The disbelief was on the face of every player upon hearing the news. After completing its spring matches, the Stanford men’s soccer team was looking ahead to its annual alumni match in mid-May, only to have head coach Jeremy Gunn break the news that the Cardinal would no longer be facing the alumni. Instead, on Saturday, May 17, they would now be scrimmaging with the United States Men’s National Team.
“No one really believed it. We were sitting in the locker room after a training session and we all just looked around and laughed at the apparent joke,” said rising redshirt senior midfielder Austin Meyer. “But when Gunn’s facial expression didn’t change, and he assured us that he was serious, our eyes started to light up.”
The Yanks were spending two weeks on The Farm for their training camp ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and a May 27 friendly against Azerbaijan at Candlestick Park. Looking for match-quality tests as it readied to pare its roster down to the 23-man limit, the team reached out to the Cardinal coaching staff for a fresh challenge. It was a pleasant surprise for Stanford, as the possibility of the two sides scrimmaging hadn’t been discussed leading up to the U.S. team’s visit, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that the Cardinal knew it would be crazy to pass up.
“Originally I had thought that maybe they would need a few extra players for training, or who knows, we figured they’d need some practice games,” Gunn said. “I thought maybe Azerbaijan would be interested in a game, as we’re allowed to play one foreign team a year as an exception, but when [the U.S. team] asked us about playing a practice game behind closed doors, it was pretty exciting for us.”
The U.S., making its seventh straight World Cup appearance in 2014, opens Group G play Monday at 3 p.m. PT against Ghana. The Yanks will also take on European powers Portugal (June 22, 3 p.m. PT) and Germany (June 26, 9 a.m. PT) in what many experts are calling the “Group of Death” of this edition of the World Cup. As the U.S. solidified its qualification for the event last year, US Soccer was already taking a look at Stanford as its potential training base ahead of the World Cup.
“Earlier in the year [U.S. Soccer] came out for a site visit, and we got to show Coach [Jurgen] Klinsmann and the rest of the staff around, and they were really impressed with everything about the place, the facilities and the overall location,” Gunn recounted.
The visit from the USMNT continued a trend of top national sides and clubs utilizing the top-notch facilities and environment of Stanford for training. Within the past year Stanford has hosted Italian giant and reigning Serie A champion Juventus in addition to English side Norwich City, late of the Barclay’s Premier League.
“That’s something that we’re proud to open our doors to. We had Juventus and Norwich City here training last year. And as coaches, we get to learn immensely, but also as soccer fans we get to see some of the best soccer players in the world training on our game field, training at Stanford Stadium, cruising around campus in the golf carts, it’s really neat,” Gunn noted. “These players have been spoiled by some of the best facilities in the world, and yet they come to Stanford and they’re blown away by what an incredible campus this is.”
Thank you Stanford for the hospitality! Team had a great camp, but still lots of work to be done.... Next stop, New York— tim howard (@TimHowardGK) May 29, 2014
Among the 30 players in the U.S. camp at the time of the scrimmage with the Cardinal were World Cup veterans Jozy Altidore (Sunderland), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla), Tim Howard (Everton), Brad Guzan (Aston Villa), and Landon Donovan (LA Galaxy), men who had made their World Cup debuts even before the current Cardinal players had committed to The Farm. To consider the opportunities to, say, go up for a 50-50 ball with Bradley, test speed and muscle against Altidore, or try to score a goal past Howard were some that the Cardinal players eagerly anticipated would be an understatement. They even received a few pre-scrimmage words from U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
“Coach Klinsmann came up to us before the game and encouraged us to play well. He told us that they have been training hard and that it would be a good match,” said rising senior forward Jimmy Callinan. “He said that at the end of the day it is a game just like any of the other hundreds or thousands of games we have played before. We wanted to win.”
The Cardinal would play two hour-long scrimmages that day, as the U.S. had broken up its contingent into two training groups. While the results of the scrimmages and even specific details cannot be discussed, Gunn and the players came away very pleased with the Cardinal’s performance.
“It’s really exciting for our players because these are the players they look up to and are in the positions that they hope to be in one day,” Gunn described. “To actually be on the field competing with them, trying to win tackles and 1-v-1 battles and basically go toe-to-toe to them was something that was great for our players. While we’re not allowed to reveal things publicly, I know each player has their stories coming out of the games.”
The experience of testing themselves against the best in the United States, as well as seasoned pros on the San Jose Earthquakes and Sacramento Republic FC earlier in the spring, instilled even more confidence into a Stanford team that even now is not lacking for it. A run to the final 16 of last season’s NCAA Tournament has the squad taking down the lessons learned against the country’s top players for use in the coming campaign.
“After playing the national team I was even more assured of all the great hard work we put in this winter and spring,” Meyer noted. “We approached this game as we would any other. We stepped out onto the field with the best players in the country and we didn't let them have anything easy. We more than held our own.”
“The experience definitely illustrated to me that we are not far off from professional success by any means,” Callinan concurred. “Earning a tie against the Quakes and beating Sacramento Republic (in prior spring matches) showed me that our team is one of the best in the country and all our guys can make it at the next level. We just need to keep pushing forward and growing as players mentally, physically, and tactically.”Yet before Stanford opens its 2014 preseason camp in August, there is a World Cup to watch for the next four weeks. When the U.S. takes the field for its opener Monday in Natal, the Cardinal will be watching intently, and even with a greater sense of attachment as the squad has done its part in helping the Yanks prepare for this stern test.