On Thursday, May 26, Harvard Men's Soccer had the pleasure of playing against theSouth Korea cerebral palsy national soccer team. The cerebral palsy World Cup will be taking place next July so HMS was thrilled to find out they could give back by playing a charity match against the South Korean side.
Getting to the field an hour before the 10 a.m. kickoff – the pitch was by far the nicest we had seen so far in South Korea as it consisted of real turf rather than artificial turf – HMS witnessed the South Korean team warm up. Although the players on the cerebral palsy national side face physical limitations, it was evident that they were still quality soccer players. Doing many of the same drills that non-disabled footballers play before games (e.g. short-short-long, boxdrills, 3-v-2 to goal, etc.). The South Korean players warmed up energetically and showed their skill through their range of passing, dribbling ability, and shot-stopping expertise (inthe case of the goalkeeper). Their coach even made them do push-ups in between drills,which they willingly performed whenever instructed to do so. Indeed, it was a joy to watch them prepare for the game, as it was a clear from their intense preparation that all of the players had a love for soccer that a physical disability did not prevent.
Obviously, since this was a charity event, the experience itself was much more important than fielding a strong team seeking a result. As such, HMS started a makeshift line-up that consisted of the following fun alterations: Chris Gores and Andrew Quinn (our two assistant coaches) in the center of midfield, Brett Conrad and Austin Harms (our two goalkeepers) in defense, Jamie Rees (a usual starter at striker or midfield) at goalkeeper, and Chris Lamb (our tour guide and former soccer standout at Campbell University) at left midfield. Perhaps a little over enthusiastic to be playing in a position that he normally didn't occupy during his professional soccer career, Gores produced one of the highlights of the event early on in the match when he dove to meet a left-footed cross from Chris Lamb, powering the ball into the back of the net with his head. Although the move was alittle over zealous, it was still carried out in the fun spirit of the occasion (plus it cemented Gores's legend status that he has come to gain from the members of the team).
More important than this sequence from a few old-timers, however, was the level of play that the cerebral palsy side produced. Stringing passes together and moving the ball from the defensive third to the offensive third in a quick, effective manner, the national team fired some chances on net, forcing Jamie Rees to produce a couple of good saves. Then, after thirty minutes of play, footballers from each team changed sides so that each team had members of both HMS and the KFA (Korean Football Association) cerebral palsy squad in their starting eleven. This ended up being a great idea since disabled and non-disabled players had to work together to score on the opposing team, resulting in many impressive offensive build-ups and defensive stops, often in the form of a precise strike from a KFA striker or tremendous save from the KFA goalkeeper. After the match, HMS graciously shook hands and posed for some photos with the cerebral palsy national team, our friends in soccer.
We then had the delight of touring the elaborate sports facility (adjacent to where our game took place) that the South Korean government has constructed for disabled athletes. Home to swimming pools, basketball courts, soccer fields, and many other sporting outlets, the building revealed the tremendous initiative that South Korea is taking in advancing social development in the sporting sphere, as it was clear from our experience with the KFA cerebral palsy national squad that people with disabilities in South Korea have the rightful opportunity of pursuing sport if they so desire.
The next three days, May 27, 28 and 29, consisted of free time to explore Seoul, more community service at the Gwancheon Science Institute, and preparation for our match against the KFA U-20s, respectively. For our free day on the 27th, members of HMS decided to take a taekwondo lesson in the morning, go to an indoor, hot spring spa in the afternoon, and then simply relax and enjoy some more Korean barbecue in the evening. Since we had three competitive games in a short amount of time, the downtime was very important for HMS, as it gave the players some much-needed rest ahead of our last match on Monday, the 30th.
Our last day of community service at the Gwancheon Science Institute on the 28th allowed HMS to interact with more South Korean school children, as HMS players instructed youths on scientific topics (e.g. the structure of the earth, the solar system, the fossil record, plate tectonics, etc.) before ending the day with a Q+A session. The Q+A dialogue allowed the South Korean children and their parents to ask members of HMS various questions ranging from what they have enjoyed most about Seoul to what it takes to be admitted to Harvard. Since we have come to South Korea to not only play soccer, but also spread the name of Harvard soccer, it was imperative that HMS put a lot of energy into our time at Gwancheon, as it enabled us to paint a good image of the program to the people of Seoul through a valuable service activity.
On Sunday the 29th, HMS traveled over an hour away from Seoul to train on a grass field for our match against the KFA U-20s. Only our second organized practice of the trip, HMS took advantage of the opportunity to have a formal session on a good, forgiving surface ,as more ardent preparation would be required for our encounter with the South Korean national side than any other match thus far. Although HMS was aware that we would most likely not have the majority of the play against a more technical side, the session still emphasized possessing with a purpose, which has become a common theme under Coach Junot, one that has resonated amongst the players so far.
Our match against the KFA U-20 squad didn't kick-off until 4 p.m. on Monday the 30th, but HMS still arrived at the pitch two hours ahead of time in order to get our bearings prior to the big game. The KFA soccer center is a beautiful eight-field grass facility overlooking the lush, green mountains of South Korea. Walking the game field before pregame preparation, members of HMS agreed that it would not take much to get up for this game, as KFA presented us with a quality pitch and tough opposition; two prospects that never fail to get the blood pumping and adrenaline racing before a sporting event.
Although HMS was still facing some injuries up front, we were boosted by the return of Connor McCarthy. The striker possesses tremendous pace in the open field, which often translates to dangerous opportunities on long balls that breach the opposition's defense.This proved to be a threat against the KFA U-20s early in the match, as HMS played along ball to our forward line, which Jamie Rees skillfully flicked on past the KFA centraldefense (KFA played a high line throughout the match in an attempt to suffocate HMS offensive build-up in the middle of the field). The flick-on then resulted in McCarthy racing into open space with the ball at his feet, easily striking the ball past the goalkeeper into the far corner of the net once he was 12 yards out from goal. Although the composed finish provided an initial boost for HMS, we found ourselves sitting back and absorbing pressure for the majority of the remainder of the first half.
Besides beingincredibly talented with the ball at their feet, every member of the KFA U-20s moved quickly and effectively off the ball. This movement off the ball, in addition to their high fitness level (KFA did not once look tired during the match), allowed KFA to keep possession for the majority of the game, resulting in HMS having to chase the game and thus, lose energy due to constant defending. One could tell that one of the striking differences between college soccer and soccer at the international level is the never-ending, collective movement of players at the international level. Indeed, once a member of KFA played a pass, he was dashing into the open space, trying to find the best angle to receive the ball. In doing so, he either received a pass or cleared the space for the person with the ball at his feet to dribble or play the next pass to a different player. In particular, KFA had a short, floppy-haired central midfielder who embodied this ideal of constant passing and moving. HMS players agreed that he was one of the more talented players that we have faced so far, as all KFA possession went through the KFA #10; the little maestro only losing the ball once the entire match.
Even though possession is an important aspect of soccer, from a scoring standpoint, it can only get you so far, as the final pass to unlock the defense in the offensive third is often key to putting the ball in the back of the net. KFA could technically have the ball all day so long as HMS stayed compact in the back and didn't allow anything to seep through their defense. Still, KFA looked dangerous when they got in behind our midfield and were allowed to run at our defense. Unfortunately, this was precisely what happened in roughly the 30th minute, as the little KFA central midfielder ran at our backline, causing Richard Smith to step through to tackle. This left a gap in between our left back and central defense, which the center mid easily exposed, playing a pass into the open space. A KFA striker then ran onto the pass, slotting the ball past Austin Harms to tie the game at 1-1.
Despite KFA's advantage in possession, HMS stayed resolute in the tackle, controlling the tempo of the first half in patches. Moreover, some good goalkeeping play at the tail end of the second half kept the match even at 1-1 heading into halftime. Making a tremendous save off a free kick from the KFA left back, Harms sprung to his left to get his top, right hand to the ball before it went into the upper 90. At the start of the second half, Harms made another fine save, diving across the face of his goal to keep the ball out with his left foot after a cross had fallen to the feet of the KFA left winger eight yards out from goal. Lamentably, this did not keep KFA from gaining an advantage on the score sheet, as the second goal came midway through the second half. Playing a ball in between our right back and center back, the KFA center mid found the right mid who played a ball across the face of the goal that was easily struck into the back of the net by the KFA striker from five yards out.
Fortunately, KFA's second goal seemed to light HMS's offensive spark, as the Crimson started to construct some chances twenty minutes from time. Making a high energy run from the left wing into the middle of KFA's offensive third, Jamie Rees produced an impressive individual effort, beating three or four players before hitting an off-balance shot that struck the frame of the crossbar from 22 yards out. Had the ball dipped just a yard more, the game would have been tied and it would not have been inconceivable to think that HMS could steal a 3-2 victory late in the match (a 2-2 tie a realistic possibility even after the spirited attempt). However, in soccer, the better of the play can shift quickly and it was not long before KFA regained control of the game, scoring a goal off a set-piece ten minutes from time. In theory, HMS should have dealt with any delivery in the air, as we held a significantheight advantage over KFA. Still, the goal was a well-executed set piece to the far post, which bypassed our height in the center of defense and found a gap at the top of the 6-yard box. Ten minutes later the final whistle blew, HMS falling to KFA 3-1.
Although our guys were upset to lose such a fast-paced match, we took solace in knowing that we competitively played a quality side, which had even beaten our own USA U-20 national team 2-0 the last time the two squads had met. Reflecting on our time in Seoul, South Korea, HMS can safely say that we enjoyed a very successful trip. We came to South Korea for two reasons: spread the name and brand of Harvard Men's Soccer (check that off the list) and prepare ourselves for the upcoming fall season from both a soccer and team standpoint (check and check). This foreign tour put HMS in a unique position, as we had the chance to play more games in the spring than most other collegiate soccer teams in the country. Counting our spring games tha ttook place during the academic school year, we finished our spring season with four wins, three ties, and one loss, impressive numbers considering all the rebuilding that can take place after a team loses its seniors to eligibility. Moreover, from a team standpoint, this trip was especially unique, as it allowed members of HMS to put the team first again.
Amidst all of the different academic pressures and social distractions that Harvard provides, it is possible as a Harvard student-athlete to lose sight of how vital the concept of team is, as the individual opportunities that Harvard presents are in fact, rather endless. But particularly in soccer, the team is the backbone of success, as a high level of chemistry is required both on the field and in the locker room in order for a soccer program to thrive. Think of it as a chain. Each player, coach, affiliate of the team is a link of the chain that ties the team together. Chinks in the chain are possible and they do occur.
But if everybody on the team can bond together – whether that be on the field in the form of an offensive build-up when the ball flows from defense to midfield to offense into the goal of the opposition, or off it, in the form of simply spending time with one another, laughing at each other's jokes and enjoying each other's company more than anybody else in the light of the moment – well then, a cohesiveness is possible. And when that happens, when a team is so glued together that every member of it is willing tosacrifice for one another, success can't help but spring forth. Anybody who has ever been a true member of a team would most likely agree.
Thanks for reading,
Harvard Men's Soccer