San Salvador, El Salvador (September 29, 2011) – There exist many inspirational and motivational phrases that speak to people’s character, overcoming challenges, and dealing with adversity. But it’s not always easy to think of them off the top of your head. However, after spending the last three days with the Colorado Rapids in El Salvador, I will always remember seeing these traits right in front of me.
I’ll also remember the Case of the Missing Cleats, but that comes later.
This week, people throughout the soccer community voiced their opinions about Rapids head coach Gary Smith’s decisions regarding this Champions League game, and his not traveling with the team to El Salvador, and many were not in agreement. But for us on the staff, the challenge of each match remains the same regardless of the players suiting up. All 30 players are equal – once they pull on the Rapids jersey, they’re playing for the team, and our responsibilities remain the same.
PHOTO BLOG: IMAGES DOCUMENT EL SALVADOR TRIP
I arrived in El Salvador a day before the team with our security representative, Alo, to help with translation and to assist in making sure all details were covered ahead of the team’s arrival. This included hotel, meals, buses, routes to / from the airport and stadium, picking up water and Gatorade, and plenty of other logistics. Once in town we learned which players were coming, but like I said, it didn’t matter to us.
On Tuesday evening, Alo and I met the team at the airport in San Salvador, and I immediately sensed a positive energy. The players walked out of customs with smiles on their faces, greeting us with excitement, even after a journey that had begun more than 10 hours earlier when the team left Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
We boarded the bus to the hotel and the guys were asking all sorts of questions, about the hotel, the stadium, the countryside, and more. They were clearly excited to be here.
The next day, at the pregame meal, there was a relaxed and jovial attitude. Nobody was putting on an intense look just for show; instead, they were obviously thrilled to have this chance to show their abilities, knowing the organization was counting on them, and trusting them to get a result. They also knew that not many others had faith in them.
After coaches Steve Guppy and Brett Jacobs ran over final reminders on video, Wells Thompson asked the group if he could say a few words. He talked about a dear family friend who had recently passed away, and spoke about not having regrets or missing out on opportunities. He reminded them that the people in that room, and their teammates back home, were the only ones that believed they could win that game. He wanted them to seize the chance, to not have regrets, to show what they were made of individually, and as a team.
We took the two-hour bus ride to Metapan with the guys talking and laughing throughout, pointing and discussing at what they saw out the window. They seemed to feel no pressure.
We arrived at Estadio Calero Juarez at 6 pm, two hours before kickoff, and the guys went to check out the field. Veteran Tyrone Marshall pulled out his IPad and videoed the players’ reactions to the field and stadium. He wanted them to take it in, enjoy it. They laughed as he replayed what he recorded.
Inside, long-time equipment manager Carlos, had an “uh oh” moment. He walked over to team administrator, Erik, and said, “we have a problem. I forgot a bag at the hotel.”
“Which bag?” Erik asked.
“The one with all the cleats.”
So here we found ourselves, with a team not many counted on, having gone through a 10 hour journey the day before and a two hour bus ride to get to the stadium, led by an assistant coach and now facing a new challenge: only about half the guys had brought their cleats with them on the bus. The lineup had been turned in, but not all the starters had shoes.
Instead of panicking, Carlos and Erik got to work. Carlos went over to the Isidro Metapan equipment managers and explained what happened. Erik talked with Alo, and Metapan executive Roberto Campos, and they got the wheels going to get the cleats from the hotel to Metapan.
In the spirit of Fair Play, the Metapan equipment guys brought over six pairs of shoes that their players were no longer using, hoping that at least our starters would find cleats that fit. Only Wells and Andre couldn’t find a pair that worked. We were then told of a nearby sporting goods store, and the Metapan staff went out and bought us three pairs of cleats in the sizes that were missing.
At the same time, our sales contact at the InterContinental Hotel in San Salvador, Denis, went into the our equipment room, confirmed he had the right bag, and got in his car. Escorted by police on motorcycle, they began the trek to Metapan.
Guppy promised the guys their shoes would arrive on time. I know he had doubts, but he didn’t show it. He let the guys keep joking and preparing, even laughed that some may have to warm up in running shoes. They laughed at how they’d remember this day. Without a word, Wells put on a pair that were big on him.
Tyrone led the group out for warmups, but before they started, he gathered all the players on the field to give a speech. I didn’t get close enough to listen, but it’s not a common site to see players gather before warmups. He was making sure they believed they could get it done.
Warmups ended and the cleats still weren’t there. The guys walked out and even took the starting XI photo with borrowed shoes. Just as the game was about to begin, Alo sprinted out of the tunnel with the bag. He hurriedly got to the bench, and everyone stood up to help. The bench got the attention of Wells and Andre, and they ran to the sideline. Ian Joyce helped Wells trade out shoes, while Omar Cummings assisted Andre.
The refs didn’t know what to do - all they could say was to hurry up. The game began, and we went into halftime tied 1-1. Guppy walked off the field talking with Jacobs, and on the phone with Gary Smith back in Colorado. The rest of the guys in borrowed shoes changed into their own. They came out for the second half and added two more goals to win 3-1.
As we drove back to San Salvador, I had these moments replaying in my head. How great of a complete team effort it was to win that game - not only the players, and coaches, but the staff, the opposing team, the hotel staff, and the police. Countless obstacles were thrown at the guys, with plenty of reason to complain, but they never got down, never blamed anyone else, just shook it off and went about their business.
It was a great win, but more than that: it was a great example how a group that believes in themselves can overcome challenges and adversity. It was a great example of character.