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Lincoln's Bacon fondly recalls soccer trip to South Africa

April 15, 2014

Jack Bacon

LINCOLN – Avid readers of this newspaper may remember the graphic photo tucked into the upper left corner of the front page back on Nov. 10, 2013.

Photographer Ernest A. Brown captured the shot of Lincoln High goalie Jack Bacon laying in front of his own net, obviously pained at the devastating occurrence seconds before.

There on the Rhode Island College soccer field in the championship tilt of the R.I. Division II Tournament, the Lions and Toll Gate High were involved in a dramatic shootout, and – with it knotted at 3-3 – it was up to Bacon to stop Zach Bromage's final attempt.

The tall, athletic keeper had figured Bromage would try to beat him to his right, and dove in that direction upon contact. The Titan, however, ripped a hard grounder to Bacon's left, and it resulted in Toll Gate's incredible 4-3 triumph and stunning 1-0 upset of the tourney's top-ranked team.

“I guessed the wrong way,” Bacon shrugged recently. “That's why I was laying there. It was total heartbreak. Everyone tells you that when it comes to a shootout, the goalie is at a complete disadvantage.
“But when you're out there, and you know everything's riding on you, whether you stop a shot or not,” he added. “I didn't. You can't help but criticize yourself when you don't make the save. The first few weeks afterward, my teammates and friends would come up and say it wasn't anybody's fault, but I didn't think so.”

He admitted that was one of the most dismal, upsetting moments of his athletic career, despite the fact being a mainstay in Lincoln's fabulous run to the title tilt and final 14-2-2 record.

That image has rolled like a movie reel through his mind time after time, though it has weakened over the ensuing months; Bacon remained steadfast in his desire to improve, and he did – as a member of the New England Football Club's Under-17 squad, a U.S. Youth Soccer Association-affiliated organization which trains in Marlboro, Mass.

Now, just five months later, the current LHS junior is on top of the world, so to speak. On March 31, he returned from one of the most glorious experiences of his young life – that is, representing the USYSA Select '97 (Under-17) team at the prestigious Future Champions Gauteng Cup in Johannesburg, South Africa.
“Compared to the best in Rhode Island, or the best I face playing for the NEFC, those guys were like professionals,” Bacon grinned. “Then again, they are professionals. They're called 'Academy' teams, meaning they live together; eat, sleep and train together. They were like the Russian/Soviet hockey teams of the 1970s and '80s.

“I know some of them were waiting to turn professional right after they turn 18,” he continued. “That's what international rules permit. They were that good.”

***

Bacon, 16, claimed his climb to competing at an international setting came as a result of registering for the NEFC program over a year ago.

“I was looking for a place where players and coaches were more serious about the sport, competing and winning,” he said non-chalantly. “Playing just high school soccer wasn't enough, and – nowadays, for most guys – it isn't.

“I was offered a spot on the NEFC Under-17 Elite team, and that was great!” he added.

Not long after, in the late winter/spring of 2013, he had been selected to the Rhode Island U-17 Select squad, and it traveled to the Region 1 Olympic Development Program tourney at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J. in June.

There he would face some of the premier U-17 clubs representing 16 states between Maine and West Virginia, and the Ocean Staters finished with a 1-1-1 mark after a victory over West Virginia (3-1), a scoreless deadlock with Connecticut and a 1-0 loss to gritty Virginia.

“That was the best any Rhode Island boys team had done in over 10 years,” Bacon stated.

Because of his successes in New Jersey, officials invited Bacon to the Region 1 tryout camp at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania in July.

“There were over 300 kids there, and 30 goalkeepers,” he noted. “I knew some of them from playing ODP against them. I wasn't nervous; instead I was confident in my technical abilities and organizational skills, including communicating with the back four.

“My thinking in Kutztown was to not be concerned with who was watching me during a game because it would affect the way I would play. “I was just thinking that I should step out onto the field, stick to know what I know and play at the highest level possible without worrying what the coaches thought.”

Offered his dad, John: “I talked to Jack about it, and he told me he didn't really know anybody down there, but I did get the feeling he knew what this was all about. I think his mind-set was, 'I'm just going to do the best I can and hope the coaches think the same.

“Jack has never been afraid to get out of his comfort zone,” he continued. “When he decided he wanted to play for NEFC, he didn't know anyone except for a few guys he played against. It still was the kind of program he wanted to play for.”

The younger Bacon learned on July 31 he had been “called back” to the Region 1 Select (or All-Star) pool, made up of 40 players.

“He came home for three days, and then he had to go back for four more of competition,” explained his father, who's a regional sales manager for a refrigeration company based out of Wisconsin. “I had to drive him back and forth to Pennsylvania twice inside of 10 days.

“I had to take some vacation time because Jack wasn't driving yet, and that was tough, but my supervisors were great about it,” he added. “They knew my son was an established soccer player, and that I just wanted the best for Jack. The good news was he found out he made the Region 1 Select team on Sept. 1.

“The USYSA takes a break from September to November so the kids can represent their high school teams; in early December, he received an e-mail saying Jack would go with the Region 1 team to ODP Interregional Tournament in Bradenton, Fla.”

***

That was held Dec. 13-15, and Bacon recalled Region 1 assembled a solid run, taking second of the four teams nationwide with another 1-1-1 mark.

Bacon's club lost to Region 2 (the Southeast),1-0, on penalty kicks, though he wasn't between the pipes. He, however, was during a 2-2 stalemate with Region 3 (Midwest) and again during its 1-0 triumph over Region 4 (West).

During those two starts, he surrendered just two goals in four 40-minute halves, and he admitted being mighty pleased with his collective performance.

“I felt like I commanded the box, and I made some key saves when the team needed me to,” he stated. “I was psyched! It was the first time I had ever competed at the national level, but I knew Region 1 was usually one of the most successful.”

Fast forward to March 1, a night neither Bacon nor his dad will ever forget.

“I pulled up an e-mail late that night; it came from Carla Nastri, the national team advisor,” the elder smiled. “It said that Jack had made the USYSA Select '97 team that would be traveling to South Africa to attend the Future Champions Gauteng (pronounced how-TANG) Cup. I knew it was the most prestigious Under-17 tournament in the world, so I was elated.

“They had CC'd me the note, but I was on a flight to Madison, Wisc. for work; once I got off the plane, I immediately called Jack,” he continued. “I was shocked. At the same time, I knew they were selecting a team to go to the tournament, but because it was so close to the departure date, I assumed he didn't make it.”

Recalled Jack, who at LHS maintains a 3.8 GPA: “I had been texting with the other keeper, who lives in New Jersey, previously. His name is Alec Lam, and he's a great guy. He told me he thought, based on what we did in Florida, it would be him and me.

“When I heard from my dad, I immediately told my step dad because Mom was asleep, but I was too shocked to do anything else. It really did come as a surprise; it had nothing to do with me thinking I wasn't good enough, but that that the team was scheduled to leave in two or three weeks. I thought the team had been picked.

“Still, I had problems sleeping that night; I mean, I was going to join the National team, and thought, 'God, I'm going to South Africa!” he added. “I had been to England once and Florida a few times, but that's it. I was wondering what it was going to be like, the leap in level of play from national to international, but also what the people would be like.”

***

The Bacon father-son tandem left for New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport at about 4 a.m. on Friday, March 21 to meet with the squad, and they flew 11 hours to Dubai, then another eight to Johannesburg.

“The flights were long and tiresome,” he said of the 22-hour combined confinement, noting he spent his time watching movies such as “Frozen” and “American Hustle” and studying.

“We were doing anything to keep busy, but I also promised my dad I'd do homework because I'd miss seven days of school,” he laughed. “Then again, the coaches held mandatory study halls for 90 minutes on the plane, and also during the tournament … It took 22 hours to get there.

“I was traveling with 17 other guys, kids from all over the U.S., but most of them were from the East Coast,” he added. “We had a good time talking. I got to know my teammates.”

The tourney, though, didn't go according to plan. The Americans played in five contests, opening with Royal Wahingdoh of India on March 24 at the Nike Football Training Center in Southwestern Township, Soweto, Johannesburg.

It tied, 1-1, with Lam in net, then faced Mamelodi Sundowns FC of the host city the following day; that turned out to be a 3-0 defeat.

“I was a little down because I allowed those goals, but they were very good (players),” Jack remembered. “Actually, they looked like pros.”

Lam started Game 3 against Sunderland Athletic FC of England, and manufactured a 1-1 deadlock, though Bacon drew the nod for the fourth against Ado den Haag of The Netherlands.

“We lost, 4-0; that was a bad game for me,” Bacon lamented. “As a keeper, you'll have games where you can't miss, and others where you just can't get an arm or leg on anything. That was the one for me. Their players just knew how to finish.

“I was really bummed,” he added. “I'm very hard on myself when it comes to analyzing how I play. I demand perfection from myself; even when I have a good game, I'll still spend time afterward rolling through my head what I could've done better.

“Johannesburg is 6,000 feet up, so the air is thin. Coaches asked us if we could go 45 minutes at 100 percent, but after that, my teammates, they were all gassed. I didn't notice as much because I wasn't doing all the running. As time went on, it started to have an effect on me. There would be times when I'd have to make a simple save, but it felt more taxing than usual.”

In the fifth and final tilt, against Sunward Park of South Africa, Bacon and Co. suffered a 2-1 verdict. U.S. Select '97 had managed only a 0-3-2 mark.

“In two of the five games, we were ahead at the break (halftime) – against Sunderland and Royal Wahingdoh, but then fatigue set in,” Jack mentioned. “That caused us not to be as sharp with our passes, and we were unable to keep up.

“Still, it was the highest level I've ever played at; they were better than I thought they'd be,” he continued. “Technically, they were more sound than we were. Their first touches were so soft, right on target. Everything they did was faster than I'd ever seen it done before.

“Alec and I would talk about facing those teams, and we were amazed at their overall skill level. It was so far superior than facing a domestic team, and it was light years better than high school (soccer).”

The Americans placed third in the four-team Pool D, though that was a consolation, Bacon admitted.

“We were playing at an international level against teams that had been playing together 24/7 for years,” he said. “Here we were, a select team that had been picked a few weeks before and had one practice session.”
If there was another “consolation,” it came from the sight-seeing experience enjoyed by Bacon and his teammates.

“It was absolutely gorgeous,” he noted. “The landscape was mostly mountains with a lot of vegetation, greenery and grass. There were rolling brown hills, but we also saw the urban part of Johannesburg. The rich neighborhoods were built into the hillsides with modern support systems, and the structure of the houses were pretty ornate and wild.

“But there were sections of the city where I'd see people stretched out on a highway median, sleeping in a cardboard box. That was hard.”

As for the fans, Bacon indicated they were amazing.

“We had a green player pass to get into the stadium, and as soon as the young school children saw that, they'd mob us,” he chuckled. “They treated us like celebrities. They thought we were professionals from America. They'd run up to us after a game and beg us for our jerseys, socks, spikes, whatever we willing to give.

“For the Sunderland game, we were actually on national TV. Their ESPN affiliate broadcast it, and there were 500-1,000 people in the stands.

“To have the opportunity to play against future professionals from all over the world, it was something I had only dreamed about,” he added. “To represent the U.S. was a dream as well. That dream becoming a reality was the highest honor I've ever received in my sporting life. I'll never forget it.”

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