Athletics

Welcome to the Show

By Ben Badua

I. How We Got Here

Four-hundred and eighty miles from Amherst and just hours away from the Puerto Rican national team’s FIFA World Cup Qualifier with Canada, men’s soccer junior Brandon Saldana was doing all he could to keep his mind off the biggest game of his life. He walked around Toronto. He got a haircut and went to the top of the CN tower.

“I didn’t want anything to do with the game,” recalls Saldana. “That was the last thing I wanted to think about. I just wanted to clear my mind.”

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Photo Courtesy of Brandon Saldana

A reserve goalkeeper for the fifth-ranked Lord Jeffs, the Garden City, N.Y. native found himself on the verge of making his second international cap for El Huracan Azul, the culmination of a whirlwind week that began on an otherwise uneventful Tuesday night in the Pioneer Valley.

“I had a friend who played for Puerto Rico’s national team,” says Saldana. “Their starting goalie got injured and they were looking for a back-up and he called to tell me that the coach from the national team would be in touch to see if I was interested. Sure enough, I got the call and they were like, ‘We can fly you up at 10 in the morning.’”

Taking advantage of a rare off day in season, Amherst men’s soccer coach Justin Serpone was at a movie with his wife when Saldana first reached out to break the news.

“When I got out of the movie I had five missed calls from Brandon,” says Serpone. “I think he was nervous about what I would say because it was the week of our game with Williams, but I just told him I was happy for him. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He had to go and we supported him.”

With his coach’s blessing Saldana sent out a few emails to professors, friends and family before packing a bag and driving home to New York. By 10 a.m. Wednesday morning he was on a flight out of JFK to Puerto Rico. By 1 p.m. he arrived on the island, just in time for the squad’s training session.

II. Welcome To Puerto Rico

“When I got there, there were five goalies, myself included, some of whom were friends of friends that they’d flown in like me,” says Saldana. “That first practice, everyone was there. The media was filming the session trying to figure out who was going to start [in goal].”

Unfazed, Saldana performed well during Wednesday’s first practice and continued to impress during a second session later that evening. By the end of two more practices on Thursday, he’d firmly established himself as a viable option in net for Friday night’s game against St. Kitts and Nevis.

With camp having started on Sunday and the hotel rooms all booked out by the time of his mid-week arrival, Saldana had to room with one of the squad’s assistant coaches in the Bayamon professional team’s housing facilities.

“It was 11 p.m. on Thursday and I was talking to one of the assistants who I was rooming with,” says Saldana. “He asked me if the goal coach had told me yet and I was like, ‘told me what?’ and he was like, ‘I think you’re going to start, so be ready.’”

During Friday morning’s training session, Puerto Rico’s goalkeeper coach let Saldana know that a starter would be named at gametime. Sitting in the locker room just before pregame warm-ups, it became official.

“He pulled me aside and said, ‘you’re going to go tonight,’” says Saldana. “I was kind of expecting it after the other assistant slipped me the news the night before, but you never know. It was nuts. I called everyone from the locker room - my parents, my friends at Amherst and Coach Serpone.”

With his headphones on, Saldana patiently sat in the locker room waiting for the team to be walked out onto the field, coming to grips with the realization that he’d be representing his country in a World Cup Qualifier.

“I was going to play for the national team against another country,” recalls Saldana. “Walking out onto the field there were 2-3,000 people there. It was a hometown crowd and everyone was flipping out. There was so much going on. It was like sensory overload.”

Tuning out the crowd, Saldana helped Puerto Rico earn a somewhat disappointing 1-1 draw, tempering the excitement of an otherwise memorable evening.

“We came out thinking we were going to win,” says Saldana. “But we really dropped the ball and we were questioning ourselves. Not only did we not meet our expectations, but there were 2,000 people in Puerto Rico that lost confidence in us after that game.”

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Photo Courtesy of Brandon Saldana

III. Reality Check

Despite the residual doubt from a lukewarm result, Saldana and his teammates had little time to dwell on their shortcomings, with a match-up against heavily favored Canada looming on the horizon. Hoping to regroup, the team was back training on Saturday. After playing well enough during Friday night’s tie, Saldana looked to once again be penciled in as the game’s starter - until he injured his ankle in practice.

“I hurt myself in practice earlier in the day, then we had a 3 a.m. drive to the airport for a flight to Canada,” says Saldana. “I honestly thought I wasn’t going to be able to play. I couldn’t walk [on the ankle] when we arrived in Toronto.”

Over the next couple of days, Saldana’s injury subsided, as did the team’s lingering doubt. The trip was now about taking advantage of an opportunity, about making noise against an overwhelming favorite and about the team making a name for itself. As Saldana had risen from relative obscurity to a starring role on the world stage, so could his team (if only for a night).

“We knew we were going to be playing against professionals,” says Saldana. “They were ranked 89th in the world and we were 145th, but we were still confident.”

“Monday night after practice, my coach told me I was going to start,” says Saldana. “They, along with the trainers thought I was going to be fine. The only thing I hadn’t done was strike the ball with my right foot. I was full-on diving, shuffling and everything during training. Monday, I started to hit a few and I was crushing them. I felt good. I was ready and so was our team.”

IV. Game Day

Waking that Tuesday morning in Toronto, an anxious Saldana didn’t want to do anything. Today, it was a certainty that he was going to start. He needed to clear his mind and so he took a sight-seeing stroll around the city and got a quick haircut.

By 3 p.m., he was off to the team meal as the clock clicked down toward the 7 p.m. kick-off at BMO Field.

Stepping off the team bus at the stadium, Saldana and his teammates were greeted by a cascade of jeers. People were lined up on both sides of their walk, screaming at them. It was a complete departure from anything he’d ever known.

“The volume was turned up,” says Saldana. “The atmosphere was a lot more intense. During pregame the stadium wasn’t even full yet, but there were still 4,000-plus people there. You could hear them, especially behind the net.”

Spotting a pair of familiar faces 10 rows up at midfield, Saldana caught a brief glimpse of his mother and grandmother. Unable to fly down to Puerto Rico with his father last Friday, they’d made the trip up north to see him play. He just wasn’t in a position to say hello with the biggest game of his life about to start.

“I was 100 percent focused on what I had to do,” says Saldana. “We had a gameplan that we had to execute and our pregame was more focused. I tried to just tune everything out.”

Standing with his teammates for introductions and the playing of the national anthem, Saldana was mere minutes away from his second international cap. Wanting to escape the pressure of the moment, he turned to a teammate next to him and struck up a conversation about nothing. How many games is this for you? Where else do you play? Having just met everyone days prior (and not even knowing everybody’s last name) he had plenty of fodder for small talk.

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Photo Courtesy of Brandon Saldana

V. Round Two

Out on the field, Saldana turned his attention to the task at hand, relying on the skills that have carried him so far.

“At the beginning of every game I like to pick out who I have to watch for,” says Saldana. “Only this time it was a little different. I look out and there’s Julian de Guzman from Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC and Dwayne de Rosario from DC United. These guys are professionals. They do this for a living. It got to the point where I thought to myself, ‘Ok. So basically just watch out for their whole team.’”

Watch out he did. Playing behind a conservative 4-5-1, Saldana and the Puerto Rican backline smothered the Canadian attack, absorbing the onslaught with a fluid, cohesive defensive effort. Leading the way was the squad’s vocal imported keeper, who never stopped talking.

“Our gameplan was defense,” says Saldana. “Canada was overwhelmingly better. We weren’t going to go at them. I didn’t go a 10-second block without talking to my centerback, saying watch this guy or that guy.”

As time ticked by, El Huracan Azul found itself mired in a defensive struggle and locked in a scoreless tie, led by an ever-confident Saldana, who looked to be settling in. Intent on keeping everything in front of him, he even went as far as egging on the hostile crowd by raising his arms before a goal-kick.

“Every time I’d look up there were thousands of people screaming at me,” says Saldana. “You can take that one of two ways. You can embrace it or you can be beaten by it. I decided to have fun with it. I’m the youngest player of the team, a reserve goalkeeper in Division III and now I’m playing in World Cup Qualifiers. The last thing I wanted to do was seem like I wasn’t confident.”

Following a scoreless first half, the prospect of earning a result against the heavily favored Canadians became increasingly likely. In the 55th minute, Canada’s Simeon Jackson, who plays for the English Premier League’s Norwich City, cut in on goal, testing Saldana with a hard shot that forced the Lord Jeff to quickly react for a save.

Ten minutes later Saldana was again under pressure, this time coming off his line to stop a Josh Simpson try from point blank range after the Canadian (who plays professionally in Turkey) intercepted an errant back-pass. Saldana came up big one final time in the 81st minute, smothering a charging Tosaint Ricketts’ shot to keep Puerto Rico level.

“It was like taking a test,” says Saldana. “I was dialed in for 90 minutes. There was no time for me to enjoy it.”

Finishing the game with four saves, El Huracan Azul’s unlikely starting goalkeeper led his team to an even more unlikely 0-0 draw against the qualifying group’s top squad, which had outscored its previous three opponents by a 14-1 margin.

VI. Forever Etched

Saldana met his mom in the front row of the stands and kissed her on the cheek. She told him she was proud of him, even though the 12,178 people in red and white around her may not have been. In the locker room there was champagne and congratulations.

“It was surreal walking off the field,” says Saldana. “It was David vs. Goliath. They had just beaten us 3-0 convincingly at home a month earlier. Then we went up to their place and in a way left them doubting themselves. I was floating. It was amazing.”

Saldana’s coaches told him to expect another call. He will make an encore appearance for El Huracan Azul in November for a pair of games against St. Lucia. Now back at Amherst, Saldana can get back to helping the Lord Jeffs pursue a NESCAC and NCAA Championship.

“I did what every athlete wants to do, which is play at the highest level that you can,” says Saldana. “You play the game so that you can be challenged and to get the opportunity to prove yourself at the next level. It was nice to have that experience and know that I could do it.”