In their opening match, the U.S. Men’s Pan-American Soccer Team defeated Venezuela in dramatic fashion 2-1, as Bobby Warshaw scored the game-winner in injury time. With their next match in group play against Bolivia on Wednesday, July 18, Center Circle caught up with captain Greg Folk in Brazil to talk about the first match, what he thinks about the USA’s chances and what the experience of playing in such a prestigious tournament has been like overall during the first week.
First of all, what was your reaction when you got named to the Pan-Am games?
Greg Folk: “Initially, they called saying I was invited with the Under-18 national team and I was a bit confused because I was too old for the U-18s. But, the team was actually a collection of 18 and older players. When that confusion was cleared up I was excited. I have always wanted to be apart of an Olympic event.”
What were the team’s preparations like before your first game?
GF: “Everyone on the team arrived in Washington D.C. and we stayed for a day and a half at George Mason University, putting in two days of hard fitness sessions to get ready for the tournament. Then we took the nine-hour flight to Brazil and trained only once a day for the first two days we were down here. On those days we trained at a military complex and in the background you could hear the soldiers practicing their rifle techniques. We then trained twice in one day at a school called Universidad, before going back to a once a day session at the field where we would play our first game - Footall Center Zico. Two days before the game we took the day off with just a light stretch to get our legs back from the training, and then the day before the game we again held a light training to sharpen up our set pieces and get our legs ready for the match.”
Can you talk about the opening match and winning in the final minute?
GF: “Everyone on the team was excited to get the tournament going because we had been training intensely for a week. The game started out at a very fast pace until both teams settled into the game about 20 minutes in. We had a few quality chances in the first half that could have put us up by halftime, but unfortunately we couldn't convert. However, we finally got a goal by Stephen McCarthy after a great dribbling run down the right side by Danny Kelly, who crossed a beautiful ball right to Stephen’s head for the finish. After the goal they went a man down but we couldn’t really take advantage of being a man up because they got a penalty kick that tied the game up, 1-1. Being a man up we made some more offensive subs to try to win the game and they paid off in the final minute when Michael Stephens sent in a corner kick and Bobby Warshaw finished with a powerful header.”
You were named captain for the first game against Venezuela. What did that mean to you to be named captain in such a big event?
GF: “It was an honor to be named captain and lead a national team in the Pan-American Games. With the captain’s armband though comes a big responsibility to be a good model for the rest of the team. Ultimately, I was excited to be at the head of a big win over Venezuela and now we are leading our group for the first part of the tournament.”
Your next game is against Bolivia. What are your thoughts heading into that match?
GF: “We briefly saw some of their match against Mexico in which they tied, 1-1. They looked like a well organized team with some attacking flare, which we will have to be aware of going into the game. They played Mexico very well and were leading the game until the middle of the second half. As far as our team goes, the team has had some good trainings and we showed well against Venezuela, so our confidence is high. If we play our game, we feel that we will have a good chance at staying atop the group.”
(editor’s note: At this point in the interview, Greg informed us that the coaches are “stuck in an elevator right now in our building” and “you can hear them yelling in the hallway.” Despite that bit of news, Greg stayed with us as others went to check on the trapped coaches.)
You also play Mexico in group play in your final match. What do you think it will be like going up against your biggest rival in such a prestigious tournament?
GF: “That will be another exciting game not only because they are our CONCACAF rivals and it is the Pan-American Games, but we will also be playing them in the Maracana stadium on ESPN Deportes. Both teams could be fighting for first place in the group to move onto the semifinals of the tournament, which would add some more fuel to the fire. I’m sure that the game against Mexico will bring the best from both teams. However, we have to be careful not to look past a good Bolivia side first.
You are playing with two of your UCLA teammates in Michael Stephens and Chance Myers, but have you played with any of the other guys? Overall, what's the team chemistry like so far?
GF: “Besides Mikey Stephens and Chance Myers, I’ve played with some of the other guys from my Residency days in Bradenton, Florida, and a U-20 camp. To name a few they are Jeremy Hall, Kevin Alston, Danny Kelly and Danny Barrera. I actually grew up playing with Barrera's brother on my club team so I’ve played with him for awhile now. The team chemistry is great right now. The younger guys (90's and 89's) all know each other and have been playing together for their Residency programs or previous U-18 camps, but the older guys (88's and 87's) have really gelled with the team either by knowing or playing with the younger guys previously or just from being round each other 24/7 here in Brazil. Everyone on the team is having a great time together in Rio on and off the field. I think our team chemistry really showed in the last game against Venezuela in that we fought together as a team to the very end and we were rewarded greatly on our last minute game-winner. It was a good team goal that brought out the character and chemistry of this team.”
Overall, what has the experience been like so far in terms of hotel, training fields, fans, atmosphere of the games, etc.?
GF: “The experience has been amazing so far. From meeting the younger players to the level of competition, I have really enjoyed every second. The hotel we are staying in is actually a little village that has been built for the Pan-American Games with 10 buildings where all of the games’ athletes are staying. It is interesting just being around such quality athletes from a variety of sports. The training fields have varied a bit because of some rain that wouldn't let us practice at the previous training facilities, but we remain flexible for anything here while keeping team morale high. For the opening ceremonies, the fans here in Brazil were fantastic. There were around 100,000 people in attendance and it was a once in a lifetime experience. It set the stage for this prestigious event and showed the extent that Rio is willing to go to make this event so special.”
(editor’s note: Just an FYI…Greg told us at the end of the interview that the coaches were rescued from the elevator.)
The Pan American games are a continental version of the Olympic Games which includes the Olympic Program sports and others that are not part of the Olympics. Always conducted one year before the Olympic Games, the first Pan American Games were held in 1951, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Inspired by the holding of the first Central American Games in 1924, the Latin American representatives of the International Olympic Committee proposed the creation of a competition that would include all the countries in the Americas to strengthen sport activities in the region.
The team will face Bolivia on July 18 at 2 p.m. ET at the Miecimo da Silva Sport Complex before rounding out group play against Mexico on July 21 at 9 a.m. ET at Brazil’s famed Maracana Stadium. The tournament semifinals will take place on July 24 and the third place and final matches will be held on July 27, all at Maracana Stadium.