Steve Purdy: The Gold Cup was amazing
June 19 was a tremendously bittersweet day for Portland Timbers defender Steve Purdy.
On the day that Purdy saw his career with the El Salvador National Team properly start with his first international cap, Los Cuscatlecos suffered a heartbreaking penalty-kick defeat at the hands of Panama in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.
Purdy, who made more than 20 appearances for the USSF D-2 Timbers in 2010 and six starts in MLS so far this season, started in central defense for El Salvador and played the full 120 minutes before his side saw its first penalty attempt saved and Panama go on to steal the win.
“My debut against Panama in the Gold Cup was amazing because there was a lot of hype going into it and a lot of the fans that have been supporting me so much these last couple months were really looking forward to it,” Purdy said on Tuesday after arriving back in Portland. “I was able to get out there and show my stuff and I had a good game. It was definitely a bittersweet game because we didn’t win ... we did well and put ourselves in a great position to win the game, but that’s how soccer ends up sometimes.”
It looked as though El Salvador was headed to the semifinals, a nearly unthinkable conclusion against a Panamanian team that had earlier defeated the United States 2-1 in group play. Holding a late 1-0 lead, El Salvador conceded a dubious 90th minute equalizer that television replays don’t conclusively show crossed the entire goal line.
“I just feel like it was a really unfortunate game for us,” Purdy said. “They scored a last second goal which I didn’t even think was a goal, but the referee called it over the line, but like I said soccer is like that sometimes. It was a heartbreaker.”
Heartbreak aside, Purdy’s debut after missing out on the team’s first three group-play games, showed what the 6-foot-4 defender is capable of bringing to the table for a soccer-fanatic nation.
“For me, the hype going into the Panama game was very big. There were a lot of things going on every day on why I wasn’t playing,” Purdy said. “Every day the media would ask me after training, ‘What’s going on, when are you going to play,’ so there was a lot of hype going into that game. For some reason, with me coming in and having the different qualities I have as a soccer player, a lot of people were really excited.”
Those qualities, notably his size compared to his relatively diminutive Salvadoran teammates, helped keep two strong Panamanian strikers (Luis Tejada and Blas Perez) at bay, at least until the 90th minute.
“I knew coming in that I had different qualities that I could bring the team. I was able to bring a mix, something different that I think the team needed,” Purdy said. “I think I showed it well, I was able to play against a Panama team that was a bit bigger than (our guys) but I was able to show my presence in the back and win some balls and use my game to shut them down a bit. With me, using my qualities, and with the other guys I think we complimented each other well.”
Purdy received strong attention from the Salvadoran press, even having a reporter tag along as he visited relatives and his mother’s hometown.
Following the quarterfinal loss to Panama, Salvadoran newspaper El Diario de Hoy wrote a positional breakdown on Monday in Spanish: “Steve Purdy's debut is to be admired. It was a difficult game, but nervous feet did not stop the central (defender) from standing up, confronting and rejecting the plays compromising to El Salvador. He made a good match with (fellow central defender) Luis Anaya, who was another that raised up the standard in this area.”
New teammates, new country
It might’ve felt a little bit like the first day of school in late May as Purdy flew down to San Salvador, El Salvador, to train for the first time with his new national team prior to a May 29 friendly against Honduras.
Not completely out-of-sorts, Purdy had visited El Salvador on vacation as a teenager and speaks fluent Spanish, he was still nervous on arrival.
“I didn’t really know what to expect. I was a bit nervous about how they were going to receive me,” Purdy said. “Finally, getting there and getting introduced to everyone was really nice, (they were) open with me and friendly with me right off the bat.”
Still, there was still a little language barrier on both sides.
“I don’t understand a lot of their slang, so it was a little different,” Purdy said.
And his teammates? Well, they struggled pronouncing his last name — but he didn’t mind.
A change in style
Barring headed balls, which Purdy jokingly said he won plenty of in training, the adjustment in playing style took a bit of time for him to fully adapt.
“In the first training session everyone was really cool with me, but it was different because the style of play is a lot different than over here,” Purdy said. “They play a lot more of a Latin style — they touch the ball a lot, more short passes, keeping possession — so it was a bit different.”
As a defender, he also had to adjust to the different play of the opposing forwards.
“Defensively, when you’re training with the Salvadorans there are a lot of quick, short guys that are really good with the ball and good at getting around you with 1-2 passes. It was a bit different too not playing against bigger forwards and guys who are more physical. It took me a little bit to get used to it,” he said.
A minor setback
Purdy was all set to play in the May 29 friendly against Honduras, but an unlucky strike of food poisoning 24 hours before the match sent him to the bench.
It also kept him from gaining more training time with the squad ahead of the Gold Cup, which is what possibly limited him to being an unused substitute in two of three group games before his June 19 debut.
“I was out for a good 5 days because of that,” Purdy said. “It was my chance to get used to the team and style of play and going to the Gold Cup with some experience, so that was unlucky that I wasn’t able to do that and start off in the first couple of Gold Cup games.”
Committed to El Salvador; the future
Purdy, who represented the United States at various youth international levels, including being called into a senior national team camp in 2007, committed to his mother’s homeland after U.S. interest waned and El Salvador stepped into the picture.
With his first international cap, Purdy cemented his commitment to El Salvador, and expressed hope that other Salvadoran-American soccer players take notice and consider following his (and Real Salt Lake midfielder Arturo Alvarez’s) lead.
Many players speak of the pride tied to putting on the national team jersey for the first time, for Purdy the reality of the situation set in during the Salvadoran national anthem in front of a packed, pro-Salvadoran crowd at RFK Stadium in D.C.
The Washington, D.C., area is home to one of the largest Salvadoran-American communities in the United States and Salvadoran players call RFK Stadium their “second home.”
“During the national anthem that was when I felt chills go through my body, it was a surreal moment,” Purdy said. “It was probably one of the greatest experiences for me soccer-wise playing in front of 45,000 people, most of them Salvadorans. Once our game started the whole stadium was just blue everywhere.”
Purdy had the opportunity to hear first-hand from El Salvador head coach Ruben Israel on Monday, with the coach putting his support behind Purdy’s future with Los Cuscatlecos.
“He told me I opened up a big door for myself,” Purdy said. “He was impressed with my play ... he told me that I impressed enough that the national team is going to be a part of my future in soccer.”
Returning to the Rose City
Purdy returned to Portland on Tuesday to rejoin the Timbers ahead of their trip to Dallas for Saturday’s match against FC Dallas.
The 26-year-old hoped to apply much of the experience he gained while he was gone toward his play with the Timbers.
“There were a lot of things I learned on the field and just the different style of play that El Salvador has, I can bring that to the Timbers and just little different things that could’ve been sharper [then] when I was here before,” Purdy said.
Though Sunday’s El Salvador game ended with a difficult loss, Purdy’s return to Portland—given the recent injuries having hit the Timbers backline—is a most welcome one.