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International sport shines at UAlbany

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Afonso Piheiro has already passed his goal total from last season. He is UAlbany's top scorer. Source: UAlbany Athletics
Afonso Piheiro has already passed his goal total from last season. He is UAlbany’s top scorer. Source: UAlbany Athletics

By Aaron Cheris

 

Soccer is widely regarded as the most popular sport in the world.

Here at the University at Albany, student-athletes from all around the world are coming to the Capital Region to lead the Great Danes to victory in the world’s game.

“Soccer is a global language. Soccer is something that brings everyone together,” UAlbany head coach Trevor Gorman said.

The UAlbany roster includes players from five different countries, leading to a melting pot on the field, which Gorman said is similar to New York State itself.

So far, the results for the Great Danes have been good on the field. In 10 games, UAlbany has five wins to go with four losses and a draw.

However, the results wouldn’t be possible without the foreign Danes, who are led in scoring by a dynamic Brazilian duo.

Junior midfielder Leo Melgar and sophomore forward Afonso Pinheiro have combined for 12 of the team’s 14 goals this season. Both started playing at a young age in the country that hosted the most recent FIFA World Cup in 2014.

“In Brazil, we are practically born with a soccer ball in our feet,” Melgar said. “I had pictures playing with a soccer ball at a young age.”

After years of playing in the streets and with club teams, players had to make tough decisions on how to continue their careers, and the path from Brazil to UAlbany was waiting.

“There’s a good tradition of Brazilians coming to the United States now,” Gorman said. “It’s become more popular in Brazil as they found out that there were ways to continue soccer development while also getting a high level education.”

Melgar was one of the first Great Danes to come from Brazil. In 2013, he came to UAlbany with defender Bernardo Mattos, as the two had known each other back home.

The next year, Pinheiro and midfielder Pedro Espindola joined the UAlbany squad.

“Coach saw me playing on DVD and I started to talk to him through Skype and he convinced me this would be the best idea. I talked to my parents and I decided it would be a great idea to study here and play soccer at a high level,” Pinheiro said of his decision to come to UAlbany. “Bernardo [Mattos] started everything. I’ve known him since I was nine years old and it all worked out.”

“The soccer world is a very small world,” Gorman said. “It’s amazing who you know and how players all know each other and they like the idea of playing together.”

Coach Gorman knows what to expect after having seen many players make the transition themselves, but that doesn’t make it any easier for the players.

“It’s not easy for anybody, no matter how good you are or how talented you might be. It’s a difficult transition,” Gorman said. “You’re in a completely new environment, a completely different country, a new language. You have to get used to those things.”

Source: UAlbany Athletics Leo Melgar was one of the first Brazilian players to come to play soccer at the University at Albany.
Source: UAlbany Athletics
Leo Melgar was one of the first Brazilian players to come to play soccer at the University at Albany.

The transition to American life was a tough one for the players, on and off the field. Like many other students, the Brazilian duo were surprised as the calendar turned into winter.

“I thought my English was better than it actually was. When I got here, I saw that it’s hard to communicate,” Melgar said. “The cold weather, for me, is the worst. In Brazil, it’s never cold like that. My first winter was horrible for me. I missed home every day.”

“For me, it was funny at the beginning. We’d go to classes and have no idea what’s going on. You think you had good English,” Pinheiro said. “The first month was the most difficult but you get used to it. Then the winter comes and oh my God I’ve never experienced anything like that before.”

Despite the cold weather, Pinheiro finished his year on a hot streak by winning the America East Rookie of the Year Award by scoring seven goals in his first season. Now, he already has eight with at least nine games to play.

Even though the individual numbers were good, the team failed to reach its goal as they fell to Vermont 2-1 in the America East Quarterfinals last November. Now, the team is focused as they try to write a better finish to their script this year.

“This year, we set a goal to stay first or second in the America East,” Pinheiro said. “I want to host the final here in our stadium so we can have our fins in a good environment. We all know we can do that. That’s our goal.”

“The goal is to get better every day and every game,” Gorman said. “Ultimately, the only game that matters is the next one you play.”

For UAlbany, that next game will be on Saturday, Oct. 10 at UMBC in an America East conference match.

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