Ontario, California. Thirty-six miles from Downtown Los Angeles. A city best known for its outlet stores, airport, and vast stretches of unused, open land. Thirty-six miles of travel time equating to what is usually anywhere from one to two hours sitting in traffic.
The assignment is that of a football fan visiting a town that holds a secret, which thousands of fans a week know about but most who live in the surrounding areas don’t. Ontario is home to the Ontario Fury of the Major Arena Soccer League. A first-class run organization that brings the game of soccer to the people of Ontario. This week, fans of the indoor game were treated to an event akin to the MLS All Star Games where American players challenged players from the “rest of the world” to a contest of countries. This time it was the Americans who would ply their trade against some heavy international competition for the third Major Arena Soccer League International Challenge, wherein players from the MASL represented their home countries. On this occasion, I was headed toward a dramatic and frankly daunting match: USA vs. Brazil.
The juiciness of the event and the chance to see just how the American style contrasted with the Brazilian game was enough to send not only the hardcore indoor fans pouring into Citizens Business Bank Arena, but curious reporters willing to brave the desert heat simply to check out those crazy fans and see how good these ballers were.
Once inside the premises, I was immediately surrounded by kids in their AYSO uniforms, loud and proud diehards, and families traveling in packs, signs and matching jerseys in tow. The Fury fans would not be disappointed as the majority of the players for USA were local heroes. Tino Nunez, one of the original signings of The Fury when they opened up shop in 2013, was one of them. Nunez had before played for Real Salt Lake in Major League Soccer and now found himself playing alongside another ex-MLS player, Israel Sesay. Sesay played with David Beckham in his first season with The LA Galaxy. He was the youngest player ever to play for the senior team for The Galaxy. When asked about these two players, Fury fans used words like “hero” and “hometown.” Their MLS past no longer relevant, they belonged firmly within The Fury familia.
Other Fury players on the roster included Andy Reyes, Nelson Santana, and Corey Marret who shared the limelight with league rivals from The San Diego Sockers, including goalkeeper Chris Toth, son of legendary Sockers goalie Zoltan Toth—a crowd favorite, or villain, depending on who you ask—and U.S. captain Kraig Chiles, multiple league MVP winner and current “Sports Man of the Year.” “To start off, I felt very honored to be called up to team USA and play against a lot of my teammates, teammates that have taught me a lot in my first year in the MASL,” said Reyes, who along with several other MASL players is also part of T.C. Broders, one of the best street football crews in L.A., and arguably in the nation. “Being one of the younger players and seeing the other big-time players like Nelson Santana, Kraig Chiles, Israel Sesay, Tino Nunez, and the rest, it’s just a good feeling playing with those group of guys,” he added.
Among the impressive roster, two players piqued the curiosity of fans and reporters the most. Gordy Gurson from Cedar Rapids Rampage, which one fan said was “One of the best forwards in arena soccer,” and 17-year-old Harold Hanson, an Italian from Ghana and a player who looked like a seasoned professional playing against stalwarts almost twice his age. After the game, reporters flocked to this young man to ask him questions about the match and specifically his future in football. Much like his playing style, the youngster was professional, appreciative, humble, and intelligent. I’m saying it now: Remember his name.
The Brazil lineup consisted of Fury players Tiguinho, 38-year-old Mauricio Salles, and goalkeeper Sanaldo Carvalho. All hometown favorites, but the Brazilians looked their ages, and the crowd was uncertain of what they could do. “They don’t usually play together. So it will take some a few periods for them to settle,” said a U.S. supporter. We would have to wait and see if that prediction was correct.
The match was a spectacle. The production was expertly executed in order to blast the senses, and take wide-eyed fans through a rollercoaster of emotion. And that was just the warm up! The crowd went wild for their hometown heroes when their names were announced over the PA system. When the jumbotron panned on their faces the audience ignited as if they were at a rock concert. The announcer shouted, “Who’s ready for some soccer?” and the stands erupted. Both sets of players were high fiving each other and giving out bro hugs, after all these were teammates turned rivals. Queen’s “We Will Rock You” blasted out of the speakers and looking down from the media section, one could imagine that if indoor soccer was played in a suburb of another planet, it would look like this.
In the first quarter, Brazil’s blue-and-yellow jerseys make them look like bees in a hive as they moved deftly and in unison. They did not look like a team that had barely practiced together. Meanwhile, an organ player started belting out, “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands!” and the fans giddily obliged. By the time they were on their second clap, Kraig Chiles had sneaked a goal past the Brazilian goalkeeper giving the U.S. the first lead of the night 2 minutes and 50 seconds into the first quarter.
Tiguinho joked afterward that they both wanted to show the crowd who was the best number 10 in the stadium.
Brazil knew it was early, but as soon as the restart began, Brazil gave the ball away again as Team USA dominated possession and frustrated their opponents, who likely knew that the U.S. were looking to tire out the opposition. But Lucio Gonzago was not having any of it. Gonzago ended the “keep away” session by stripping the ball away from the American goalkeeper and scoring Brazil’s first goal. A few minutes later, Brazil scored their second from midfield. The American goalkeeper wasn’t fooled by the direction of the kick but the speed of the ball was too fast to block.
As the first quarter continued, the game got chippy. At around the 10-minute mark, Andy Reyes plowed into Tiguinho who hit the side boards with a thud. Both Fury teammates, Tiguinho joked afterward that they both wanted to show the crowd who was the best number 10 in the stadium. The first quarter ended with Toth saving his first shot of the match with five seconds to go and the game tied at 2-2.
In the concourse area, streams of fans hit the myriad of concessions during halftime. Families in Brazil jerseys, dads and grand-dads, tattoos of every shape and size, a mixed bag of ethnic backgrounds, all with smiles on their faces, crowded the hallways. The play in the first quarter was high-paced start to finish, and evenly matched. In the second quarter, the Brazilians and Americans could have exchanged jerseys and none would be wiser, as they closed with a score of 4-3, the Brazilians leading by a point.
Then the third quarter. Suddenly it was 7-3, Brazil. A fan traveling from Seattle could be heard exclaiming, “Toth is having an off night!” It certainly looked like it and his American teammates may have noticed it, too. With 6 minutes to go in the third, Matt Clare got the U.S. back in it with a laser of a shot. The crowd went wild and folks in the U.S. chanting section began beating a huge drum. Shortly after that, Brazilian goalie Rafael Dias who plays for Detroit’s Waza Flo, made a close-range save to deny the U.S. another goal, but did not get back up.
I feel the game could have gone either way, the difference was that they put the ball in the back of the net and we didn’t.
The game had gotten more physical as Brazil were showcasing the ball movement and skills characteristic of Brazilian football—intelligent, rapid, and unpredictable. With Dias on the ground, the crowd looked on in concern. Dias courageously got back up, clutching his head, as Carvalho was already coming on to the pitch to replace his compatriot. He left with a rousing round of applause from the 4,000-plus fans in attendance, and would in fact return later in the match with a bandage around his head.
With the match still at 7-4 in favor of the Brazil team, U.S.’s Nunez got a rare breakaway and an even rarer one-on-one with Carvalho. Nunez took the shot with a quick twist of the hips and scored, prompting deafening chants of “USA! USA! USA!” inside the arena. But as the action got faster and faster, team Brazil looked even more in control, poised as though they had been in that situation more than once. With age comes experience and in the last seconds of the third period, that experience showed when the ref awarded team USA with a penalty kick, the cause of which had many a media person scratching their head. But within the frenzy, Brazil’s Carvalho handily blocked the shot, closing the third with a 7-5 lead.
The fourth quarter resumed like a fast chess match with the Brazilians having a clear advantage. They knew team USA had to attack and no sooner were the crowds getting hopeful for a comeback, when Fury reserve player Gustavo Campos came out to score a goal for Brazil, giving them an 8-5 lead. The sense of urgency for the Americans was ratcheted up two or three notches, and gave way to a medley of power plays, blocked shots, heavy tackles, a multitude of fouls, and furious shots on goal.
… the Brazilian players referred to themselves as “Ontario locals” …
An intensity uniquely characteristic to indoor play. With two minutes left in the match, and three goals down, the Americans peppered the Brazilian goal with shot after shot after shot, only to have them denied time and again. The rollercoaster ride becomes a bumpercar ride and the action is end to end. The Brazilians responded by smartly de-escalating the pace, taking the ball to the outer edges of the arena and tiring out their opponents with simple and quick possession. The American’s never-say-die attitude was admirable as they fought to control the pace of the game, even to the last seconds of the fourth quarter. The fans, too, didn’t seem daunted by an almost impossible scoreboard, and urged their American heroes on.
When the ref blew his whistle, both teams stayed on the pitch to talk to fans and sign jerseys and take photographs. “I feel the game could have gone either way, the difference was that they put the ball in the back of the net and we didn’t,” Reyes said, who netted multiple goals for team USA. Despite the loss, the young star had nothing but praise for the event. “There’s too many favorite parts [of the match] but one is that I’m playing for my country and making the fans feel happy when we do things well … It was an incredible feeling this past Saturday when I scored those goals because I saw the fans just jump up and down.” Although playing for their home countries, the Brazilian players referred to themselves as “Ontario locals” and the sense that these players were just an integral part of the community as the outlet malls and airport was apparent. Both sides made up a football club that was for and part of the community, leaving even fans of the losing squad with smiles on their faces. For all the production put into the event, the unorthodox match-up of 40-year-old vets playing against talented teenagers, and a melange of international players, it was the kind of satisfying football event anyone could appreciate.