When Georgetown goalkeeper Tomas Romero stepped on to the goal line for the penalty kick shootout in Sunday’s NCAA men’s soccer championship game, the Cherry Hill native didn’t look like someone who’d been scored on three times in regulation.
Romero, only a freshman, had already seen enough in his soccer career to know how to keep his head on straight.
Two years ago, he made his professional-level debut with the Union’s minor-league USL team, as a 16-year-old unpaid amateur in the Union’s academy. Romero has now played 17 games in the USL, and is in El Salvador’s youth national team system. He’s likely to be on the country’s under-23 squad for Concacaf’s Olympic qualifying tournament in March.
So those three goals didn’t rattle him. Nor did the first six penalty kick takers scoring. All Romero had to do was stop one. He did just that in the seventh round, giving Georgetown the win over favored Virginia: 7-6 in the shootout after the 3-3 tie.
It was Georgetown’s first men’s soccer title, and just the third team NCAA title in any sport for the school.
“I’ve had a lot of hard games and high pressure games in my career, but that was definitely a first for me,” Romero told The Inquirer in an interview Tuesday afternoon. “I really wanted to save the last one, because who doesn’t? … So many emotions ran through me at that time, and I was just so happy because almost a year’s work, hard work, practice and everything came down to one save.”
Romero said he had some film to scout Virginia’s players with, and film of his past performances in shootouts. But he admitted that he “watched maybe a minute of it, and then I just turned it off. And then we ended up going to PKs and I just I relied on my instinct.”
His parents weren’t quite as confident watching from the stands. Romero said his father, who emigrated to New Jersey from El Salvador, stayed put; but his mother was too nervous and went to the restroom.
Georgetown coach Brian Wiese, who was a goalkeeper in his playing days, said Romero’s experience in the USL “was 100% vital" to his development.
“He was in midseason form because of that experience, and it showed,” Wiese said. “Playing in the national championship game, on TV, in front of 8,000 people [in the stands], that USL experience served him well. Those things didn’t feel too big for him.”
Romero’s performance was made more remarkable by Wiese’s system of rotating goalkeepers this season. Wiese alternated Giannis Nikopolidis and Romero game-by-game, right through the Final Four. Even though Nikopolidis shut out Stanford in the semifinal, Wiese stuck to the plan.
“It was never a thought for us that [Romero] wasn’t going to be excellent for us,” Wiese said. “Neither of them had a rocky performance. And I think a lot of that is probably due to, in a lot of ways, the fact that they weren’t playing every game.”
Romero said he got congratulatory messages from his Union coaches, including former assistant B.J. Callaghan (who’s now with the U.S. national team) and current assistant Jay Cooney.
“I just told them how grateful I was for all the work they put in,” Romero said. “With the Union, I accomplished a lot personally, and it all came through the hard work that the coaches put into me in making me a better player."
Winning the title — and doing so in a shootout — also gave some validation to Romero’s decision to go to college instead of turning pro as a teenager. College soccer isn’t as high a level of competition as the USL, but Romero and his family value the prestige of a Georgetown degree. Now he has had success in crucibles on the field and in the classroom.
“I didn’t know if it would be something that would make me better for the future — I wasn’t 100% confident in that,” he said. “That was really my biggest worry. We won [the title], we have more to push for, and it’s just give me a whole new experience that I can use for the future.”