By Alex Webbe
Eight teams took the field in Thursday afternoon’s opening round of play in the 2016 USPA Gold Cup at the International Polo Club as the second le fog America’s Triple Crown of Polo got underway. Upsets, sudden-death overtime games and world-class polo set the stage for the field of 26-goal teams that would be competing through the final seven weeks of the Florid winter season.
Flexjet 10, Valiente 8
In the opening match of the day Flexjet (Melissa Ganzi, Nic Roldan, Tincho Merlos, Sebastian Merlos) surprised Valiente (Bob Jornayvaz, Santiago Chavanne, Diego Cavanagh and Tomas Garcia del Rio), fighting back from an early deficit to record a 10-8 win.
The 25-goal Valiente team received one goal by handicap from Flexjet and watched Nic Roldan tie the game at 1-1 on a pass from team captain Melissa Ganzi. Diego Cavanagh converted a short penalty shot for a goal followed by a goal from the field from teammate Tomas Garcia del Rio that had Valiente in front, 3-1. Flexjet was awarded a goal on a Penalty 1 that cut the lead to a single goal, 3-2, with Sebastian Merlos tying the game at 3-3 following the throw-in that took place 10-yards in front of the Valiente goal (as part of the Penalty 1 assessment). With 1:15 on the clock, Cavanagh converted a 40-yard penalty shot and Santiago Chavanne closed out the opening chukker with a goal from the field with 18 seconds remaining in the chukker for a 5-3 Valiente lead.
In a defensively-pitched second chukker neither team was able to score despite runs up and down the field. Valiente remained on top by two goals, 5-3.
A determined Flexjet team fought back with Agustin Merlos scoring on blistering penalty shot from over 100-yards out to make it 5-4, in the opening seconds of the second chukker. Valiente found it difficult to score with an aggressive Flexjet team keeping their backs to the game, and at the 2:38 mark, Agustin Merlos added another goal on a 30-yard penalty conversion that had the game all even at 5-5 to end the first half.
Agustin Merlos gave Flexjet their first lead of the game, 6-5, with a 30-yard penalty goal to open the fourth period. Roldan scored his second goal of the day from the field midway through the chukker as Flexjet stretched their led to two goals, 7-5. A goal from Garcia del Rio closed the game to a single goal, 7-6, with the final goal of the period.
Cavanagh opened the fifth chukker with a 40-yard penalty goal that leveled the score at 7-7. Sebastian Merlos countered with a goal from the field that pushed Flexjet back into the lead, 8-7, at the 5:45 mark. Roldan closed out the chukker with a pair of goals from the field that had Flexjet in control of the game, 10-7.
Valiente attempted to mount a last chukker rally, but the Flexjet defense was up to the task. Cavanagh finally got on the scoreboard with the final goal of the game with 1:26 showing, as Flexjet celebrated the 10-8 victory.
Roldan’s four goals led the Flexjet attack. Agustin Merlos added three penalty goals; his older brother Sebastian Merlos scored twice and the team received a goal on a Penalty 1. Cavanagh scored half of his team-high four goals on penalty conversions. Chavanne and Garcia del Rio added single goals and Valiente received one goal by handicap.
Dubai 13, White Birch 7
Dubai’s 26-goal team (Rashid Albwardy, Adolfo Cambiaso, Facundo Sola and Alejo Taranco) took the field for the first time this winter season with Adolfo Cambiaso leading the charge against a storied White Birch team (Segundo Merlos, Mariano Aguerre, Hilario Ulloa and Ezequiel Martínez Ferrario) that was returning to Florida in an effort to re-capture glory days of years past when they dominated Gold Cup play with a record 12 titles.
A major roster shake-up had the number one ranked players in the world, 10-goaler Adolfo Cambiaso leaving the Valiente team to join Dubai for the balance of the season. A longtime team member of the Dubai team during the English season, Cambiaso would be reunited with the team for their first foray into the high-goal American season.
Cambiaso wasted little time in establishing his position in the pecking order, scoring on a pair of 60-yard penalty shots to give Dubai the early 2-0 lead. Teammate Alejo Taranco made it 3-0 with a goal from the field before White Birch could respond. Argentine 9-goaler Hilario Ulloa finally got White Birch on the scoreboard with a 60-yard penalty goal of his own, 3-1. Cambiaso scored his first goal from the field with less than two minutes left in the opening chukker, 4-1. Ulloa cut into the lead by converting a short penalty shot that ended the first chukker with Dubai op top, 4-2.
Dubai continued to dominate play in second chukker action. Taranco scored on a well-executed shot from 70-yards out as a result of a drop-pass from Cambiaso that had Dubai in front by three goals, 5-2. Cambiaso scored the only other goal of the chukker when he converted a 60-yard Safety to make it 6-2. A disciplined Dubai defense held White Birch scoreless for the duration of the chukker.
Ulloa stirred the White Birch offense in the third period, scoring on a pass from Mariano Aguerre in the opening minutes of the third period, 6-3. Taranco countered with a goal less than a minute later, 7-3. A Dubai foul sent Ulloa to the penalty line at the 4:30 mark where he converted the 30-yard shot for the final goal of the chukker. Dubai continued to control the game and left the field at the end of the first half with a three goal, 7-4 advantage over White Birch.
A regrouped White Birch team took the field in the second half but it was Cambiaso with the first goal of the fourth chukker, 8-4. White Birch rallied with three consecutive goals to come to within a goal of the lead, 8-7, with Segundo Merlos following up on an Aguerre run for their first goal of the chukker and Ulloa converting a60-yard penalty shot followed up by a goal from the field.
The Dubai defense showed up in spades in the fifth chukker, shutting down the White Birch attack. Cambiaso scored twice in the final two minutes of the period and Dubai rode off the field with a three goal advantage, 10-7.
Cambiaso scored the first two goals of the final chukker, converting a 30-yard penalty shot to make it 11-7 and adding a goal from the field two minutes later, 12-7. Dubai team captain Rashid Albwardy scored the final goal of the game as Dubai celebrated their opening 26-goal win in the 2-16 USPA Gold Cup with a convincing 13-7 fashion.
Cambiaso showed his world-class form as he led all scoring with nine goals (four on penalty conversions). Taranco scored three times from the field and Albwardy put an exclamation mark on the victory with the closing goal of the game.
Audi 10, Coca-Cola 9 OT
Audi (Marc Ganzi, Gonzalito Pieres, Rodrigo Andrade and Fred Mannix) took the field in Thursday’s afternoon match as the defending USPA Gold Cup Champion and faced a formidable Coca-Cola lineup (Gillian Johnston, Miguel Novillo Astrada, Sugar Erskine and Julio Arellano) that challenged them every step of the way.
After nearly four minutes of scoreless play in the second Gold Cup match of the day, an aggressive Coca-Cola lineup struck first with Julio Arellano scoring on a well-placed pass from teammate Miguel Novillo Astrada, 1-0. Arellano made it 2-0 on a 30-yard penalty conversion as the Audi team struggled to find their rhythm.
Brazilian 9-goaler Rodrigo Andrade got Audi on the scoreboard, 2-1, with a goal from the field at the 5:56 mark of the second chukker. Astrada responded with is first goal of the da less than a minute later to make it 3-1, Coca-Cola. Andrade countered with his second goal of the day, 3-2. On an impressive 150-yard run, Coca-Cola team captain Gillian Johnston scored the final goal of the chukker that had Audi trailing, 4-2.
Both defenses stepped it up in the third period with neither team able to score from the field. Arellano scored the first goal of the third chukker on a 30-yard penalty shot, adding another three minutes later. Gonzalito Pieres scored his first goal of the day on a penalty conversion that ended the first half with Coca-Cola on top of a 6-3 score.
A determined Audi took the field in the fourth chukker that saw them pick up the first two goals of the second half. Pieres scored a goal from the field at the 6:32 mark, 6-4, with teammate Freddie Mannix scoring on a 60-yard neck shot minutes late, 6-5. Johnston scored her second goal of the day, but a final goal from Pieres came with 19 seconds left in the chukker and had Audi within a goal of the lead, 7-6.
Arellano scored the first goal of the fifth chukker to give Coca-Cola a two goal lead, 8-6, but Audi stormed back. Audi team captain Marc Ganzi cut the Coca-Cola lead back to a single goal, 8-7, with is first goal of the day, and consecutive 60-ayrd penalty goals from Pieres gave Audi their first lead of the day to end the chukker, 9-8.
Audi fought desperately to defend their fragile one goal lead in the sixth chukker, but Astrada managed to break through their defenses to score a tying goal with 4:20 left in regulation time. Neither team was able to score the tiebreaker and the final horn sounded signifying a sudden-death overtime chukker would be needed to determine the winner.
Overtime periods are usually decided rather quickly, but in the case of the Audi- Coca-Cola match, not so much. Both teams mounted attacks that fell short. The final goal of the game came from Andrade with less than four minutes remaining, giving Audi the hard-fought 10-9 victory.
Pieres led the Audi attack with five goals (three on penalty conversions). Andrade added three goals with Ganzi and Mannix scoring a goal apiece for the win. Arellano scored three of his team-high five goals on penalty shots. Johnston and Astrada added two goals each in the loss.
Lucchese 13, Orchard Hill 12 OT
The final match of the day in USPA Gold Cup competition took place between Lucchese (John Muse, Guillermo Caset, Cristian Laprida and Nico Pieres) and Orchard Hill (Steve Van Andel, Facundo Pieres, Polito Pieres and Julián de Lusarreta), with Lucchese scoring a stunning 13-12 upset of the 2016 C. V. Whitney Championship team.
Orchard Hill took the field as the heavy favorite behind high-scoring 10-goalers Facundo Pieres and his cousin Polito Pieres in Luccchese’s 26-goal debut at the International Polo Club, but Lucchese was loaded with plenty of talent of their own.
Polito Pieres scored the first goal of the game followed by a towering penalty conversion from Facundo Pieres for the early 2-0 lead. Lucchese 10-goaler, Sapo Caset, answered with a goal from the field that got his team on the scoreboard, 2-1. Facundo Pieres scored the final goal of the first chukker for the 3-1 lead.
Second chukker goals from Polito Pieres and Facundo Pieres went unanswered as it looked as if Orchard Hill was going to roll over John Muse’s Lucchese lineup. There was no quit on the Lucchese side of the ball, but the goals just weren’t coming.
Third chukker goals from Magoo Laprida and Caset (penalty goal), cut the lead back to two goals, 5-3, and looked like the start of a Lucchese rally, but Orchard Hill quickly ended those thoughts with Facundo Peres scoring on consecutive penalty shots that had Orchard Hill leading by four goals at the end of the first half, 7-3.
A re-grouped Lucchese team took the field in the fourth chukker and went after the Orchard Hill defenders. Goals two goals from Nico Peres and a goal from Caset had them trailing by a single goal, 7-6. Polito Pieres scored the final goal of the chukker, 8-6, but Lucchese had breathed new life into the game and were on the hunt.
Julian de Lusarreta traded goals with Polito Pieres to open the fifth chukker, 9-7, when the Lucchese scoring floodgates opened. Nico Pieres added another goal and Caset scored twice while holding the Orchard Hill attack at bay. At the end of the fifth chukker it was Lucchese with their first lead of the game, 10-9.
Laprida opened the scoring in the sixth chukker with a 40-yard penalty conversion, 11-9. Facundo Pieres countered with a 60-yard penalty goal of his own for Orchard Hill, 11-10. Caset added a goal from the field that restored Lucchese’s two goal lead, 12-10. Polito Pieres scored on a short penalty shot and Facundo Pieres forced overtime with the final goal in regulation play to tie the game at 12-12.
After a brief intermission the tams returned to the field with a confident Lucchese team pressing the attack. An Orchard Hill foul sent Caset to the penalty line where he converted the 30-ayrd shot for the winning goal for Lucchese, 13-12, to the disbelief of a stunned Orchard Hill lineup.
Caset led the Lucchese attack with seven goals on the day (two on penalty shots). Nico Pieres scored five times (once on a penalty conversion) and Laprida added a goal for the win. Facundo Pieres led the Orchard Hill offense with seven goals (four from the penalty line). Polito Pieres added four goals and de Lusarreta scored once.
USPA Gold Cup play is scheduled to resume on Sunday, March 13 with all eight teams returning to the fields. In a pair of 10am contests, Lucchese (1-0) is slated to play White Birch (0-1) while Audi (1-0) meets Valiente (0-1). In a 12:30pm game, Dubai (1-0) will attempt to remain unbeaten when they face Orchard Hill (0-1). Flexjet (1-0) will face Coca-Cola in the 3pm feature match of the day.