Fresh from his stint with the New Zealand U-23s national team and their successful quest to qualify for the 2012 London Summer Olympics, Timbers goalkeeper Jake Gleeson (above left) returned to training this week in preparation for the team’s upcoming match against Real Salt Lake (Mar. 31, 7:00 p.m. PT ROOT SPORTS, 750 AM The Game, La Pantera 940 AM).
While Gleeson was down under, however, we stayed in touch throughout the seven team Oceania Football Confederation qualifying tournament sending him sets of questions about his time there and his experience backstopping the Oly-Whites in Taupo, NZ. Gleeson’s emailed answers from his time at the tournament are compiled below.
Between some hard-fought matches, down time visiting family, some golfing hole-in-one challenges with teammates, and achieving the ultimate goal in booking an Olympic ticket to London, Gleeson had a memorable trip.
First up was Gleeson’s arrival and Group B match against Papua New Guinea.
WATCH: Gleeson on his NZ experience
What is it like to be back home in New Zealand, have you been to Taupo before?
Being back in New Zealand is great, it's always nice to come home and be around friends and family. And the fact that it is still summer here isn’t bad either. I have been to Taupo before, it is a great holiday destination beautiful scenery and a lake.
Will family be able to come watch you play?
My family will be able to come watch me play which is great. My sister was at the first game last night and my parents and brother will fly in for the last couple of games so I am excited to see them.
What are your thoughts leading into the first match against Papua New Guinea? Nervous? Anxious?
I don't really know what to expect leading in our first game with such little time to get use to the team and getting my feet underneath me. It will be a bit of a whirlwind twenty-four hours before the game. I am confident that we will do well with the team we have and the preparation they have gone through. We will have to be on our toes because these island countries can definitely surprise you.
Gleeson started the match and helped lead the team to a 1-0 victory over Papua New Guinea in the opening match of the tournament putting them top of the three-team group ahead of Papua New Guinea and Tonga—their next opponent.
Post-game reflections on the win – getting the start, being back in international competition, a shutout for you, a short-handed victory, any key moments that stand out?
It was a tough game for us. We had a man sent off and couldn't quite put the ball in the back of the net when we needed it early in the game. It was a gritty game and the boys had to dig deep to get the three points. It feels great to be back out on the pitch representing New Zealand, it's a feeling that I have missed. It was nice to get the shutout and my defense did a good job of protecting me. Looking forward to and focusing on our next game.
In between matches, Gleeson was able to revisit some of his favorite New Zealand haunts and re-connect with his Kiwi homeland.
Did you do anything exciting over the weekend, anything particularly “New Zealand” while you’re back home? Any team activities?
Having the weekend off was good after our first game to give us time to rest and regroup. We were meant to go jet boating down the river in Taupo but were unable to because the weather packed in. So we ended up going to the natural hot pools here which was nice for the body.
How has training been since the first game leading into the second group match? Would you the say the chemistry has been better? How is the team’s focus?
Training has been light and just focusing on what we need to bring into the second game against Tonga. With the long break we have to make sure we keep our energy and stay focused on our next game. With a lot of the boys knowing each other prior to this trip, the team morale is good and is getting better as the tournament goes on.
Favorite off-the-field moment so far while back home for the Olympic qualifiers?
Favorite moment away from soccer would be playing the hole-in-one golf challenge on the lakefront in our free time. Three holes and a $10,000 prize if you get it in. A hundred dollars later and nothing—still hopefully I'll win before the week is out though.
In game two of their group stage play, New Zealand defeated Tonga 10-0 thus putting the Oly-Whites through to the semifinals. Gleeson did not play against Tonga but did start in the knockout round match against Vanuatu helping lead his squad to a 3-2 hard fought factory.
After sitting out the win over Tonga, how was it to get back on the field against Vanuatu?
It was good to get back out on the field against Vanuatu, they were going to be a much better opponent and a bit of a challenge for us. Plus it was the semifinal so a do or die game for us.
What were the ebbs and flows of the match – going up by three goals, allowing two goals late?
We started off well against Vanuatu , we were up three goals in the first half and had plenty opportunities to be up by more. We were still not playing at the level we wanted but the goals gave us a good confidence boost entering the second half. Vanuatu came out flying and really took it to us in the second half. And with two late goals in the game they gave us a bit of a scare. But we got the win and were in to the final.
After the win over Vanuatu, it all came down to the final against Fiji with the winner heading to London. Though Fiji proved to be formidable in a hard-fought match, Gleeson and New Zealand prevailed in a 1-0 triumph.
Clinching your spot in the tournament finals, you guys knew that you’d need to be ready to play on a short turnaround; certainly something you are used to. How was the mental outlook from the group in preparing for the final?
The outlook was good. The scare at the end of the Vanuatu game gave us a reality check that we needed to be ready to battle against Fiji and close out the game. The quick turnaround wasn't bad , the boys took care of their bodies and ate the right foods to prepare for the final against Fiji.
Talk about the experience of playing in the final – a close game – and what it was like to win the tournament, knowing what the ultimate prize is?
The final was a very gritty game with not many chances falling to either side. We managed to get a penalty early in the first half and held the game from there. There as a couple scares when they hit the post but no clear cut chances. They threw everything at us in the last 20 minutes but we held them off and the final whistle came as a big relief.
You’ve played in big tournaments before, FIFA Youth World Cup among them. Looking ahead to the Olympics, what comes to mind and how exciting is this for New Zealand – or has it not sunk in yet?
It's hasn't sunk yet at all. I know I am going but until I get there, I don't think I will fully understand what I'm getting into. I have nothing but excitement for the Olympics and will be extremely focused over the next five months to make sure I am prepared.