BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, December 7, 2011
The last few days have been a wild ride for American goalkeeper Diego Restrepo who is now being looked upon to guide America de Cali in a pivotal time in the club's history.
Restrepo began the season as the first choice keeper for America de Cali but became the backup shortly after a coaching change in the first few games.
The situation at America de Cali is complicated. On the final game of the regular season, they qualified for the league's playoffs. At the same time, since they have struggled during the last three years, they are also set to play in a relegation playoff series once their first division playoffs are complete.
So on one hand, they are competing both for the championship and to avoid relegation at the same time.
Just prior to the playoffs starting the club's starting goalkeeper Julian Viafara was suspended for six months after failing a drug test. With little time to prepare, Restrepo was elevated to becoming the starting keeper at crucial team.
In the first round of the playoffs, America de Cali faced off against Once Caldas which is a club that has the best offense by far in Colombia. In 18 regular season games, Once had scored 34 goals - six more than the second best offensive team.
In the first leg of the series, America de Cali drew 0-0 after benefiting from a 5th minute red card by Once Caldas forward John Pajoy.
For Restrepo, it was a positive experience despite not picking up a win.
"I felt good," Restrepo told YA from Colombia. "In the beginning of the game I was a little bit nervous because I haven't played in 16 games. It was my third professional game in the league so it was a good experience to be out there. It was a packed house. I needed the first game. In my first few games earlier in the season, I had the benefit of playing the whole preseason as the number one. But with that [shutout], my confidence is coming back. I'm comfortable."
The return leg against Once Caldas is set for Thursday night and a win would send America de Cali into the semifinals. The situation will be far more challenging than over the weekend as Once Caldas will have the fans behind them and will likely not make the same mistake of conceding an early red card.
Restrepo remains confident ahead of tomorrow's game because he was particularly impressed with America's defense.
"It's a bittersweet feeling because for 85 minutes we played with a man up but we were unable to score a goal," Restrepo discussed. "You're disappointed about that but on the other hand, the defense played very well. They probably only had two or three chances. It's particularly good because Once Caldas is a team that averages around three goals a game. It was important to control them. For the next game we have to be careful because they are a team that has a lot of speed. They can play a lot of counter attacks."
While the season has been up and down for both Restrepo and the club, the young American is happy to be with America de Cali at such an important time. While he lost his starting spot shortly after Wilson Piedrahita was hired as coach, he has grown a lot as a player in recent months.
"The team has been really good to me," Restrepo pointed out. "I prove every day in practice that I am capable of being the team's number one. In the beginning of the season with the coaching change I lost the starting spot but that's how it goes with every new coach. They want to bring in their own players. It's been good, though. I've learned a lot from [head coach Wilson Piedrahita] a lot. He's a very experienced guy."
Restrepo admits that it was not an ideal way to assume starting goalkeeper position. Viafara was a player he respected on and off the field. The sudden suspension was one that took the team by surprise as they were preparing for crucial games.
Despite the incident to Viafara, Restrepo is determined to seize the opportunity and establish himself as a top keeper while leading America de Cali both towards the title and away from relegation.
"It was a difficult situation," Restrepo said solemnly. "First of all Julian [Viafafa] is a great person and a great professional. It's unfortunate that this happened to him. He's also a key player for the team and a great leader. But for some reason God has given me the chance to step up and try to make history and make a mark on this team. I am aiming to take advantage of a situation. I want to try to establish my name in Colombia and hopefully South America and the world so people can see who I am."
Restrepo signed with America de Cali in January after a standout NCAA career with both the University of South Florida and the University of Virginia. In 2009, Restrepo lead UVA to the National Championship after a shootout win over Akron in the final game.
The final games for UVA in 2009 are when many American fans last watched Restrepo play. Since then, he feels that he is a far different player after turning professional in Colombia.
Restrepo believes the biggest difference between the game in the US and in Colombia is the pressure to win every game. This is even more exaggerated at America de Cali whose fans were used to being a dominate team in the country but now have to watch the team fight off relegation later this month.
"It's been a complete change," Restrepo admitted. "Mentally, it's very tough to play here. Pretty much everything that goes on is off the field stuff. The situation with America de Cali has been unfortunate the last eight months. It's been hard. If you lose one game, you get a lot of pressure from the fans. If you lose three games they start calling you [out] and not speaking with you on the streets. It's your team, it's your life. You have to be 100 percent all the time. With the relegation battle there is a lot more pressure."
Restrepo also holds out hope that with him now starting for America de Cali, he will be given another opportunity to get noticed by the US national team.
Currently, Tim Howard is the first choice under head coach Jurgen Klinsmann but after that, the situation becomes unclear. Bill Hamid has been the frequent backup but he is still uncapped.
Restrepo was born in Venezuela but moved to Colombia before his first birthday. When he was eight, he moved to the United States. While in the United States he developed as a player and has played for the US U-17 and US U-20 national teams.
Restrepo has citizenship with the US, Venezuela and Colombia and there have been rumors circulating that Venezuela has also been interested in calling him up. While he doesn't deny that Venezuela could be an option down the line if the US doesn't work, he is still adamant that the US is his first choice.
"I always train for it every day. It's always my goal to play for the national team. There are some rumors that Venezuela is looking at me right now. It would be great for the US-Venezuela game in January to get two callups from two different federations. My heart is with the United States. It's the country where I was raised, educated, and made me who I am today. "
Restrepo and America de Cali will visit Once Caldas on Thursday for the second leg of their playoff series which is currently even at 0-0.