Youth ODP: A Humbling Experience

Immigration staff at the Sao Paulo International Airport scrambled to open additional lanes of its waiting area as chromatic waves of Adidas jackets poured down the escalators. In the jackets, fit young men with groggy faces and myriad hairstyles murmured about how much they slept, or didn't, on the overnight flight from the United States.

The blue jackets came from the East; the reds from the Midwest. The green ones hailed in the South; the black jackets flew in from the West. Nobody in Brazil knew the meaning of this color scheme. But the 70 members of the Olympic Development Program's four regional teams grouped themselves accordingly while they waited in the terminal for the plush buses that would carry them to their destination.

Three hours away, in a quiet town called Aguas de Lindoia, a tournament had been arranged in their honor by Soccer Futuro, a San Francisco-based company that has helped teams from the United States travel to Brazil for several years. To get a taste of soccer's stature elsewhere, teams have been traveling to Europe for decades, but Brazil is a relatively new option.

''I really don't know anything about Brazil,'' one player had said before boarding the plane. ''Except that they've won five World Cups.''

This trip would change that. Players barely spoke to each other on the bus, perhaps because most were seeing each other for the first time since November, the last time the regional teams assembled. Perhaps jetlag muted the chatter. Perhaps stoicism is cool for 17- and 18-year-olds. Or perhaps the scenery in sprawling Sao Paulo was sobering.

Every hillside seemed jammed with crude homes of brick or cinder block topped with tin. Graffiti coated most larger buildings. Clusters of tall office buildings affirmed the city's significant commerce. Lonely trees splashed in vibrant yellow or purple blossoms hinted at the country's natural beauty. After about an hour, the urban jumble finally gave way to vast farmland. The hills' covering turned green. Nestled between hills like these was Aguas de Lindoia, a haven for retirees known for its spring water.

After getting settled in their hotel, teams went out for a light practice. At the field where Regions I and III trained, passing cows mooed loudly, and a coed pickup game of mixed-age children broke out on the fringe.

The next day's training was a little farther away, at a new complex called Oscar's, where, by coincidence, the New England Revolution was staying. Revs players such as Jay Heaps and Nick Downing took time after their training to address players from their respective regions. Assistant coach John Murphy volunteered to run a clinic for several goalkeepers.

Heaps gave encouraging advice, but the reality for most in his audience is that until Major League Soccer can grow, their chances of following in his footsteps are very slim.

Meeting the Revolution was an unexpected bonus. Region I coach Tom Lang merely wanted his players to get to know each other a bit.

''It's kind of a paper team,'' Lang said. ''You just hope it comes together into some sort of unit.''

Four U.S. regional under-18 boys teams traveled to Brazil in February. Three hours from Sao Paulo, amid vast farmland, these boys, considered the best prospects in the country in their age group, learned what separated them from their Brazilian counterparts and how lucky they are to have what they have.

'A GOOD SURPRISE.' The competition started on the third day. Region III opened against Guarani, which would prove to be the second best team in the tournament despite the fact that it fielded players born in either 1986 or 1987, meaning its players were at least one year younger than its opponents.

Guarani's pregame routine was far more structured than that of Region III. It involved plenty of chanting and synchronized movements reminiscent of military drills and concluded with a spirited song from within the small locker room.

Ramon Nunez, bound for SMU, unlocked the Guarani defense with his dribbling a couple times early, but nothing came of it. Meanwhile, Guarani figured out that Region III's formation could be exploited in the space that Nunez and central midfield partner Josh Villalobos were leaving.

As the first half progressed, Region III made fewer and fewer offensive thrusts. Guarani got goals in the 24th and 48th minutes before gifting one the other way. Chris Davis capitalized to cut the lead to one, but Guarani reestablished its control of the game and peppered Region III's goal before finally icing the game late.

''This was a good surprise,'' Guarani coach Donizete da Lima said. ''They are a strong team with good application in defense.''

He specifically complimented Nunez and Villalobos, saying both could easily play in Guarani's youth system.

Next up, Region IV opened with Corinthians, which, like Guarani, was a year younger but showed even more polish.

Region IV, led by central defender Greg Dalby, successfully implemented an offside trap in the first half and counterattacked Corinthians' long possessions. In the second half, Corinthians adjusted its play, using high-arching crosses toward the corner flags to find its flank players and change the point of attack. Corinthians dominated the half and won, 2-0.

''This was a physically strong team that was very tactical,'' Corinthians technical director Daniel Martine said. ''American football is ver disciplined,but something is missing. They don't play free in the attack. They are a little less skilled than us, but they could have threatened us more than they did.''

Region IV coach Gerry Gray was pleased with his team's effort but wished that his team could have played Corinthians in any match but its first one.

What impressed the NASL veteran was Guarani's aggressiveness and gamesmanship.

''They've already learned the little tricks that a pro would know - quick free kicks, drawing fouls in dangerous areas,'' he said.

That evening, the muzzles came off. The hotel buzzed with conversation. Competing together removed the reticence. When players assembled in the lobby that night before attending a professional game, very few wore their regional colors.

Assorted assessments of the Brazilian teams from ODP players:

''Their runs are ridiculous - nobody makes runs like that at home.''

''I think individually, we were a little better, except for a few of them.''

''I expected them to be more skillful and go by players more.''

''They use a lot of 1-2s. They loved to shield the ball and post-up.''

''Their formation is so fluid. It takes a lot of practice to do that and not get burned.''

Region I was the only team to win on the first day, beating the host team, ALEC, 2-0, but hearing the other results did not dampen its confidence.

''We'll win tomorrow,'' predicted Issac Collings. Reminded that he hadn't seen the opponent play yet, he replied, ''Yeah, but they haven't seen us.''

The next day, Region I won a spirited match against Mogi Mirim, Region IV easily handled ALEC, and Regions II and III lost badly.

''We tend to take mental breaks - they never do,'' Region II defender Nate Norman, whose hard work and long runs created the best chances for his team. ''I wish we could get more games like this, where everyone plays so fast. There's such a difference here.''

Returning from the game, Region I's bus crackled with energy after a 2-1 win.

''What makes us a good team is that even when we get scored on, like today, we don't start bickering and arguing with each other,'' said goalkeeper Billy Chiles, who saved a penalty kick. ''We just stick together and play our game.''

Midfielder Georgios Spanos mentioned that a few local kids asked for autographs after the game.

''You'd never think a Brazilian kid would want an American soccer player's autograph,'' he said.

Collings, his prophecy come true, looked forward to the hotel buffet.

''I could really go for some pineapple,'' he said.

'I'M GOOD, BUT ...' With four games played in five days, the games were shortened to 35-minute halves, and teams were allowed up to seven substitutions with no re-entry. With temperatures in the upper 90s, the ODP teams would utilize at least five of those subs. (The exception was Region II, reduced to a 15-man roster by injuries.)

By the end of the week, the four ODP teams had a combined 7-9 record. All of them defeated ALEC; all of them lost to Corinthians.

The decisive game in terms of bragging rights was Region IV's victory over Guarani on the final day. As his team carried a lead into the second half, Gray ratcheted up the gamesmanship, urging his team to use every time-wasting tactic possible. Midfielder Bret Shimizu even received two yellow cards for stalling, although tournament rules allowed him to be replaced on the field. But the strategy also rattled Guarani, which lost its rhythm in the second half after hitting several posts and forcing a host of quality saves by Andrew Kartunen in the first. Ryan Guy's late goal sealed a 3-1 win and Guarani's only loss of the week.

Overall, the Brazilian teams were fitter and more accustomed to the heat. They used fewer subs and still looked less fatigued. Their first touch was wiser. Although the Americans' passing, shooting and ball control were comparable technically, they often settled the ball without regard for the nearest opponent and therefore ended up in tight spots. Corinthians and Guarani rarely lost possession in their own half.

Region II defender David Williams explained why no one should be surprised by the gap.

''It's just the culture,'' Williams said. ''The whole thing is soccer. We're so spread out between 10 sports, and even those of us who pick soccer have school and other activities. These kids, it's all they do.''

Despite recent mandates from the Brazilian federation requiring professional clubs to provide at least four hours of education a day for its players up to age 18, only a handful comply. The federation has no means of enforcing these rules, but the large clubs have found that educating their players helps their image and reduces players' urge to hire agents, according to Mike Keohane, the tour organizer.

''If you play kids your age down here, you're in for a very difficult game,'' said Mike Matkovich, coach of Region II, which has sent a team to Brazil the past four years. ''It's good for our kids because a lot of them get to this age and don't know the environment in the rest of the world. It can be very humbling. They get to see, 'OK, I'm good, but I'm not as I thought I was.'''

'THERE'S JOE-MAX.' Off the field, players marveled at how low prices were and players came back from a day trip to a mall with loads of purchases, mostly soccer gear.

A handful of players from Region IV met a local English teacher at a reception that kicked off the tournament and visited her class of elementary students.

''They taught us how to dance this region's particular version of Samba,'' said Kamani Hill, a Berkeley, Calif., high school junior. ''We showed them how we dance and they just laughed.''

Later in the week, a supervised crew from Region IV sang karaoke in a local bar when members of the Revolution arrived.

''Somebody said, 'There's Joe-Max, there's Joe-Max,''' said forward Eric Pohl. ''We all just kind of stared, but [Moore] asked us to come over and sit with him and the other guys. Nobody took pictures or asked for autographs, we just chatted with him about what professional soccer is like, what the World Cup is like, and he asked us lots of questions. It was really cool because he treated us like adults and we just hung out.''

The three professional games the players watched were Sao Paulo state league games with modest attendance, but ample intrigue. At the first one, men paced behind the field-level fence incessantly shouting Portuguese profanity and occasionally spitting on the assistant referee without punishment. At the second one, in the remote town of Araras, home to Uniao Sao Joao, a throng of children gathered atop the deck below where the ODP teams were sitting and spent the entire game with their backs to the action, gawking at the Americans, making faces, giggling and trying to communicate through gestures.

Experiences like these seemed to make as much of an impression as the soccer itself.

''You could go to England or somewhere in Europe, but their lifestyle is pretty much like our lifestyle,'' said Notre Dame-bound midfielder Ian Etherington, whose father, Gary, was one of the first American stars in the NASL. ''But when you're taking the bus here, and you see all the houses ... it makes you realize how lucky you are.''

by Soccer America Senior Editor Will Kuhns in Aguas de Lindoia, Brazil

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