Photo Credit: OFC Media via VFF

The Cook Islands have retained their unbeaten record at the OFC U-19 Men’s Championship 2024 – Qualifying after a 3-2 win over American Samoa in stifling heat at VFF Freshwater Stadium in Port Vila.

The Cooks were coming off a draw in the opening round while American Samoa was striving to bounce back from a loss as the match started in challenging conditions – the temperature a sizzling 32.3 degrees an hour before kickoff.

The two smallest nations in the Oceania region both had bright starts to the match, but it was the Cook Islands who edged in front in the 14th minute when strapping striker Oscar Wichman broke clear on the left-hand side and dribbled unchallenged for thirty metres before unleashing. His shot hit the left arm of charging American Samoa goalkeeper Felise Fata but still crept inside the right-hand post.

The advantage was snuffed out in the 41st minute when Cook Islands defender Temarii Jubilee suffered a brain fade and dived head-first rugby-style to take the legs out from Ben Tofaeono inside the box. Referee Gerard Ionatana was compelled to point to the spot and Petu Pouli made no mistake, sending Emmett Connolly left before calmly converting the penalty to the right.

The goal sparked wild celebrations for the youngsters from the US territory, but the joy was tempered just minutes later when the Cook Islands scored in added time to regain the advantage. Fata blocked a strong shot from Jeremiah Williams, but Wichman followed up diligently and struck a left footer into the back of the net to secure his second goal of the half and give the Cook Islands a 2-1 lead at the break.

The second spell started superbly for American Samoa when Daniel Lee stormed into the box with defenders slow to react, leaving the left winger with plenty of net to aim at and convert.

Cook Islands restored their advantage just five minutes later when Wichman was tripped in the penalty area chasing a nice through-ball and replacement Lopez Samuel scored from the penalty spot to make it 3-2.

That marked the end of the scoring, but not the end of the endeavour from both teams.

American Samoan left centreback Mark Nelisi defused a number of explosive attacks, left back Leaga Lealuga cleared brilliantly off the line on one occasion and goalkeeper Fata had a second game of distinction in a losing cause.

But the day belonged to the Cook Islands. With a draw and a win from their opening two matches they are poised to pounce if opening day victor Vanuatu stumble when they tackle Tonga later today.

The tournament’s final round, on Monday, will see American Samoa take on Tonga while the Cook Islands square up against hosts Vanuatu.

Only the top ranked team after the three qualifying rounds will earn the final spot at the OFC U-19 Men’s Championship being held in Samoa this July.

American Samoa: 2 (Peteau Pauli 42′ (Pen), Daniel Lee 52′)

Cook Islands: 3 (Oscar WICHMAN 14’, 45+3’, Lopez SAMUEL 57’ (pen))

HT: 2-1 Cook Islands