As kids, we grew up watching our favorite soccer players and teams on television, hoping that one day maybe we could play alongside them. But for so long, they existed only as pixels on a screen or jerseys hanging on our walls. As I packed for our 10-day trip to England, I began to realize this was all going to change. We were going to be travelling to the birthplace of soccer, and seeing, in person, the teams and players many of us had idolized since childhood.
On March 13, the men’s soccer team began our journey across the pond for what would end up being the trip of a lifetime. We were given the incredible opportunity to play against professional opposition, attend games between some of the best teams in the world, and experience a culture unlike any other.
It didn’t quite hit me until our bus pulled up to the facility where we would have our first training session. This training ground was home to Queens Park Rangers, a professional team that played in the Premier League against some of the best clubs in the world, including Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United. My teammates and I gazed out the windows at the many fields scattered throughout the training grounds. It may have been pure excitement, jet lag, or a combination of both, but I remember that when I stepped off the bus and looked at the QPR badge, everything seemed surreal.
In the week that followed, we watched two Premier League matches, two championship matches, played four matches of our own, toured a multitude of historic stadiums, and visited a wide variety of cities throughout England. To say we were busy would be an understatement.
We played our first match against Hayes and Yeading on March 15 and overcame an early 2-0 deficit to win 5-2.
Immediately following this victory, we made our way to the first Premier League game of the tour, Chelsea vs. Southampton. The atmosphere was incredible, and you could really feel the passion that the 45,000 fans had for their teams, whether it was the tens of thousands of screaming Chelsea fans or the smaller, but still considerably loud, group of away supporters in the corner of the stadium. I’m a Chelsea fan, so it was very special for me. But even the guys who weren’t Chelsea supporters still got chills because of the game atmosphere.
Our second game was against Barnet FC, and they were a tough test. We scored two goals within the first half hour of the game and held on for the 2-0 win.
Later in the week, we had a game that we all knew would test us as a team against Stoke City U-21s. We were down 1-0 at halftime and knew we would have to come together if we wanted to rally. The boys came out fighting in the second half and went on to win 3-1.
The next day, we headed to the city of Liverpool for a guided tour of Anfield, an incredibly historic stadium and home to Liverpool Football Club. They have one of the best fan bases in all of soccer—and, I would argue, in all of sports. We got to touch the historic “This is Anfield” sign before we walked onto the pitch. The team’s anthem, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” played through the loudspeakers as we walked onto the field and we could imagine what it was like for the guys playing there. It was incredible to visit a club with such history.
We played our fourth and final game of the tour against First Point USA. Everyone was pretty tired, as we had been travelling non-stop for a week and had just played a tough match the day before, but come game time, the locker room was buzzing with excitement, as everyone was feeling energized by the prospect of going undefeated. The game started off evenly, with good play from both sides for the early parts of the game. We led 2-0 before the half. Steven Stryker had a brilliant performance, scoring a second-half hat trick that led us to a 5-0 victory, a great way to end the playing part of our tour.
We ended the trip going 4-0 with 15 goals scored and only three conceded, a record we were all proud to head back to the States with.
What wouldn’t appear on the score sheet, though, was the incredible experience we gained in such a short period of time. We started off our first game going down 2-0 in a matter of minutes, and to turn around and win our final game of the tour 5-0 really exemplified what this trip was all about: growth, leadership and camaraderie. It’s something we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives.