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US Triumphs Over Japan on Last-Second Shot

Updated: May 10, 2019

Photo by Adam Troy

The United States defeated Japan 7-6 tonight in an epic floorball game that will probably go unnoticed by most of the floorball world. The programs are low-ranked – the US comes in at #15 and Japan at #16. But for the people involved, it was one of the most exciting games in recent memory. Five lead changes, a last-second game-winning goal, and emotion upon emotion from two teams that gave it their all and left everything on the pitch. And it all happened on the biggest stage that floorball has to offer – the World Floorball Championship.

The US had never won a game at the group stage.  They are minus-48 in all their cumulative games at the WFC level.  These two teams have faced each other in each of the previous two WFC’s and in both cases, it was the 15th place game.  Each time, the United States won.  Last year, the score was 7-6, with the winning goal scored by Team USA in the 51st minute. This year’s game managed to go a little further than that – 59:58 to be precise.

Down one with under 12 minutes remaining and needing a win since Japan held the tiebreaker, the United States beat Japan on a goal from Ethan Jacques on the right wing that Japanese goalkeeper Reia Nagata narrowly missed over his right shoulder with 1.8 seconds remaining on the clock. After stopping 27 of 33 shots, most of them ripped at Nagata from close range, the last was just out of reach.

The game was as balanced and back and forth as any floorball game has ever been. Two teams, evenly matched, both playing for a chance to finish higher than either country ever had before. Until today, the US had never won a single group match at the MU19 WFC. This match was between two perennial bottom-dwellers looking to make a statement and step up from the bottom.

The game started with the intensity it deserved. Team USA was not shooting the way Coach Joel Olofsson wanted them to and so the US opened by aggressively pushing the pace. Japan countered with their speed and shot-making, using that speed to intercept quite a few passes from the Americans.

Tyler Radichel (9) reacts to his first international goal with teammate Kevin Weber (27) Photo: Adam Troy

The first seven minutes were back and forth, literally one end to the other. Each team would set up, take one or two shots, and then a turnover would send everyone running to the other end. Something had to give…and finally, something did. At 7:42 American defender Nate Hausman fired a shot towards the net and the Japanese defender attempted to kick it away but instead, it fell down in the box.  US forward Tyler Radichel pounced and flicked a backhand over Nagata’s outstretched leg and it was 1-0 in favor of Team USA. It was Radichel’s first international goal and it started the scoring for what would be a wild night at the Dartmouth Sportsplex.

Japan was not intimidated by going down one early. In their previous matches, they had gone down to Poland and come back to take the lead and then gone down four to Russia, and nearly came back to win it. And true to form, only four minutes later they did. With Japan set up around the perimeter and the US in a tight box, Satoru Shimoyama took a pass from Narumi Saruwatari in the corner and beat Jonathan Mooney to his right through three screening players.

Later in the first Japan would take the lead when Hiroto Moriya stole the ball along the boards and broke in on a two on one rush. He drew Mooney far enough out of the box and slipped a cross-court pass to Shimoyama, who slotted it into an empty net for the Japanese lead. A minute later, two quick passes up the floor pierced the American defense and this time it was Saruwatari’s turn on the pass from Yuichiro Sakazume to Mooney’s left. With 2:45 left in the first, Japan was up 3-1.

The Americans weren’t going quietly into the locker room, however. Setting back up in the Japanese zone, Aleksi Huttunen slipped it to Eric Dieckelman in the corner. The forward took it around the net and wrapped it around the post to score with 50 seconds to go in the first. Team USA went into the locker room down 3-2.

When the second period started, Japan jumped on a US mistake early in the period. Yamato Yoshihashi stole the ball around the center line, swept into the American zone, and fired a shot right into Mooney’s chest. Mooney couldn’t control the rebound, and Yoshihashi flipped it up over Mooney’s head to extend the Japanese lead to two at 4-2.  But Dieckelman set up two more American goals, one to Thomas Terhonen, and the next to Jacques.  The second period ended at 4-4.

Satoru Shimayama (17)  celebrates his second goal with teammates Yuichiro Sakazume (7) and Akira Kaneko (12)

Satoru Shimayama (17) celebrates his second goal with teammates Yuichiro Sakazume (7) and Akira Kaneko (12) Photo: Adam Troy

The final period was one of the tensest twenty minutes of either club’s history. This time the Americans struck first, with Dieckelman again feeding Jacques. Japan wasted no time in equalizing, when Ryosuke Shimoyama swept a shot in from nearly half-court, catching a screened Mooney by surprise at the bottom of the post to Mooney’s left. The goal from nearly 20 meters away stunned the US team as the Japanese pulled level again at 5-5.

By this point, this game was like a prizefight. Who would go down first? Who would get the sucker punch that would advance their country to the best finish either U19 team had ever achieved? No one could get a set piece or rhythm started, and Nagata made some spectacular sprawling saves to handle the US pressure. At 11:22 remaining, the deadlock was finally broken when Saruwatari stole the ball at center and ran to the right wing, then fed a cross-court pass to Moriya for the go-ahead goal.

The Americans were tense, but not yet desperate.  Neither team could seem to solve the problem of the other team’s goalie and defense. At 7:41, Olofsson called time out and the US huddled up at their bench. Three minutes later, at 4:36 to go, Dieckelman handed out his fourth assist of the game when he fed a circling Carl Eriksson from the end boards and Eriksson hit top shelf to the near post from just outside the box to tie the game at six.

Eric Dieckelman (7) works behind the net before providing one of his four assists. Photo: Adam Troy

The last four minutes seemed to be the longest in history. The teams worked end to end just as they had been for the entire game, but the USA needed a win, not a tie. Japan held the tiebreaker and all they had to do was hang on to win third place in Group C and a chance to play for 13th place. Finally, at 1:32, Japan called time out to plan the last 90 seconds of defense.

Olofsson called Mooney to the bench with about 45 seconds to go and an extra attacker came on for the Americans. That only lasted ten seconds until the US shot the ball over the end boards. Mooney came back on for the hit-in. Once the US secured the ball after the hit-in, Mooney again ran off and the extra attacker came back on. The US tried to get the ball to Eriksson on the right wing to take advantage of his excellent shot from there. Dieckelman fed the ball down to the corner to Huttunen, who shot but Nagata was there for the save. The rebound bounced back out to Eriksson at the wing as the clock hit ten seconds remaining.

The next ten seconds lasted an eternity in the minds of Team USA. Eriksson pivoted, spun, and shot from roughly twelve meters out but the shot was blocked. The ball popped up high in the air and Jacques and Saruwatari both went after the ball. There was shoulder to shoulder contact and Saruwatari went down but no call came from the referee. With under five seconds remaining, Jacques spun to face the net and shot from just outside the Gerflor logo on the floor and it caught Nagata by surprise just over his right shoulder and into the top corner of the net. The clock showed 1.8 seconds remaining and the Americans were up 7-6.

Ethan Jacques (8) celebrates the US victory after his game-winning goal while Japan reacts. Photo: Adam Troy

The older generations will remember the lines “the thrill of victory…and the agony of defeat.” Both emotions in their purest form were displayed on the floor at that moment. The Americans, after struggling so hard in previous matches and WFC’s, released the purest form of joy, celebration, and yes, relief that has been seen on the floorball pitch. The Japanese, however, were stunned to the point of tears, with sticks being tossed and players visibly sobbing as the final horn sounded moments later.

Sport is and always will be a microcosm of life. There are small victories and small defeats. Then there are the great victories and the devastating defeats. All shape the players and coaches, and how a team handles both determines the character of the team. Tonight, on a small stage, two great nations with two fledgling floorball programs met in a clash that would be worthy of an ESPN Instant Classic. Three lead changes in the last period. Two teams scrapping for that next rung up – a rung that is generally unnoticed by the vast majority of the floorball world. But for these two teams, this game will likely remain with them for some time.

For the Japanese, Saturday will be their third 15th place placement game in a row, but this time with a new opponent, New Zealand. The scrappy Kiwis fell to Canada Friday evening to wind up in Saturday morning’s game. Both programs will make the long trip back to the western Pacific with questions about what’s next for their teams and their players. But one thing is certain: in this game, the Japanese team played with heart, with courage, with honor and inspiration. They never gave up. They never played dirty. They left everything on the floor and just came up two seconds short.

For the Americans, it is a step forward for their program. Coach Olofsson has spent his entire week telling his players “get better each shift – each period – each game. The last game is the most important.” Indeed it is, for this time their last game is against host nation Canada, in their home rink, in front of their home fans. No matter how many United States fans traveled to this tournament, it will be all Canada Saturday night for one of the most anticipated lower division matches of the event: United States vs. Canada.

No, it’s not the best floorball in the world. It is not Sweden-Finland or Czech-Switzerland. But for floorball in North America, it is a major step forward, and an opportunity to show the world that we are coming. And with the World Games coming to Birmingham, Alabama in 2021, it may be the best thing for the IFF.