It took a long time, but the United States finally won the gold medal in men’s open soccer in the Maccabiah Games.
That could be taken two ways — the lengthy championship game against Argentina on July 29, or the fact that this year’s 19th Maccabiah was the first time that the U.S. finished victorious, after settling for silver in 1981 and 2005.
Preston Goldfarb, who is the soccer coach at Birmingham-Southern College and was the coach for the 2013 Maccabiah team, said he told the team before the game “what a privilege and honor it was to coach them,” and that they would make history that night. He said afterward that “it was a fitting end to my Maccabi USA career.”
Goldfarb was head coach for the open men’s soccer team at the Maccabi Australia International Games in 2010 and for the junior boys’ soccer team at the 2009 Maccabiah. The 2009 team lost the bronze medal game to Brazil, 1-0, but was the only U.S. soccer team to play for a medal.
This year, both the U.S. men and women’s open teams won gold, the women defeating Israel 6-1 for the title, and the junior girls won gold. The junior boys (1997-98) lost to Brazil 3-0 in the bronze game, while the older junior boys took silver, losing to Israel in the final. The U.S. 45-plus team took bronze.
The Maccabiah, held every four years in Israel, brings Jewish athletes from around the world in what is the third-largest Olympics-style international sports competition.
Goldfarb isn’t the only Birmingham connection on the team. David Rosenthal of Minnesota is son of Birmingham native Gary Rosenthal, grandson of Rachel Rosenthal.
The gold medal game at Givat Ram Stadium went into overtime after the teams finished regulation knotted at 2. After two scoreless 15-minute overtimes, the U.S. team won it 4-3 on penalty kicks.
The U.S. team played a man down for the last 60 minutes, as Kovi Konowiecki received a red card for retaliation in the 60th minute after an uncalled Argentina foul. The team was also shorthanded after co-captain Daniel Kohen broke his foot in the quarterfinals.
The U.S. took a quick lead 5 minutes in as Alec Arsht scored on a throw-in, but Argentina converted a penalty kick four minutes later. In a trend Goldfarb saw several times during the tournament, he said the officiating was “extremely poor” with numerous calls against the U.S. team and blatant fouls by opposing teams ignored. As an example, an Argentina player “came off the field and shoved me” in the coaching box, in front of an official, but nothing was called.
In the second half, the U.S. went up again in the 50th minute on an Eric Weberman goal. Argentina tied it in the 68th minute, minutes after the U.S. red card.
Goldfarb said that being a man down, they “battled like I have never seen” to get to the penalty kick phase.
Both teams missed the first kick but made the second. The U.S. scored in the third round, then both teams scored in the fourth. The final Argentine kicker tied it at 3 at the beginning of the fifth round, but U.S. captain Scott Rowling answered, securing the gold medal.
The U.S. team had to battle back and overcome many obstacles on its journey. The team arrived in Israel on July 7 and had some practice sessions and two “friendlies” against Australia before touring the country for several days.
On July 17 Goldfarb found out the team had to request practice time and then pay its own transportation. “I have never seen anything like this,” he noted. The trend continued with the Opening Ceremony on July 18, which he described as “beyond unorganized.” The team arrived at 5 p.m. and the March of Countries was supposed to begin at 8 p.m., but started an hour late.
At 12:15 a.m. it was over, but the team’s buses were nowhere to be found. After well over an hour of wandering, they were finally told they had to walk over a mile to reach the buses.
That day, the team was to play its first game of group play, against Uruguay at 4 p.m. Though the tournament was being played with FIFA international rules, the field was much smaller than a regulation field. “We are a possession type team and playing on a field that size certainly takes that away,” he explained.
Though Uruguay was far outmatched, the U.S. could not get things going and lost 1-0. “Their only hope was to take us out of our game,” so Uruguay baited, taunted and dove, and the referee did nothing. He said a Uruguay player even head-butted the U.S. goalie in front of the referee and got a warning for what usually results in an ejection. Two “obvious” hand-balls in the box were also not called.
“In all my many years of coaching” college and internationally, Goldfarb said, “I have never seen the kind of poor sportsmanship in a game.”
As happens in soccer, the better team does not always win, he noted. The U.S. did not play well enough to win, “but we certainly didn’t deserve to lose.”
In the next match, against Denmark, the field was somewhat larger. David Rosenthal scored the team’s first goal of the tournament in the 12th minute and added a second in the 72nd minute to put the U.S. up 3-0. After notching the 5-0 win the team prepared for Mexico, which Goldfarb said before the tournament would be “war” — but it would also be on the “postage stamp” small field.
Mexico needed only a tie to advance, but “to their credit they played to win,” Goldfarb said. The U.S. needed a win to advance, and came through with a tie-breaking goal in the 70th minute, holding on for the 3-2 win to make the Round of 8.
In the quarterfinals, the U.S. shelled Germany, 7-0, using the lessons the team learned from the Uruguay game.
On July 28 the team was once again on the short field for the semi-final, but defeated Canada 5-0. Canada was coached by Goldfarb’s friend Alan Koch of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Koch played against BSC in the 1996 NAIA national tournament, Goldfarb noted.
After making tactical adjustments toward the end of the Uruguay match, the U.S. team scored 20 goals and gave up 2 until the final.
Goldfarb said “this has been an incredible experience, being with all of these guys and seeing how well they took to each other and our way of playing the game we all love.”