In the opening minutes of a scrimmage last week, 20-year-old Burlingame Dragons striker Daniel Musovski received the ball, looked up, and assessed his options. The junior at UNLV had only arrived at Burlingame three days prior, and was eager to make an impression at the semi-pro, San Jose Earthquakes affiliate PDL club where he’d play during the summer after scoring 14 goals as an All-America sophomore in college.
“It was the very first time I got the ball in the game, and I just looked up and played it to somebody,” he recalls. “Then a second later I realized the player I passed to was Sergio Agüero.”
Yes, that Sergio Agüero.
“I just started smiling in the middle of the game,” Musovski said.
International and big-name club teams often use PDL squads as training partners. The teams, made up of a mix of regional college players looking for a pro-like summer experience, youth players from nearby MLS clubs, and under-the-radar pros, are often happy to oblige. The experience not only keeps the traveling team in game shape, but serves as an unforgettable experience for the players on the other side of the ball.
Along with 21-year-old midfielder (and fellow UNLV Rebel) Irvin Somera, Musovski was one of two players who got that experience, but with one crucial difference: Instead of playing against Argentina with their Burlingame teammates, the two were slotted into the Argentina team, playing alongside some of the best in the world.
The invitation started with a text message, sent by Dragons coach Eric Bucchere to his players on the evening of June 6. Would the team like to play in a 40-minute scrimmage against the Argentina national team after its eventual win over Chile in its Copa America Centenario opener at Santa Clara's Levi's Stadium?
The answer, obviously, was yes. The next morning, the team gathered at the training complex and the Dragons team that would face Argentina took shape.
“I think they were just anxious to get in,” Somera said of his teammates. The just-graduated midfielder had participated in some training exercises with Argentina earlier in the team’s stay, so he figured he’d let some others get in the game. “They were raising their hands for spots, and I just kind of laid back a little bit.”
Argentina fielded a side that only featured players who hadn’t started the previous evening’s game against Chile, bringing its squad of 23 players down to 12 available for the scrimmage. Subtract a goalkeeper from that (because you can play only one), and it becomes 11. Subtract the injured Lionel Messi (More on him later), and it becomes 10. With an additional absence on top of all that, Argentina was down to nine available players for an 11-on-11 game.
So Argentina elected to add from the four Burlingame players that weren’t already set to face them. Somera and Musovski got the call.
“Then they gave us a warm-up top, and the warm-up top was really nice!” said Somera.
Somera played a box-to-box role in a three man midfield, with Atlético Madrid’s Matías Kranevitter playing as a defensive mid, and PSG’s Javier Pastore in his customary attacking role. Musovski, usually a center forward, played on the left wing thanks to the presence of Agüero, who played in his normal position as striker. Tottenham midfielder Erik Lamela played on the right.
But while their positions may have been different, the players’ findings were largely the same. Both marveled at their teammates’ touch on the ball, and their work rate off of it.
“Before the game started I was thinking 'Man, I really need to play good,' but then when I got the ball I had like three [passing] options, every single time I picked my head up,” Mursowski said.
“It's easier for you to pass the ball, to open up for the ball, because everybody does the right movements,” Somera added. “Their touch is so quality that it's easier for you on the pitch.”
Both players also noted that, though it was a meaningless scrimmage the day after an intense game, all the Argentina players played with intensity and focus. They barked orders at their new teammates, instructing them on where to be and when.
“This is just a training they had after a game,” Musovski said. “You'd think the players would just be going through the motions. But they weren't at all."
From there, Musovski and Somera each swung back and forth between two different states of mind, riding a sine wave of emotion. On one end, there was awe at being teammates with players they had seen on TV, watching defenders whip in inch-perfect passes to feet while Agüero’s deft touches toyed with defenders.
“I never thought I'd actually be playing with them,” Somera said. “It was something so indescribable. I was in shock.”
But these periods of wonder always fell away into an easy realization: Everyone, from Somera and Musovski to Lamela and Pastore, is playing the same game.
“Then I absorbed it in and I realized, really, it's just a scrimmage,” Somera said. “They're all human. They're world-class players, but at the end of the day it's just soccer. Everybody comes together and just plays.”
That feeling, then, gets interrupted by another moment of awe. At some point during the scrimmage, both Somera and Musovski described instances of a break in play, a look around, and a realization that there was one more body among those on the sideline. Messi, who up until that point had been doing fitness work on his own, was watching the scrimmage unfold.
“That definitely took me off guard a little,” said Musovski.
“I never thought he would ever watch me play,” said Somera.
“Like, ‘Lionel Messi is watching ME play a soccer game right now,’ said Musovski. “It's crazy!”
That the Argentina team lost 1-0 to Burlingame in that scrimmage, on a goal by Jamael Cox, meant comparatively little after such a singular (and weirdly parallel) experience. Both UNLV players noticed similar things, Each took photos with several of the Argentinian players, Messi included, afterwards. Both received thanks from those same players for making up their numbers, and both thanked them for the opportunity to do so. Both immediately relayed their experiences to their fathers, major influences in each of their respective introductions to the sport.
“He's stoked too,” Somera said of his father. “He doesn't have words for it either.”