A seven-a-side football tournament that may not change the future of sport, but it provided a great show.
The organizers of The Soccer Tournament had been keen to point this out since the day they announced the rules of their tournament: someone would have scored a goal worth a million dollars. One of the most particular features of this new football experiment is, in fact, the so-called Target Score. At the end of the two twenty-minute regular times, a score is established that both teams must reach in order to win, and which is equivalent to one goal more than those scored by the team in the lead, or simply to the more classic golden goal in the event of parity.
Furthermore, after every five minutes of Target Time, a player is removed from both teams from the field, so as to increase the spaces and, possibly, reduce the playing time of the games. That of the Target Score represented only one of the many peculiarities of the tournament, a football branch of the The Basketball Tournamentborn in 2014 on the basis of the same principles: giving the possibility to amateur teams, former teammates or anyone else who wants to register for a tournament, upon payment of ten thousand dollars, and compete for a potential prize pool of one million dollars.
The first edition of The Soccer Tournament saw thirty-two teams compete against each other, from very different origins, first in a group stage, and then in a knockout tournament, all held from June 1st to 4th last year. Among the principles of the regulation: teams of seven elements; small size field; no offside; unlimited changes and flying and sliding prohibited. In addition, of course, to the very particular Target Score method: the method which, on Sunday June 4, in the last of sixty-three games played on the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina, saw that goal worth a million dollars come from the foot Of Kelvin Nunes, giving away victory in the inaugural The Soccer Tournament at Newtown Pride.
Kelvin Nunes, who in addition to scoring the decisive goal also obtained the MVP award of the tournament, risked not being able to participate until the last second. Gabriel Costa, Newtown Pride player, has, in fact, stated a ESPN that his comrades did everything to ensure that Nunes could have a permit to arrive in the United States. They will succeed by landing him in North Carolina directly from his home country after his team had already played – and lost – its first game of the tournament against Kingdom FC.
Precisely in the initial stages of the tournament, Newtown Pride seemed on the verge of definitively saying goodbye to the final prize pool when, in the second match of the first day of competitions, they found themselves tied and with one player less against the Borussia Dortmundafter Drew Ruggles, then author of the decisive assist for the victory, punched the TikTok star – and former Real Salt Lake youth soccer player – Noah Beck.
In the second half, however, Newtown Pride will score eight goals against the Germans – one of the worst teams in the tournament, with three defeats and a goal difference of -17 despite the presence of Kevin Großkreutz, Dedé and Felipe Santana in the squad – starting a a ride that since then has seen them undefeated by defeating, among others, a selection of former players from the University of Indiana, Hapoel Tel Aviv and, in the final, the Sports League Canada, a selection of Canadian national futsal and amateurs in the greater Toronto area leagues.
For Newtown Pride, winning the inaugural The Soccer Tournament is, in some ways, revenge for what the pandemic has taken from this team. In 2019 they had in fact won the National Amateur Cup, the largest amateur soccer tournament in the country, which guarantees qualification for the next edition of the US Open Cup, the US national cup. The 2020 edition, however, had been canceled due to Covid, and the same had happened in 2021 when, by decision of the federation, the team should have participated in a restricted edition of the tournament. When the US Open Cup returned in 2022, so did the National Amateur Cup, however, making it impossible for the team to find a place.
The possibility of playing in the national cup represented, for Newtown Pride, a great opportunity also to give visibility to the cause that has often guided the organization in recent years. In fact, the team is based in Newtown, Connecticut, in the suburb of Sandy Hook, known for massacre which in 2012 affected the local elementary school, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza killed twenty-seven people, including twenty children, before committing suicide when police arrived. The team, which began as Newtown FC, changed its name to Newtown Pride to honor the memory of the victims, and has often played charity matches in support of the families involved. At the heart of this team’s story are the father-son duo of Matt and Michael Svanda. In fact, around 1992, the 12-year-old team Michael played for needed a coach.
Matt, with no prior sports experience, began coaching them, and in 1998, after continuing through the youth league process with virtually the same group, Newtown FC was born, and began competing in the Connecticut amateur league. Of the original group, in the winning team at The Soccer Tournament, no one is left – both Michael and Matt Svanda today play mainly a management role – and the group that brought the organization a million dollars is composed mostly of US futsal internationals and players active in the MASLthe main league of indoor soccera fairly popular version of soccer in the United States that is the answer to the question: “What could we do if we placed synthetic grass on top of an ice hockey field?”
Despite being able to count on players with the highest level of curriculum, however, the victory of the Newtown Pride not only has never been taken for granted, but remains a classic story to underdog: an amateur team that manages to win in front of professional organizations and ex-footballers of even a fairly high level. In fact, what first attracted interest in The Soccer Tournament is the strange, inexplicable and seemingly random jumble of teams and players involved in the event.
Particular attention was paid to the selection of US female soccer players, who took the field in the group with Asi Wrexham Red Dragons – made up of some Welsh club flags – and the Say Word FC, a local team made up of former varsity-level soccer players from HBCU, which stands for the country’s African-American majority colleges and universities. The US Women, led by some former world champions like Heather O’Reilly and Lori Lindsey, finished the group in last place, but received a huge public successand is already planning a return to the2024 edition.
In the DMV Diplomatsa team whose name betrays its origins in the Capitoline region – DMV stands for District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia – instead found themselves playing two veterans of European football like the Chilean mark gonzalez – ex Liverpool, Betis, CSKA Moscow – and the Slovak Miroslav Stoch – ex Chelsea, Fenerbahce and Slavia Prague. The reason is the coach, the Chilean Jorge Alvial, scout with a long past at Chelsea, now employed by FC Cincinnati.
Another interesting type of team is that of the old US glories. We have seen four of them: the Team Dempseywith the former Fulham manager and on the pitch, among others, a Chris Wondolowski still in great shape; il Conrad & Beasley United which, in addition to the two former US internationals who gave the team its name, could also count on the 2011 MLS MVP, and Canadian soccer legend Dwayne DeRosario; il Nati SCmade up of former FC Cincinnati players and former Cincinnati Bengals star Chad “Eight five” Johnsonand it Sneaky Fox FCwhich takes its name from the brand of vodka owned by Mike Magee, MVP of MLS in 2013. The presence of professional teams was also not trivial with selections of former players, club employees, fans and local footballers taken to fill the ranks. In addition to those already mentioned, in fact, we can find the Mexicans of Necaxa, Charlotte FC, l’Hashtag United and, even, Premier League formations such as Wolverhampton e West Ham.
West Ham was the protagonist, despite himself, of one of the worst moments of the tournament, when a player from Dallas Uniteda selection of the best players in the amateur league of the Texan city, made a racial slur at Anton Ferdinandbrother of Rio and former footballer of the Hammers, leading the England team to abandon the field before the Target Score and, following an investigation, at Dallas United’s retirement from the competition.
The first edition of The Soccer Tournament gave away pretty much everything one could expect: it has had fascinating stories like that of the winning team, it has given a show and above all it has succeeded without falling into ridicule or cloying. The innovations to the regulation, and in particular the Target Score, have guaranteed entertainment – as in the match between Kingdom FC and Hoosier Army, where the decisive goal came from the goalkeeper when the teams were reduced to two against two – without an attack on purism or even just on the tradition of sport.
The level of production of the matches, particularly those also aired on NBC, the US television channel known for the work it has done in promoting and selling the Premier League product to a US audience, gave the event an air of importance and authority that certainly contributed to the success of the tournament.
Just like its basketball big brother, the The Soccer Tournament can become a pleasant interlude of the seasonan event certainly with much less pressure around it but capable of offering no less entertainment and fascinating stories than eleven-a-side football can do.