At the 2014 IBSA World Goalball Championships, both U.S. and Finland’s Men’s teams qualified for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, taking bronze and silver respectively (Brazil won gold). Though the teams have competed against each other in the two year lead up, this was their first meeting during the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games.
Like Team USA, Finland is a medal contender in Rio. The reigning Paralympic champions have appeared in eight Paralympic Games and have two Paralympic medals – gold from Atlanta 1996 and silver from Barcelona 1992. But none of that clouded Team USA players’ minds when they took the court tonight.
Joe Hamilton put the U.S. on top early with a goal in the first minute that was left unanswered until Finland’s Jarno Mattila was able to tie the score on a long ball penalty made by Tyler Merren. John Kusku got Team USA back on top before the end of the first half, scoring on a gap between Finland’s left wing and center.
Midway into the second half, Merren scored an impressive three goals in two minutes, including one goal made on a Finland long ball penalty, increasing Team USA’s lead 5-1. Merren scored once more with 4 minutes left in the game, icing the cake. At 6-1, Team USA allowed just one more goal before the final buzzer for a final score of 6-2.
“It’s a team effort,” said Merren. “The coach said take it from the center, hit the 7, and that’s what I did. It wasn’t anything special, I was just following directions. We’ve got good coaches and a good team.”
The win is significant for Team USA as it secured them a spot in the quarterfinals – something that wasn’t going to be easy to do given their group drawing.
A key to Team USA’s success is their ability to play dynamic defense. Team USA players do not stick to one position like players on other teams. Instead, they switch positions between plays so the opposing team cannot target a single player.
“Goalball is very melodic,” said Hamilton. “it goes back and forth rhythmically. If you stay in one spot, you can get lulled to sleep within your position. So, rotating around helps us stay more mentally focused and gives you an opportunity to get hit with the ball so players can’t isolate you defensively.”
“We stay very focused,” said Kusku, “because in new positions, the other team cannot pick shots to hit a player since they don’t know where one player will be at any given time.”
U.S. Men will continue to execute their dynamic defensive strategies against Turkey tomorrow at 7:30pm BRT. Turkey is currently ranked 4th in the group with a 1-1 record. Quarterfinals will continue on Wednesday, September 14. Follow the men’s games live on @USMGoalball.