Gringo Report: American GKs eye minutes in South America
GUADALAJARA, Mexico – Young goalkeepers believe their position is an especially tricky one when it comes to breaking into the lineup.
There´s only ever one position in the first team up for grabs, those ahead of you are less likely to get injured than an outfield player and, if you do get in, you are unlikely to be gently blooded into the team: you're stuck between the goalposts and must either sink or swim.
That is what a trio of American goalkeepers in South America – Jimmy Maurer (Universidad de Concepción, Chile), Diego Restrepo (Deportivo Táchira, Venezuela) and Kevin Piedrahita (Itaguí, Colombia, pictured above) – are up against these days. All three are backup netminders for their respective teams and knocking on the door for first-team minutes.
It´s not been all smooth running, but they are all confident that the tide is starting to turn.
In Chile, Maurer joined Universidad de Concepción last January. Since then, he has undergone shoulder surgery that sidelined him for four months, but he has been back and fully fit for three weeks now and played 90 minutes in the Copa Chile last Wednesday. Universidad de Concepción won 1-0 against third-division opposition, but that was only the half of it.
“There was wind at about 30-40 miles an hour, pouring down rain,” Maurer told MLSsoccer.com recently from Chile. “When I´d kick the ball in the first half, it´d go over the other end line and when I´d kick it in the second half, it´d be about ten yards from the 18. Unbelievable.”
With his team dead last in Chile´s Clausura season, Maurer believes coach Yuri Fernández will chop and change the team to find a winning formula and has his fingers crossed that, as part of the changes, he can become the first American to start in Chile's top flight since Jonny Walker for Colo Colo in 2003.
“I feel like I´m pushing the starter,” he said. “Hopefully I get an opportunity in the league if I´m playing well in the Cup.”
Further north, Restrepo and Piedrahita were teammates at Colombian giants América de Cali until last December, when Restrepo left for Deportivo Táchira.
The former University of Virginia star struggled on arrival in Venezuela, admitting that maybe he wasn´t in peak condition and ended up playing mainly with the reserve side. To compensate, the 24-year-old forfeited a visit back to the States in the offseason to stay around the club and put the hours in at the gym, getting himself in tip-top condition ahead of the new season.
He thinks the sacrifice has paid off.
“For some reason, I feel like I´m playing really well right now and everyone is talking about it in the team and the coaches,” Restrepo said. “I was going to go on loan but they didn´t let me go.”
With both league and cup fixtures coming up for Táchira, Restrepo knows chances will come his way and that the key is impressing the coaches day in, day out. He admits, though, that life down south can be a challenge. The closest away game to Táchira, which is located in Venezuela´s interior, near the Colombian border, requires a six-hour bus ride.
“Even at UVa we traveled on buses that had beds and TVs on them,” he said. “Here you get none of that.”
That said, Restrepo looks on the bright side and says that one of the main reasons he chose to play in South America was to grow as a player and get that experience of professional life.
“I can tell you that my experience in América de Cali, that one year was probably equivalent to 10 years,” he said.
Piedrahita´s story is slightly different, as he was brought up in Colombia and was part of América de Cali´s youth system from an early age.
That association ended in late June, leaving a bitter taste in Piedrahita´s mouth as he was shunted down the pecking order last season at América and forced to move on to Itaguí – a small first-division side located close to Medellín.
“I wasn´t of the coach´s liking, he didn´t seem to trust me and they brought other players in,” lamented Piedrahita.
Things have been working out just fine so far for the 21-year-old at Itaguí, however, where he is currently the understudy to former Galatasaray ´keeper Rufay Zapata.
Piedrahita was thrust into his debut away against Atlético Nacional in early August with Zapata out injured, and he gave a man-of-the-match performance in his team´s 1-1 draw.
“It was very exciting playing against such an important opponent like Atlético Nacional, one of the big clubs [in Colombia],” explained the young Piedrahita. “But I was very relaxed, with confidence in my ability and in the work I've put in.”
The New York-born, Colombia-raised netminder then kept goal in his team´s 4-1 Cup win against Deportivo Tolima and a massive 1-0 win against Once Caldas, another one of Colombia´s biggest clubs.
“I´m conscious of the fact that the return of Zapata to the team means returning to the bench,” said Piedrahita, who was indeed a sub for his side´s last two games. “In time, I want to get the starting spot. This season is about taking advantage of the games that come my way.”
All three could be called into action at any time, but, for now, it´s a case of playing the waiting game for Maurer, Restrepo and Piedrahita.
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.