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Some teams know there’s more to USA CUP than surviving to Saturday

07/19/2013, 4:15pm CDT
By Ryan Lund

As pool play began to wrap up at this year’s Schwan’s USA CUP, and bracket play began, the action on the field began to heat up as well.

Voices were a little louder, while play continued to move at a more up-tempo pace, as teams began playing with a familiar edge: the threat of elimination.


While Club Medico Santiago from Chile played serious playoff soccer, a few young soccer players took to the beach on Friday afternoon, the beginning of elimination play at Schwan's USA CUP.

From here on out, it’s win or go home.

“When you get out of that pool play the intensity does go up that next level,” said Michael Rodriguez, coach of the Blackfire Heat from Missouri.

And even after his team lost their playoff game, Rodriguez maintains that the experience, not his team’s tournament success, continues to drive their attendance.

“The top team moves on.  I’ve been blessed, I’ve won this tournament a few times, and we’ve fallen short, and that’s the beauty of the game,” he said.

For the Missouri-based coach however, USA CUP remains a team-focused event.

“We’ve been here seven times and it’s one of the best tournaments, I think it’s the best tournament in the world for youth soccer today,” he said. 

Fellow head coach Ivan Rodriguez, whose Chicago-based South Suburban Strikers bowed out in a heated contest early Friday afternoon, shared a similar sentiment, but also preached positivity to his players despite the loss.

“As long as there is an opponent, a soccer ball it’s time to go out and play and have a good time," he said. “That’s the most important thing, and that’s what I told my team.”

Rodriguez gave his boys’ squad an encouraging pep talk following the loss, one that emphasized the tournament’s positives, rather than the negative feelings associated with their final game.

“I told them that they should be grateful, and I told them that they should go and see their parents, and just to tell them thank you for giving them the opportunity to come out here and experience this,” he said.  “It is hard on some of these parents to call off work, and for some of our parents financially it can be a burden, but they’ve figured out a way to make it happen for these kids.”

The tournament’s international presence was also enthusiastic about USA CUP’s broad focus.

Galo Iza, who helped to bring Chilean squad Club Medico Santiago to USA CUP, had his own reasons for journeying all the way to Blaine, Minnesota from his home in Santiago, Chile.

Iza studied as an exchange student in North Dakota during the 1970s, a connection that drew him, and the team that he helped to form, back to the Midwest for USA CUP.  Iza’s son plays on the team himself, a fact that he hopes will motivate him to return to Blaine in the future.

“It’s a privilege, and a nice experience for all of them to be here, and something that I hope that they will keep up for life,” Iza said. “So who knows, someday when they grow up and are older like I am today, they might be back here with a kid of their own.”

But while Club Medico Santiago has enjoyed a large amount of success on the field, some teams haven’t been so fortunate.

Luke Stanefski, whose West St. Paul Sting team was eliminated on Friday, noted that there was still fun to be had at the tournament, despite him and his teammates’ early exit.

“I’m still having fun, but I would have liked to have stayed here longer,” the U13 player said, fresh off of a round of sand soccer. “It was fun to walk around and meet people from other places and different countries.”

Brothers Connor and Carson Smrz, both of MapleBrook Soccer Association, relished another aspect of the tournament: the ever-popular pin trading.

The boys’ father Brian was a bit overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the tournament.

“The pin trading and the international aspect, that is really kind of cool and in a way almost overwhelming at times,” he said.  “It’s like oh my gosh, how many different teams are here, how many different countries, it’s so huge.”

Smrz also notes that USA CUP offers his boys a chance to have fun off the field in a way that few others have.

“We traveled all the way to Kansas City, and this tournament’s way better, and we only had to drive 20 minutes from home,” he said.

But just as his MapleBrook brethren enjoyed their pins, and Luke Stanefski found his fun on the sand, Rafael Oliveira of U12 squad Rio de Janeiro Select had a favorite aspect of USA CUP all this own.

“That’s hard,” the Brazilian said, quickly dropping his gaze, appearing to carefully ponder the question.

The pageantry of opening ceremonies, the thrill of elimination play; he had obviously experienced a great deal throughout the weeklong tournament, having been exposed to so many new cultures and languages.

Rafael however, quickly recovered with his answer:  “Girls,” he said with a decisive nod, flashing a 12-year-old’s grin.  His teammates were quick to point out that they would be back next year.

Because while elimination play may be dampening the spirits’ of some players, there are still plenty of opportunities to have fun as USA CUP enters its final weekend.

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Tag(s): July 19, 2013