American Challenge Cup (Episode 4 – Shep: Managerial Globetrotter)

There’s plenty of positives to cover the cracks. For now.

“I totally get it” I sympathetically smile as the words leave my mouth. “Only you know if the time’s right, you know your body better than any physio. Just make sure you give it your all until you hang up your boots at the end of the season.”

Delgado looks at me blankly with an awkward expression on his face. We both look to Ricardo as a cue for him to translate. As he speaks in Spanish to Delgado, the need to learn the language pokes it’s head out of the back of the mind. I can’t go far with this team without at least a loose grasp of Spanish. Ricardo’s not so subtle budge snaps me out of my thought process. I stand up and reach out to shake Luis’ hand.

“Muche merde Luis.” He responds in a similar manner before backing out my office. With Delgado retiring at the end of season and multiple players in the final year of their contract, the way this club has been run seems to be a bit of a mess. Even when disregarding the whole loan situation, vital players such as Gabby Gomez and Perez have less than 12 months to go. While they are obviously important, they still need to earn a new contract like everyone else.

Anyways, the American Challenge Cup. Held in Mexico, it’s a bi-annual affair composed of two groups. After each team in both groups have played each other, the top two teams advance into the semis then the finals. It’s fair to say pretty standard stuff in comparison to the Primera A. I’m excited for this tournament as not only is it good practice and a learning experience for both me and the lads, but the champions could walk away with a healthy reward of around £1’200’000. This would literally double our transfer budget as Oscar has informed me any winnings will go straight into our transfer budget. On top of that, winning a tournament like this in a foreign country could boost brand exposure. To summarise, a good showing in this will undoubtedly be a big boost for a club like us.

Now who will we be facing I hear you ask? We’ve been drawn into a ‘unfavourable’ group. We will face Club Universidad Nacional (U.N.A.M), Tijuana and Atlas. For those unclear, these are all Mexican sides so my plans of exposing ourselves to a foreign following may go down the drain if we beat the hometown clubs. We play Atlas first, followed by Tijuana and close the group stage against U.N.A.M.

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In the other group, Argentinos Juniors join us as the only other South American club. I feel like there’s no need to mention where they are from. They will play the final Mexican team in Veracruz and will also be matched up against the San Jose Earthquakes and Colorado Rapids from the MLS. As cringeworthy as the American club names are, I wouldn’t mind playing a game against either of them. It would be a welcome bonus to converse to some native English speakers, even if they spell and say almost everything wrong.

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While on our short flight north, the fixture list for the Apetura is announced. Our first game is away to Deportivo Pasto while our first game as hosts will be against our third game of the season against Deportivo Cali. February is looking like a difficult month as we play Santa Fe, Nacional, America da Cali AND Junior. That’s four of the five teams who are strong odds to finish in the top eight. Our final game of the Apetura isn’t an easy one either as we welcome Independiente Medellin to the Estadio Alfonso Lopez.

Before lights out in our hotel, Caballero knocks on my door asking me to consider him for the Atlas game. I’m eager to get to bed as it’s been a tiring day so I sleepily nod my head and shut the door. He’s 100% not playing but my man management has to start somewhere and a few white lies can’t hurt.

The reason he’s 100% not playing is because I’m going with exact same eleven me and Ricardo noted a week ago. Delgado in goal with a centre back partnership of Torres and Gonzalez. Harold Gomez on the right and Rodriguez on the left. Captain Gabby Gomez commands from holding midfield while Cardenas and Quintero are either side of him. Salazar starts behind our attacking duo of Romero and Rangel. I’m tempted to call them Rolls Royce, due to their initials, but the last thing this dressing room needs is me trying to shoehorn in another English phrase. They struggled with ‘put a name on it’ for Christ sake.

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Just 4 minutes in, we’re looking lively as Marlon Torres out-jumps Trejo and nods his clearance to Quintero. He flicks a header of his own on to Rangel who squares to Romero. Calderon pushes out of the Atlas line to close down, leaving Quintero space on the near touchline. He controls before placing a deep ball for Salazar to head back across goal and clip the post. Quintero can’t reach the rebound as it’s booted clear upfield. Positive signs so far.

Not even 10 minutes later, we’ve got them on the back foot as Cardenas intercepts a Gouea ball forward . He takes an awful touch which manages to work out as a pass to Gomez who turns and drills the ball to Quintero. Neat one touch passing from him and Romero leaves Rangel 1-on-1. He keeps his cool and whips a shot round the keeper for my first goal as Bucaramanga manager. I leap up and fist pump the air as he wheels off to celebrate. It may look like over-reacting on my end but this tournament could be huge for us. I’m going to take every goal as if it was a goal in the league. Great build up and a tidy finish from Rangel. 1-0.

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Atlas come right back at us as in the 17th minute, Vigon collects a loose ball and passes to Trejo. He spins and lays off Reyes who connects well with the shot but it just skews wide of the near post. This chance seems to help Atlas spring into life as they really start dominating the game after that. After about 10 minutes of solid possession, a really nice passing move from them accumulates to a Trejo snapshot hitting the side netting. It looks like Delgado had it covered but you can only handle this level of pressure for so long before you get punished.

In the 33rd minute, we defy the odds and actually double our advantage. Aguirre clears a Salazar cross but only as far as Gomez. He holds off Reyes after a difficult first bounce and plays a one-two with Quintero on the edge of the box. Our captain wastes no time as he caresses the ball into the bottom right to make it 2-0. It’s a very good time to score as Atlas were really growing into the game. If we keep it like this until the break, I’ll be over the moon.

The final chance of the first half comes from an in-swinging corner from Cardenas. Gonzalez climbs at the front post but the keeper scrambles across goal to palm clear. The ref blows his whistle shortly after and brings a close to what’s been a very solid Bucaramanga half. Atlas may have held the majority of the ball but they keep trying diagonal balls over to their wingers which Harold and Fabio have been heading away for fun. I internally debate whether to leave the team as it is but decide to make the one change with Nunez replacing Salazar for the second half.

We keep pushing for more goals not long after kick off when a ball over the top from Cardenas is cut out by Aguirre. However, Rangel uses his strength to budge him off balance and shoot but a great reflex save from Hernandez denies him a brace. Atlas aren’t disheartened however as in the 56th minute, Reyes, Trejo and Vigon exchange passes fluently before Trejo strikes from just inside the box. He beats Delgado but the ball rattles the underside of the crossbar before Rodriguez can clear. I can’t help but feel lucky.

With 25 minutes to go, we win a throw in at the halfway line. Fabio takes and Cardenas delightfully flicks the ball over his head with his knee onto Rangel. Michael shields the ball until Fabio overlaps. He looks up and plays a ball round the back for Romero. A lucky bounce off his standing foot makes Aguirre misstep but there’s no luck involved in the strike as Sergio laces the ball across Hernandez into the bottom right for our third. After the celebration, Rovira and Vallecilla come on for Cardenas and Harold Gomez retrospectively.

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Another double change follows five minutes later when Mojica and Palacios take to the field. Gabby Gomez is applauded off the pitch by the away fans and even a few Atlas fans. He’s been magnificent today. We change to a 4-2-3-1 with a defensive focus for the remaining 20 minutes. My final change shortly follows with Perez replacing Man of the Match Romero.

Atlas do manage to pull one back 10 minutes from time with another swift passing move. Reyes dinks a ball into Vigon who wraps his boot round a volley that nestles into the bottom right. Delgado’s clean sheet is gone but it’s a great way to lose it. A scuffed Perez chance in added time is the last chance of the game in what’s been a great first performance. I have a couple worries about the fitness of this team as some players were tired after 70 minutes but overall, there’s plenty of positives to cover the cracks. For now.

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The other game in our group between Tijuana and U.N.A.M finished 2-1 to the former, meaning a win over them in two days time will most likely progress us into the knockout semi-finals.

My first and only port of call in our sole day off is listing Jose Jaimes up for loan. Apparently, there’s rules in South America regarding immediate transfers of players signed in the same window. This mean Cabellero can’t be loaned out and Pernia can’t be sold until the summer. Which is great.

For our game against Tijuana, I basically want to start our second team a.k.a most of the players who came off the bench against Atlas. Ramos gets the nod in goal in his turn to show me why he deserves to start. Palacios replaces Gonzalez next to Torres with the full backs retaining their places. Rovira comes in for Quintero despite his solid performance last time out. Nunez partners Rangel up top as I’m interested to see how the typical big man, little man partnership works.

*Meta-Note: I upped the difficulty from this game on to Ultimate as the Atlas game felt too easy.*

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It takes a little longer for the first chance of this game as it’s the 10th minute when Rovira releases Nunez down the far side. He cut backs and crosses to the edge where Rovira arrives to volley a few yards over. Shortly after, Tijuana are the ones attacking when Gamiz cuts out a Salazar pass and finds Lucero upfield. A lovely first time pass behind for Angulo is followed up by a low ball across the face of goal which forces a strong save from Ramos.

In the 24th minute, Rangel passes to Nunez who manages to hold off the defender well despite being vertically challenged. He plays a reverse ball for Rovira who is through on goal. He bombs forward but with the defender catching, he has to shoot from around 20 yards out. He catches it well but it just rises over the bar. Half an hour in, we do break the deadlock when Palacios puts in a brilliant challenge on Lucero before switching the play to Salazar. He plays a nice give and go with Rangel which creates the space to float a ball into the middle where Cardenas leaps high to power a header home. 1-0 to the good.

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In the second minute of added time, the ref is glancing at his watch as Rodriguez hoofs the ball forward. Rangel takes it down nicely and tries a chipped ball over for Nunez. Munoz gets there first but his poor touch allows Nunez to burst round him and take the ball towards goal. He holds Munoz at an arms length before slotting the ball into the bottom left. I sit back with the smuggest grin on my face as Nunez is mobbed and hugged by his team-mates.

As the lads trail in at half-time, I wait at the door until they are all seated before putting both thumbs up. “Bueno.” I mutter. “Moy bueno! Brillante, perfecto!” The players look side to side worringly as I stop. I rearrange my tie and clear my throat. “Ricardo, tell them to do the exact same again please.”

A few minutes into the second half, a great block from Gabby Gomez is followed up by a questionable parry out for a corner from Ramos. It’s whipped in to Topo who lost his marker in Salazar but Ramos gets down quickly to push it out for another corner. It comes to nothing as it’s punched out by Ramos. With half an hour to go, I take both Harold and Gabby Gomez off with Gonzalez and Quintero taking to the field. Quintero doesn’t take long to make an impact as he curls a lovely ball round the back for Salazar with his first touch but the shot is a poor one.

In the 65th minute, we win a corner which Nunez goes over to take. He puts a pinpoint ball to the front post where Gonzalez climbs and flicks past the flailing arms of the keeper. That was way too easy for him to extend our already comfortable lead in what must only be his second or third touch of the match. Romero and Perez replace Rangel and Salazar before the game restarts.

Tijuana’s frustration really shows as they have a number of desperate long distance efforts sail high and wide over the next 15 minutes until one is deflected away for a corner. The intital cross is headed up into the air by Romero but the second ball is nodded goalwards by Castillo. Gonzalez sprints across the goal-line and heroically leaps to block a certain goal with his head. He glances over as the ball is in the air to lock eyes and nod his head in a ‘I know that was cool’ manner. Love that from Dairin.

The penultimate minute of normal time sees the final chance of the game as Ramos holds onto his clean sheet with an outstanding low save from a driven strike. The game finishes 3-0 and it’s another great performance. We actually had a lower amount of shots and less possession but we scored our 3 shots on target. Clinical stuff from the lads with all areas of the pitch chipping into the goal tally. I really liked the Rangel and Nunez partnership, they linked up well. But it will be hard to ignore Romero’s performance against Atlas. Decisions, decisions.

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Elsewhere, U.N.A.M and Atlas play out a 1-1 draw meaning that we are guaranteed to advance into the knockout stages. This really gives me the freedom to play any fringe players and experiment with the line-up.

The first incoming transfer offer of the window comes from Turkish Super Lig side Trabzonspor for Jhon Perez. They offer £700’000 which is a lot of money but we can’t afford to lose him for under his value. My million pound counter offer is rejected so negotiations are closed.

Palacios asks to keep his place in the team and I happily oblige as I’m planning on playing him regardless. The game against U.N.A.M. is going to be my 4-3-3 play-time. Ramos is in goal after impressing me much more than Delgado did. Aguirre is on the bench as I intend to play him in the second half. Quinones starts with Vallecilla on the left of defence while the right half of defence against Tijuana remain. Quintero is our captain for the day as Gomez isn’t starting. Jimenez partners him with Mojica in front of them both as an attacking midfielder. Asprilla’s out on the left, Filigrana’s on the right and Romero is the lone striker. It sounds like he’s isolated when worded that way but Mojica, Asprilla and Filigrana are encouraged to overlap and intertwine to avoid just that. On paper, we’ll look like the triple threat at Liverpool but let’s hope it works out like that in execution.

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It’s a bit of a slow burner as the first 20 minutes are mainly a midfield battle but on cue, Mojica collects a poor Cabrera pass which bounces to Rangel. He does well to wait before slotting Mojica in 1 on 1. The ball is a touch too heavy but Mojica gets there first, only to be denied by the onrushing palm of Magana. It deflects back to Mojica off Quintero’s stomach and he taps home but celebrations are cut short as the offside flag is raised so the goal is disallowed. It’s the correct call from the linesman but it would have set us up nicely if he got that one wrong.

Five minutes later, a textbook slide tackle straight out of the 80’s from Harold Gomez wins possession. He follows it up nicely as he plays a long ball all the way over for Quintero of all players to run onto but Cesar drills his shot off the bar. The last action of the half is worrying as Romero stays down holding his shoulder after challenging for a header. He insists he can play on but Rangel takes his place as a precaution. Sergio seems a bit ticked off but I’d hate for him to aggravate it more or hinder the team in any way. As he walks off with one of the physios, I stress about the thought of losing him through injury. He’s looked great so far and with only one fit striker, I’d have to change my game plan for the entire season.

It’s scoreless after what’s been a pretty quiet half of football. While nobody has exactly done anything wrong, I make a triple change with Gonzalez, Rodriguez and Gabby Gomez replacing Quintero, Harold Gomez and Palacios. I’m hoping the fresh legs at the back of the pitch will keep us one step ahead defensively.

Well that fucking backfired. U.N.A.M’s corner after a Gonzalez block is put in to the front post. The header from Alustriza hits the woodwork but Hernandez reacts first to stab home and give them the lead. You would think I’d be frustrated but with it being the first time going 1-0 down, I’m intrigued to see how the team reacts and tries to get back into the game.

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The answer is they don’t. The rest of the match is all U.N.A.M. A particular spell between the 70th and the 75th minute highlights some defensive frailties as Ramos has to bring out a series of outstanding saves. Shortly after, a venomous strike from Barrera dents the post. Aguirre tugs on my trousers like an upset toddler reminding me he should have played the second half. I mutter ‘siento’ apologetically while I notify the fourth offical. He finishes the game in goal with Mojica also coming on for Cardenas in the last 10 minutes.

We do have one last chance to snatch a point in the 90th minute when Jimenez sprays a long ball out wide from the center circle. Asprilla turns on the burners to catch the ball and keep it in touch. He puts a decent ball in between the two centre backs for Filigrana to meet but his header glances a couple yards wide. The ref brings the game to a close immediately after and I sigh a defeated sigh. We’ve lost our first game but at least the scoreline was respectable. We really challenged in the first half but couldn’t pick ourselves up after going down early in the second half. Overall however, we can enter the knockout stages with our heads held high.

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Tijuana beat Atlas 2-1 in the other fixture but due to our superior goal difference, we go through top of the group.

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Veracruz topped their group undefeated while our next opponents Colorado Rapids also took 6 points. In all honestly, I would have rather we came second as I think the Rapids are a stronger side but we need a big challenge sooner or later, and I did say I wanted to play one of the MLS teams at some point. I’m not really sure what I want to be honest. Except a win. I want a win.

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In eagerly awaited news, Romero has only bruised his shoulder and will be out for just under a week. A wave of relief is an understatement. He may even be safe to come off the bench if we reach the final. In arguably even better news, Alvarez contacts me to let me know that £310’000 is available as a reward from the tournament organisers for reaching the knockouts. This brings up our total transfer kitty around £1’600’000 now so we’ll definitely look into the market once we’re back in Colombia.

During preparation for our semi-final, Ricardo pulls me aside to tell me he’s signed me an agent. I appreciate the gesture until he walks round the corner. I can only describe him as flamboyant. Arms swinging, wide grin, over-exaggerated movements. This guy can only be from one place.

“Ahh, bonjour!” Of course he’s French. During the small intervals he stopped talking, I managed to find out his name is Pierre Pinot. You really couldn’t make it up. From his short monologue, he seems to be quite ‘head in the clouds’. Talking about managing the biggest clubs and even international management one day. He might help me get better contracts at some point however I decide to play along. If he thinks he’s helping me, chances are he will actually help me at some point. Even if it’s by accident.

Game day arrives and I’ve decided my experiment with wide players was a bit of a flop. It wasn’t catastrophic and I envision a time in which it will return but for now, we go back to our normal formation. Delgado is back in goal despite Ramos impressing in the last two matches. Our strongest line of defence is available so all of them are playing. Rovira comes in for Salazar with Cardenas playing further forward. Rangel and Nunez are together again up front. I thought those two would be trying to score past ex-Everton veteran Tim Howard but he’s on the bench today.

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10 minutes in, a Torres clearance header is picked up by Boateng who plays it forward to Acosta. He can play a simple pass into the box and even though Delgado comes out to close down the angle, Giles Barnes manages to slot it under his arm and into the back of the net. 1-0 Rapids.

Another ten minutes pass before the next chance when Torres heads another cross away but this time, it drops straight to Cardenas. He turns away from Nicholson at speed and finds Nunez around 25 yards out. He sets himself before blasting a dipping shot onto the post. Harold Gomez is there first for the rebound but he scuffs it miles over the bar. A couple minutes later, Nunez is the provider when he puts a cross towards the box. It’s a poor cross in all fairness but Rangel runs back on himself to half volley an effort towards the top corner. Macmeth casually plucks the ball out the air and holds to slow our new found momentum.

The final 10 minutes of the first 45 are hectic ones. In the 36th minute, a deft flick on from Barnes lets Gashi run wide and put a ball into the danger zone for Nicholson to nod over Delgado and double their lead. Not even five minutes pass before they get a third as Hairston threads Nicholson down the near side. He plays a little chip to the front post where Barnes is there to flick on after Harold mis-times his leap. Delgado spreads himself to block but the ball deflects off the inside of his elbow and in to put us 3-0 down. It really isn’t our day at all.

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Or is it? Right from the restart, Cardenas takes off on a weaving run and finds himself out wide. He even manages to put a good cross into the box where Gabby Gomez awaits but the ball bounces off his head into the side netting. I would give him the benefit of the doubt and say it was an unusual heading technique but he literally stood still and let it hit his forehead. I tiresomely look to Rangel as that’s where he should be, that’s where he’s been thriving in training drills. He would have finished that nine times out of ten.

I try to express my disgust at the first half performance but I can’t. I could easily rip into them in English. Tell them Stevie Wonder would have seen more passes, tell them a paraplegic would have made better movements, a number of witty insults listed in my mind but these fuckers have to speak Spanish.

“Mierda!” I shout into an eerily silent changing room. Ricardo even jumps slightly as I erupt. I point a finger at Delgado. “Meirda!” My finger drags over to Harold Gomez. “Meirda!” I cover the entire team with one fluent wag of my finger. “Muy mierda! Ricardo, tell them the changes on this sheet while I go and puncture my eyeballs with a pen.” My assistant smiles, presumably not understanding the severity of my last sentence, and begins to speak as I turn and walk out the room.

Ricardo should have told them to take up a 4-2-3-1 for the second half with the aim of a constellation goal and minimising embarrassment. Asprilla replaces Quintero, Nunez moves out to the right while Cardenas remains behind Rangel. As the lads run past me out onto the pitch, the phrase ‘cero-cero’ echoes after them. We might be in Spain but a first half as shit as that needs a Sunday league catchphrase.

Things are looking much better as we control the play and put pressure on the Colorado defenders for the first 10 minutes of the second half. But we get shot back down to earth in the 56th minute as a Wynne ball from inside his own 18 yard box is flicked on by Hairston. Nicholson chases and crosses to Gashi who thunders a header into the very top right corner. Four fucking nil and, not to point fingers, but it’s Harold Gomez at fault again. A ball from that far back should not be catching him out. Vallecilla replaces him out of frustration. Salazar also comes on for Cardenas.

In the 63rd minute, Nunez tracks back and bullies Castillo off the ball on the half way line. He passes to Rangel who evades Acosta’s slide with a nice drag back and plays into Asprilla. He runs across the centre backs and nips past Wynne’s challenge before smashing home. It’s a cracking goal but at 4-1, it’s surely too late for a comeback.

With 20 minutes left, I decide to go all out and change to 3-4-1-2 with Perez, Jeferson Torres and Palacios all being subbed on.

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A few minutes later, a game of head tennis in the Rapid’s midfield is interrupted by Salazar. Nunez gathers the loose ball and plays Rangel down the right hand side. He squares it back for Nunez once level with the 6 yards box but another breath-taking save from Macmeth denies us a second goal. The ball is parried out to Perez who does well to hit the ball low and hard but again, Macmeth somehow gets across to hold the ball before it crosses the line. Even I have to applaud that, outstanding goalkeeping.

The game sizzles out from there and as a result, it finishes 4-1. It was a really poor first half followed by an above average second half. I’m disappointed to leave the tournament and Mexico in this way but Colorado Rapids deserved the victory. If they play like they did in the first half in the final, they’ll lift the trophy themselves.

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On the bright side, another £440’000 tops up our transfer funds taking our total to around £2’000’000. As well as an extra three quarters of a million, we’ve got an invaluable learning experience which is always welcome. A few players, such as Asprilla, have really shone while others have let me down. But we’re only four games into what’s going to be a long and lengthy season. We fly back to Colombia with our first game in 11 days and a somewhat subdued spring in our step. Bring it on.

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