BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, July 23, 2014
The early rounds of the Europa League qualifying rounds are often met with little fanfare across Europe.
It usually serves as an opportunity for small clubs to briefly grab the spotlight of European competition before the larger clubs join in.
For Icelandic club Stjarnan, the Europa League has provided a time of excitement for its fans and its players. On Thursday the club will play it what is most likely its biggest game ever as it hosts Scotland's Motherwell in the second leg of the second qualification round. The first leg finished 2-2 after a dramatic comeback from Stjarnan.
American midfielder Pablo Punyed, 24, is happy to be part of it. He is aware that the club has never played in European competition and this is a rare and exiting time for the supporters and for himself personally.
"It can be exciting," Punyed said. "Our fans love it. Whether it is league games, cup games, or Europa league games, our fans show up. In terms of personally, it's always exciting to play in front of another team's fans like Motherwell. They had 10,000 fans who were chanting and screaming. They believed that they would win after going up 2-0 in the first 20 minutes. They thought they had us but we showed a lot of character to come back."
"I think when we went down 2-0, fans following the game were like ‘OK, this is where the run ends' but we gave our fans something else to think about," Punyed added. "That excitement will transfer over to the second leg. It doesn't mean anything if we don't move on."
Punyed insisted that Stjarnan are taking things on a game by game basis these days but he also believes that there is a lot of optimism and confidence around the club. With the Icelandic Premier League in midseason, Stjarnan are undefeated and sit in second place. In addition, the club is undefeated in the Europa League.
Motherwell on Thursday will be a difficult challenge but with two away goals from the first leg, Punyed believes that his team can advance to the third round where likely even better competition awaits.
"We're expecting a packed stadium," he said. "Right now, we're on a high. We're undefeated in the league and undefeated in the Europa. We know what they're about now. In the first 20 minutes we were stage shocked but after that it was an open game. The game could have ended 5-5. We're looking forward to the game."
These are fun times for Punyed who is enjoying living in Iceland describing it as a "fantastic country" and that he "loves everything about it."
On the field, he is focused on Stjarnan and wants to help the club continue with what could be its best ever year. He describes the Iceland Premier League as "somewhere between the MLS and the NASL" but is quick to cite that Icelandic clubs have pulled off upsets in European play recently and insists that "it's a much better league than others give it credit for."
As for his future, Punyed would love to have an opportunity in MLS. After he left St. John's in 2012, he was selected by Sporting Kansas City with the 32nd overall pick in the second round of the 2012 MLS Supplemental Draft but at the time he had already made the decision to sign with Fjolnir in Iceland. In 2013, he stayed within Iceland and signed with Fylkir and in 2014 he continued his accent in Norway after joining Stjarnan.
Punyed trained with Sporting Kansas City during this past winter and he still holds the club in very high regard. He recalls having discussions with head coach Peter Vermes who stressed that Punyed needed to be more dynamic. The Miami-born attacking midfielder has taken the advice to heart and has worked hard on his game in those areas.
He is still very open to MLS should the opportunity arise and he hopeful that the introduction of New York City FC into the league will open some doors in the city where he excelled in college and was named co-Big East midfielder of the year in his senior season with St. Johns.
Those, however, are discussions for future days. For now, it is about the Europa League and also winning the Icelandic Premier League where Stjarnan sits just 2 points behind leaders FH.
"Of course the last game of the season is against FH, and that could very well be a final," Punyed said. "Our goal is to finish as champions, there is no doubt about that."