Story credit: United States Polo Association. Photos © David Lominska/www.polographics.com.
The XI Federation of International Polo (FIP) World Polo Championship Zone “A” Playoffs culminated in a captivating final between Mexico and the United States. Sponsored by the United States Polo Association and co-hosted by the Port Mayaca Polo Club (Okeechobee, Florida) and International Polo Club Palm Beach (Wellington, Florida) the closing match of the tournament took place on the renowned Engel and Völkers Field 1.
The stadium was a sea of red, white, blue and green, as polo fans captured the spirit of the day donning their chosen country’s colors. Showcasing top athletes from Mexico and the United States, two solid teams entered the field competing for an opportunity to advance to the XI FIP World Polo Championship in Sydney, Australia. Established in 1987, the FIP World Polo Championship takes place once every three years in a different country around the world.
In the preliminary rounds of the tournament, both teams proved victorious over Guatemala; Mexico by a narrow margin 10-9.5, the USA winning with a decisive 10-6.5. Each team handicapped at 14 goals, the game was played on the flat.
Mexico was represented by Mariano Gracida (4 goals), Diego Velarde (3 goals), Juan Jose del Alba (4 goals) and Alejandro Gonzalez (3 goals). The USA formed entirely of Team USPA members included Felipe Viana (5 goals), Geronimo Obregon (4 goals), Herndon Radcliff (2 goals) and Remy Du Celliee Muller (3 goals).
An aggressive offensive strategy in place, USA captured the lead straight out of the first lineup with three field goals. Under the direction of coach Joel Baker, USA showcased classic open-style polo, capitalizing on one-shot precision passes.
Catching Mexico on their heels, the USA surrendered a solitary goal to end the first 3-1. A goal by Mexico’s Velarde narrowed the deficit in the third, but USA countered with two goals; a penalty 2 conversion from Viana and a field goal from Obregon to widen their lead 5-2. A resilient Mexico team would bounce back in the third, shutting down the USA defense and scoring four unanswered goals to take the lead for the first time 6-5 at the half.
Two chukkers remaining in the customary FIP five-chukker match, Gonzalez hammered in another goal for Mexico early in the fourth for a two-goal lead 7-5. Muller then made a run that brought the crowd to their feet, but was unable to deliver as the horn sounded for the mandatory horse change.
Trailing by two, American fans cheered for the home team as they rode past the stadium. Play resumed with a throw-in near the Mexico goal. The USA snatched the ball from the bowl-in but an attempt on goal went wide just inches from the left post. An unwavering USA team did not lose confidence, as Viana converted a penalty 3 open goal, followed by an equalizing goal from Radcliff, moving into the fifth 7-all.
“It was an honor to play for Mexico and a privilege to be captain of my team. I am proud of my team we had the game in control, but we lost momentum in the last chukker.” –Mexico’s Mariano Gracida
The stage was set for an electrifying final chukker as the teams battled for a position in the XI FIP World Polo Championship. Both the USA and Mexico suffered penalties in the first three minutes of the fifth, but neither could translate them into goals. USA was leaving everything out on the field, including two unexpected dismounts, both players rising uninjured.
A penalty 5 spot hit against the USA after the required horse change gave Mexico the advantage with three minutes and thirty seconds remaining in regulation time. USA intercepted the play backing the ball to Viana. A well-executed cut shot to goal from Viana was picked up nicely by Muller who finished the goal to take back the lead 8-7. The clock winding down, the ball bounced over the boards and out of play. Play resumed with a bowl-in which Viana snatched moving towards goal. A nearside backshot miss by Mexico, allowed USA’s Viana time to score the final goal, sealing the win for USA 9-7.
“I thought they did great, they have been training really hard the last month and the first two chukkers showed the teamwork. The third chukker we made a technical error, we went with our weaker horses so that we could have our stronger horses for the last two; the other team was able to score four goals against us and get back in the game and get ahead by two. Then the guys really showed their character along with their training and came back out scoring four goals in the last two chukkers and won by two, so we are really proud of them.” – Team USA Coach Joel Baker
After suffering a disappointing overtime loss in the 2015 X FIP World Polo Championship Final in Chile, USA will once again compete in the prestigious tournament, this time traveling down under, October 21-29.
“Playing home is great because you have got a lot of support, but at the same time its more pressure than anything else because people expect you to win,” said team captain Felipe Viana. “The support from everyone, the crowd, the brand—everything was great. We pulled it off and showed that we are a team that has a lot of attitude, that we are competitive and most importantly that we are friends. We want to go for revenge and we want to win the world title this time.”
Most Valuable Player was awarded to Felipe Viana for exceptional play, the game high scorer with five goals on the day. Best Playing Pony was presented to nine-year-old Chili played by Mexico, owned by Del Walton and bred by Gabriel Crespo in Aiken, South Carolina.