The U23 Lads Are Off To The Olympics And They Did It In Style

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Qualifying for major tournaments through the Oceania region is a rather fortunate situation for New Zealand Football to be in, opening up so many of our youth teams to the opportunity to test themselves against some of the world’s best. And a couple times lately that test has been graded a majestic pass mark – thinking specifically of the U17 women and U20 men over the last 12 months or so. However it’s not often a kiwi men’s team cruise through an OFC tournament as convincingly as this U23 side just did on their way to qualifying for the 2020 Olympics.

Mate, I mean even that last U20s side that played such great attacking footy, which shares a lot of the same DNA as this U23 team, they didn’t exactly cruise through qualifying. There’s a caveat there about the number of players that were unavailable because it clashed with other things but three of their five wins including the semi and the final came by a single goal. This U23 team though… their closest game was a 4-2 victory in a meaningless third group game against a team they later beat by five goals in the final. Other than that they were exquisite.

It began with a 6-1 win over Samoa in which a pair of early goals, one for Ben Waine and one for captain Logan Rogerson, ensured they were playing from in front for eighty of the ninety minutes. Myer Bevan added another before a mix up between keeper Cam Brown and defender Sean Liddicoat led to Samoa pulling one back before the break. But then Ben Waine came back out and scored a second half hatty, giving him four for the game, to polish things off. That dude simply cannot stop scoring these days. He skipped over to Fiji for these games fresh from scoring a bunch in preseason for the Wellington Phoenix and this is after he was the top scorer for the WeeNix last season, with his constant bangers getting him a starting gig at the U20 World Cup where, guess what, he kept scoring. He was the youngest player in that squad too. Technically still an academy player this season for the Nix as an 18 year old but he’s already inked as a senior for next time around and it’ll be extremely interesting to see how much A-League he plays in the short term. Waine-o just has that innate knack for scoring goals.

As does another fella in this squad because if four against Samoa was impressive, Myer Bevan then upped that by scoring five off the bench against American Samoa in a 12-0 victory in game two. It was already 4-0 at the break when Bevan was introduced (the only game he didn’t start this tournament and he still scored five goals in 45 minutes), with Clayton Lewis having gotten the team off to a perfect start in the fourth minute. Goals for Rogerson and Ollie Whyte made it 3-0 after twenty before Lewis scored another. Three of those goals coming directly from Lewis unleashing from outside the area, two for him and one that was blocked and landed at Whyte for the strike.

These games aren’t always the most telling but it’s worth mentioning that Des Buckingham had this team creating chances in a multitude of ways. From quick passing and swift movement in that attacking third to the piledrivers from range to the old favourite of getting in behind the defence and squaring it to a buddy to, most notably as the tournament progressed, set piece dominance. Playing with three dudes in the frontline and an attacking midfielder pulling strings behind they were always positive, always looking to create. It’s a welcome change to four years ago when the Olympic team was helmed by Anthony Hudson whose idea of getting results in Oceania was to play conservatively and make sure you keep clean sheets. He did it with the Olympic team and they scored 10 goals in four games without conceding (but then were disqualified for ineligible players, lol). He did it at the Nations Cup with the senior team too, needing penalties to win the final. This way is much better, shot Buck.

Anyway then Myer Bevan came on and wreaked havoc. It was written before the qualifiers that he’s a player in a tricky situation, having been overseas and not quite made it, and as he prepares for a campaign with Auckland City he needed a few goals just to get the confidence up. Well, he scored 12 of them and won the tournament Golden Boot by a mile. Next up was Ben Waine with 8. Third place was Augustine Waita from the Solomons and he had 5. None of Bevan’s goals against American Samoa were anything special, four of them were one-touch finishes, but that’s arguably more important because being in the right place at the right time and finishing the simple ones… those are the fundamentals for a striker. He also set up Dylan De Jong’s goal in this one (Ben Waine scored the other two, of course), and proceeded to score braces in each of the final three games. Exactly what we needed to see from him and fingers crossed it continues into the Premmy season.

Des Buckingham then made seven changes for the game against the Solomon Islands, having made eight between the first game and the second game. A more stable starting XI would emerge over these last three games with nine players starting all three of them (and the only change between the semi and the final being a swap at right back between Noah Billingsley and Callan Elliot), which is about when things ramped up and if this team were looking for some adversity then they found it in the first minute against the Solomons when Billy Jones lost the ball at the back and then Cameron Brown spilled it soon after and Patrick Taroga all of a sudden had given SI the lead inside the opening minute of the game. And it could have been 2-0 as well with the Solomons missing a wonderful chance a little while later. That would have really rocked the boat.

But one of the shining lights for this U23 side both at these qualifiers and in the Aussie games has been Clayton Lewis and another swing of that left boot saw the kiwis finally draw level and two minutes later he set up Myer Bevan to go back in front. Lewis came into this tour having been injured all season for Scunthorpe but the way he’s played and the extent to which he’s played makes you wonder what’s up with that because he’s sure not injured now. Lewis started all five games in Fiji – only Billy Jones and Logan Rogerson joined him in that. With Scunthorpe looking absolute pants in League Two these days they could do a lot worse than to get this fella back out there. Back to the topic at hand and Noah Billingsley nodded one in from a Ben Waine free kick in the second half and although a belter of a goal from Tuita Maeobia with a dozen minutes left kept it funky, Bevan scored his second late on to book top place for NZ in the group. 4-2 was the final score.

Hosts Fiji awaited in the semis and don’t even worry about it. Another one of the recurring trends here was the New Zealanders starting quick and scoring early. The one game they had trouble in was the one game that it went the other way, but against Fiji a Scott Wara own goal in the 13th minute got things rolling, then goals each to the starting front three of Waine, Bevan, and Rogerson gave New Zealand a commanding 4-0 lead by half-time. That allowed Coach Buck to make his subs nice and early, replacing Lewis and Billingsley at the break and taking off Cacace, who was on a yellow, in the 63rd minute. Fiji pulled one back but Callan Elliot and Myer Bevan scored in response for a 6-1 victory. Fiji also had a late red card.

The goal that Fiji scored came from another individual error. Billy Jones misjudged the bounce of a ball and next thing Mohammed Shah had it in the back of the net. Of the four goals they conceded, three were pretty easy to avoid and that’s not ideal. But I guess at the same time you have to admit that playing in what are always tough conditions, on pitches that might not have been at a hundy by the end of things, you’re going to have to accept some errors along the way and with all the goals they scored at the other end they more than allowed themselves room for all that.

A rematch with the Solomon Islands was on the cards for the final with a place at Tokyo 2020 explicitly on the line. And the product was probably their most complete performance of the comp. Logan Rogerson scored early after Lewis and Waine worked a sharp free kick routine. Lewis also played a delightful ball in behind the defence leading to Myer Bevan doubling that lead and Ben Waine finished off after Gianni Stensness took a really clever quick free kick at the half-way line. Thirty minutes in and well in control, playing great footy and showing some real energy and enthusiasm despite all the footy they already had in those legs. Bevan scored his twelfth of the tournament in the second half and then Billy Jones popped up with a header to make it five right at the end with the kiwis in cruise control for that second stanza. 5-0 in the final, how about that?

Billy Jones deserved a goal as much as anyone. A leaping header from a free kick (four of five goals in the final came from set piece situations) to cap off a tournament where he played more minutes than any other kiwi player – 405 out of 450 possible mins. Ben Waine was next with 380, Myer Bevan played 378, Clayton Lewis played 372, and Dane Schnell played 360. Jones is Wellington Phoenix academy grad who’s currently at UNLV in the States and not only was he an influential fella here but the big guy scored the deep stoppage time winner in the final of the Pacific Games a few months back too. A man for the big occasion.

Shout out to Dane Schnell as well, who did an excellent job in midfield alongside Stensness. That duo started four of five games together and it’s easy to overlook how efficient and reliable they were there, just doing their job to a high level, as the goals flowed ahead of them. As for the goalkeeper duel, Auckland City backups Cameron Brown and Conor Tracey aren’t going to end this scrap for the gloves any time soon and it’s a pretty huge scrap as well considering you only take two keepers to the Olympics and Michael Woud is a lock. Well, Cambo’s got the lead as it stands because he started four out of five games here. Plenty of time left. (Thirdie keeper Alex Paulson played 21 mins as a sub in the first game, the only squad member not to play at least ninety minutes).

There are a few other points we could get to here but you already know how good Libby Cacace is and you already know that Logan Rogerson’s been looking sharp for this team for ages now. He has captained them throughout the year and scored in four separate games here. Exciting news is that he’s gonna get to reprise his combo with Myer Bevan at Auckland City now. The only other thing is a nod towards what a great culture Des Buckingham and his team seem to be instilling here, with selfless and energetic footy on show and contagious good vibes all around. That kinda thing doesn’t happen by accident and it’s an environment like that which brings out the best in players. So yeah, the lads are off to the Olympics. Happy days.

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