LAURINBURG — The Puerto Rico Women’s National Team will call Scotland County home for the next week as it prepares for the 2016 Olympic qualifying round, and St. Andrews University welcomed the esteemed guests Monday for the first of four friendly matches.
And while the Puerto Ricans showcased their superior talent and experience in the matchup versus the Knights women’s squad, St. Andrews players and coaches soaked in every aspect of the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete against a professional team.
Through 18 minutes, Aaron Wood’s program held its own against the visitors, but Puerto Rico broke open a 1-1 game with seven straight goals to notch an 8-1 victory.
“We’re so proud that these girls got to be able to share in the beginning of (Puerto Rico’s) preparation,” Wood said after the defeat.
Though Wood wasn’t satisfied with losing, he understood the magnitude of what this match meant not only to his team, but to the school and the Scotland County community.
“It was a great experience for our girls, for our program, for the university and it was just a lot of fun. What an opportunity, even for Laurinburg,” he said.
Puerto Rico’s tilt against St. Andrews was the first of four tuneup games as the country gears up for the 2016 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship set to begin Feb. 10. Puerto Rico is slated to compete against the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Winthrop University (S.C.) and a semi-pro team, the Charlotte Eagles, over the course of the next week.
St. Andrews was tabbed as one of the select schools to play Puerto Rico thanks in large part to a relationship Wood has with one of its players — goalkeeper Karly Gustafson. Gustafson played for Wood for a half-decade when they were a part of the Fayetteville Soccer Club.
Knowledge of Gustafson’s tendencies helped Wood and Knights score their lone goal of the match.
“Knowing Karly and the athleticism that she has, we talked about when they have the ball, she’s going to be a part of the attack and she’s really going to be pushed up,” Wood said. “We talked about what we’re going to do in that moment of transition — when we win the ball, if we can look up quick and catch her off of her line.”
St. Andrews junior Anna Werneth broke away from the Puerto Rican back line after gaining possession, then launched a deep shot that sailed over Gustafson’s outstretched hands into the corner of the net. St. Andrews’s student section erupted with glee as that goal knotted the contest at 1-all with 27:17 remaining in the first half.
“Anna did a phenomenal job to be able to do that,” Wood said.
The jubilation wouldn’t last long, however, as Puerto Rico quickly showed why it is on the doorstep of earning an Olympic bid.
Annie Lee Mendez opened the game with goal in the 8th minute, then after the Knights tied it, Marie Ashley Johnson scored the first of three goals in the 18th minute. Karina Socarras netted a goal a little more than a minute later that was set up by her exquisite dribbling skills, then she headed in a goal with 17:52 remaining before the break. Kelley Johnson closed the first-half scoring for the Puerto Ricans with a set-piece goal.
Marie Johnson added two more goals after the break, then Victoria Barris tacked on the eighth goal with a little over five minutes left in the second half.
Puerto Rico, which is coached by Garabet Avedissian, flew into Charlotte on Sunday. St. Andrews deployed a bus to the airport to meet the team and drive the players and coaches to Scotland County. While the Puerto Ricans are not staying on the St. Andrews campus, Wood and the school have opened up all facilities for the guests to use.
“All of the facilities that we’re able to share with them, we’ve opened our doors like they’re our family,” Wood said. “They have access to absolutely everything. We’ve put everything on hold and we’re just willing to do anything for them.”
The Puerto Ricans will remain in town for eight days before departing for the Olympic Qualifying Championship in Dallas, Texas on Feb. 8.
Their first game in Group A play will be against Mexico on Feb. 10 at 7 p.m. After that, they will face Costa Rica on Feb. 13 at 2:30 p.m. The Puerto Rican National Team will finish group play Feb. 15 when the women battle the United States at 9:30 p.m. All games will be played at the Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
Logan Martinez can be reached at 910-506-3170. Follow him on Twitter @L_Martinez13.