explosive power was on display again when he sent a straight shot into the net with 1:42 left in the game, making his fourth point in the game, extending the U.S.’s lead even further.
With only minutes left in the Game, Brazil subbed Sousa back in. He went on to make the last point of the game — but it wasn’t enough.
Next up for Team USA in Group A will be Japan on Friday, followed by Algeria on Sunday.
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo-2020-Paralympic-Games to view the medal table and results.