Blog Posts

Aloha, Pan-Pacific Championship

 

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Beckham being welcomed to Hawaii.

The 2008 Galaxy team were changing the landscape of U.S. football. It was David Beckham’s first full season, the squad was full of international stars, and the club had just appointed Dutch legend Ruud Gullit as head coach.The PR team were working full time to help promote the Galaxy worldwide, and it worked. People, especially over here in England, were starting to take notice of the league, many buying replica Beckham jerseys.

What else could you do to help promote yourself to the world? Announce your participation in an inaugural world club tournament, which was to be covered by news agencies from all over the globe. So that’s what they did.

In December 2007, fresh from their tour of Australia and New Zealand, the Galaxy announced their participation in the first ever Pan-Pacific Championship. It was to be held in the Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, Hawaii, during February the following year. It was to include football camps for the locals to attend, making the most of the media exposure that Beckham was bringing.

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The team being welcomed as they arrive off the plane.

On the 18th February, the Galaxy squad arrived in Hawaii. Ex Galaxy player, Bryan Jordan, was kind enough to answer some questions about his time in the tournament. When I asked him about the welcome that they received, he said “As far as I can remember the locals welcomed us well. Everyone and their brother wanted pictures with Becks.”

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Beckham and Gullit at the press conference.

Gullit and Beckham went straight from the plane to a press conference, followed by the team’s first training at the Waipio Soccer Complex. The next two days included one more training session and a football camp at Waianae High School, before their first game of the tournament, against Gamba Osaka.

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The team training at the Waipio Soccer Complex.
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The football school held for the locals.

Long time Galaxy fan, Lee Bennett, made the trip over to Hawaii to support the team. “It seemed like a good excuse for a vacation,” Lee said. “I had a friend working at the time on the Big Island, on one of the telescopes on Mauna Kea, so I went over there as well. I ended up staying at the same hotel as the Galaxy and Gamba Osaka.” I went on to ask him about the support for the Galaxy in the tournament. “I don’t think a lot of people came over,” he said. “There were some but not thousands. The stadium wasn’t that big and it was only about a half to two thirds full. There was a lot of support for the Galaxy though, but that was mostly because of Beckham. There was just as much support for Houston. I remember people wearing Houston gear walking around. Brian Ching was a local boy.”

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Photo from the Gamba Osaka game. Courtesy of Lee Bennett.

When I asked him about the first game, Lee said, “I remember sitting behind some locals, who were just soccer fans, and one lady was from Holland and recognised Gullit. She was excited about that.”

Gamba Osaka, the eventual tournament winners, won the first game 1-0, forcing the Galaxy to play for third place, which was to be held three days later. In the meantime, they played a training match against Houston Dynamo, which they won 4-0, and a few of the players received a private tour of Pearl Harbour.

Back at the Aloha Stadium, LA Galaxy beat Sydney FC 2-1, with goals from Ely Allen and Josh Tudela, in their final game of the tournament.

Before they returned to LA, they enjoyed their last day in Honolulu, with some recovery time on the beach. “I feel like the galaxy has always had the mentality of ‘We’re all adults and we know what we need to do, and that’s win,’” said Bryan, when I asked him about getting time to enjoy themselves. “So u can go out wherever, as long as it’s reasonable and get your business done, at the end of the day.”

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The team enjoying their free time before heading back home.

I asked Bryan if their time in Hawaii had helped the team develop a bond, “I would say that it did,” he said, “This was back when the rosters were huge. I think more than 45 players were in camp, and we had a rookie class of about 14 guys. So just like every team there were some cliques, but the Galaxy has always been pretty family oriented.”

For many of the Galaxy players, the opportunity to play in the tournament was something they had never experienced before. The rookies had gone from college or smaller clubs to a new world of international cups and footballing superstars, having the cameras following them everywhere.

“The experience was amazing.” said Bryan Jordan. “It was the longest trip I think the Galaxy had been on in some time. Three weeks in Asia and then one week in Hawaii, all of this for preseason. And it was David Beckham’s first full year at the club. We had other big European names, like Abel Xavier and Babayaro. The Paparazzi was taking picture everywhere we went, and it was pretty crazy after just coming from Portland the previous year. I had never been out of the country before that so I have tons of great memories from that trip.”

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Bryan Jordan and Josh Wicks.

There Once Was a Team From LA – 1996

 

It began in April ‘96,

We had Cobi, he wowed with his tricks,

El Tanque bashed them in,

Many struggled to win,

When we had Campos between the sticks.

 

The first twelve games we won in a row,

But it ended in Colorado,

They beat us 2-1,

It began a dry run,

And it led to us feeling the woe.

 

Then up stepped Cienfuegos the Great,

With his dribbles he broke down the gate,

We pushed ‘til the end,

When on the final weekend,

We gave Dallas their heads on a plate.

 

Fresh from topping the West we marched on,

In the playoffs we then came upon,

Our rivals, the Clash,

In game one we did crash,

It seemed that our chances were gone.

 

But Hurtado then mowed them all down,

The big man was the talk of the town,

He scored on them twice,

His finishing precise,

And he turned the Clash players’ shorts brown.

 

We then swept the Wizards aside,

For them there was nowhere to hide,

We ate them all up,

On the way to the Cup,

We went to the final with pride.

 

We took it to D.C. from the start,

2-0 up then it all fell apart,

We gave up the game,

But we still became,

The team with incredible heart.

 

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The ’96 LA Galaxy squad.

Coach Vito

                           

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Vito during his LA Galaxy trial.

A footballer’s passion for the game can be measured in many ways. How long they stay at one club, the loyalty they show during the tough times, or how many times they kiss the badge on their current shirt. But occasionally they do whatever it takes to stay in the game they love, no matter what life throws at them. Vito Higgins fits into this category.

Born in Kailua, Hawai’i, Vito attended Academy of the Pacific but played football for Pac-Five, representing several Hawai’i high schools. He helped lead the team to second place in ILH Boys Soccer League with a 10-1-3 record, conceding only five goals during his senior season. But it was at college where he truly excelled.

Vito made 72 appearances during his career at Gonzaga University, making 305 saves, the second highest in the Bulldogs’ history. He played every minute of every game in his last two seasons, helping them to their second ever NCAA Tournament, in 2007. It was a season in which he allowed only 0.71 goals against per game, ranking second in all-time records for a single season. The Bulldogs lost 1-0 to SMU in the tournament but Vito made 14 saves, only conceding from a late penalty.

Commenting on Vito’s college career, former LA Galaxy Director of Soccer Paul Bravo later said “Vito had an outstanding career at Gonzaga and was someone whose talents we were well aware of.”

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Vito’s Galaxy trial.

Vito’s contract with the Galaxy didn’t fall on his lap. He had to earn it. In February, 2008, Vito attended the Galaxy’s Open Tryout, competing against 400 other participants. “He did very well during the four days that he was here,” Paul Bravo said. “He’s earned the right to come in and train with us.” At the end of the tryouts it was extended into a trial with the first team. It was at this time that the club were preparing to compete in the Pan Pacific Championship, in which he failed to earn a spot on the squad.

When I asked Vito about the signing process he told me, “Over the next few weeks LA Galaxy stayed in contact and one of their draft ‘keepers injured himself. At that point I received a phone call from Paul Bravo and was told they wanted me to move down to LA. So I did. Shortly after my arrival I was offered a Developmental Contract, which I obviously signed.”

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David Beckham, one of Vito’s teammates at the Galaxy.

Under the guidance of Goalkeeper Coach, Ian Feuer, Vito began training. There were many stars at the club during the 2008 season, Beckham being one of them. “The first time I ever met David Beckham it was in an elevator at the Home Depot Center,” Vito said. “He introduced himself, and of course I was starstruck, but I introduced myself like I would with anyone. Which was bizarre because I had known who he was for several years now, and here I am, just a kid from Hawaii introducing myself like any normal introduction. Very surreal.”

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The 2008 Galaxy squad. Vito is pictured as the far right ‘keeper.

Vito was included in the LA Galaxy Reserve squad on the 4th May, 2008, against Real Salt Lake Reserves in Park City. He was subbed on early in the second half in place of Peter Vagenas. “I came in as a sub and played as the 9,” said Vito when I asked about his first game. “We were hurting for numbers, so I went on and did my best. If I remember correctly I might have even had a few shots on goal. A little bizarre my first game playing professional was as a field player and not in goal.” Also in the team that day was Bryan Jordan, who played for the Galaxy between 2008 and 2012. They had actually played against each other at college when Bryan was at Oregon State. When I asked Bryan about his memories of Vito he said, “He was a solid player with great reactions, and was a real nice, cool dude.”

When asking him about his experiences at the Galaxy he shared a story about David Beckham, which I remember hearing, but never from a player who was present, “Someone had superglued David’s slippers to the floor of the locker room, and when he went to put them on, they didn’t move. He didn’t think it was very funny, but we all did, as we watched him rip them apart. He then quickly grabbed a pair of runners, so it’s not like he had to walk barefoot for very long. It was pretty funny.”

Vito featured in more reserve games, working his way up to second string ‘keeper. He appeared on the bench in several first team matches, when disaster struck. “I broke my 5th metatarsal in my left foot, training,” Vito recalled. “I had rolled my ankle, felt a pop and didn’t think much of it. The next day I woke up and couldn’t even walk on it. It was terrible. Worst feeling ever. It was one of the most unsettling moments of my life. I still think about it to this day.”

It happened during one of the worst periods in the Galaxy’s history. Alexi Lalas and Ruud Gullit were running the club, putting more emphasis on the star players rather than the overall operations. Not the ideal situation for an injured player to find himself in. A situation that led to Vito deciding to move on.

“During the last couple of months of my time in LA I was becoming more and more unhappy,” Vito said, “I had stayed in touch with my college coach, Einar Thorarinsson, and at one point he informed me that Gonzaga was opening up a second assistant coach position. He obviously encouraged me to stay with LA Galaxy, but when the injury happened, mixed with my unhappiness, I thought it was a good time to leave LA, regroup, heal up from the injury, and prepare for my next step.”

Vito left the Galaxy and began his coaching career, rejoining Gonzaga as Assistant Coach, a position which he has held for nearly ten years. Alongside his Bulldogs career he’s also spent time at Region IV of US Youth Soccer, Spokane Soccer Club Shadow and is currently Goalkeeper Director and Under 17 Head Coach at Sting Timbers.

During my time interviewing him, it became clear that Vito is a family man, talking about his daughter, Kamiya, and his wife, Katie. Many would cave under the disappointment of finishing their playing careers so prematurely, but he seems like a man who is very content with how his life has come together. Something which I couldn’t help but admire.

“Soccer has been good to me. I’ve had a lot of opportunities due to the fact that I played the game, am actively coaching the game, and through all of it the relationships that have come from it are invaluable. I also enjoy giving back to a community that once gave me opportunities, challenges and rewards. Soccer has been to good to me, I don’t think I can turn my back on it.” Vito Higgins.

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Vito in his current role at Gonzaga.

 

The Loneliest Lad in the Land

Coming back from Tampa in 1996, filled with excitement after the Galaxy game, I had no one to talk to. All my Manchester United/Liverpool/Arsenal friends wouldn’t understand. They didn’t care. U.S. football didn’t exist for them. There were no supporter clubs here, no social media, no TV coverage. Nothing.

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U.S. men’s team at Italia ’90.

Rewind back to 1990. Italia ’90 – the first World Cup that I really got in to. The U.S. National Team’s first World Cup in 40 years. Admittedly, England were the team that I loved/had my heart ripped out by, but Tony Meola really stuck out for me in the tournament. So imagine my surprise when he arrived in England shortly after.

My brother and I were both in the Brighton and Hove Albion Youth team at the time, when the club announced that they had signed the U.S. goalkeeper on loan. Back then the youth players were allowed to attend first team training, so me and my brother stood in awe, waiting for his autograph. I was lucky enough to be a ballboy at his professional debut against Wolves, where he was unstoppable. The next season American ‘keeper Juergen Sommer also arrived at Brighton on loan, leading to more admiration.

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Cobi Jones playing for Coventry during the 94/95 season.

I put U.S. football to the back of my mind for a few years, missing the ’94 World Cup after England failed to qualify. Until, that is, I went to watch Coventry play Norwich at home, Cobi Jones netting the winner. I didn’t think that day that I would end up naming my first-born son after him.

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The 1996 Galaxy squad.

Summer of 1996 was magical. My family announced that they were taking us on holiday to Florida. I hadn’t picked an MLS team by that point, so decided Tampa Bay Mutiny would be a good fit as they were playing the Galaxy that week.

27th July, Houlihan’s Stadium – my first MLS game, and I loved it. I began the game a Mutiny “fan” but left transformed. The Galaxy lost 4-3 but Cobi Jones scored a hat trick and had me hooked.

The next few years were spent in frustration. My family couldn’t afford to fly back out so I had to make do with reading the results in a national newspaper. That is until May 2001 when I took myself over to the Rose Bowl to witness Ezra and Cobi score in a 2-0 win over New England Revolution.

I’ve been over a few times since. Not enough as I want, but enough to feed my soul, each time just as magical as that first. I feel satisfied that I didn’t let my fourteen year old self down, since he looked out at the ’96 team, hoping for a lifetime of Galaxy memories.