Vamos a España: Bruno faces pro clubs on tour

Sports Editor
Monday, April 9, 2012

The Bears take a moment for a photo with Spanish club Rayo Vallecano.

Seldom do the names ‘Atletico Madrid’ and ‘Brown University’ cross paths. But over Spring Break, the men’s soccer team took to the field against a starting 11 of youth and reserves players from the storied La Liga club, taking its professional opponents off guard with a 2-0 win. The victory was just one of the many highlights of the squad’s 10-day tour of Spain over break, which included five games against clubs from Spain, Sweden and Norway, and an experience in a soccer-crazed nation that the players will remember for years.

In friendly matches against professional clubs that fielded lineups of reserve and youth players, Bruno went 2-2-1. In addition to besting Atletico, the team tied another La Liga side from Madrid, Rayo Vallecano, 1-1. After leaving Madrid, the Bears played to a 2-2 draw with Swedish first division side BK Hacken’s U-19 squad, fell 3-0 to CF Reus Deportiu of the Spanish Second Division and defeated Norwegian third division club Nesodden IF 1-0.

In Atletico Madrid and Rayo Vallecano, the Bears defeated and tied starting 11s competing in La Liga, the top Spanish soccer league and one of the most competitive in the world. Second only to Real Madrid and Barcelona FC , Atletico has won the league and the Copa del Rey, Spain’s top club tournament, nine times each since its founding in 1903. The team has recently fielded some of soccer’s biggest names, including Diego Forlan, Sergio Aguero and Fernando Torres, who was signed by the club at the age of 11 and rose through their youth system.

The matches against Rayo Vallecano and Atletico were the Bears’ first of the trip, and Bruno was eager to go toe-to-toe with players who might in a few years’ time be lining up against the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Midfielder Jack Kuntz ’14 said he thought the Bears were able to surprise their opponents with their play and in doing so make a statement about the growth of the sport in the U.S.

“You always want to match yourself up against the best,” Kuntz said. “I think a lot of the Spanish players knew we were Americans and might have thought it was going to be an easy game. … We were able to show them that American soccer is still pretty quality compared to what they were doing over there.”

Daniel Taylor ’15 said that though they were playing youth and reserve players, the level of talent of the opposing sides were some of the most impressive the team had ever encountered.

“The talent was pretty incredible,” Taylor said. “You see some of these kids and they’re 17 years old, and they’re really young, but they’re keeping up with us, if not … more skilled than a lot of guys on our own team.”

Though some of the Brown players had played against international sides in the past, goalkeeper Sam Kernan-Schloss ’13 said “by far, this is the highest level any of us have ever played in terms of international competition.”

In addition to the level of play, the Bears also noted the differences in the style of play between American college soccer and the European game, including “the way they pass and move and how comfortable they all are on the ball,” Kuntz said.

In NCAA soccer, play is much more physical, and referees tend to allow more contact between players. But as the Bears soon learned, the refs overseas had a much quicker whistle.

“Towards the beginning of the trip, we just got called for a lot of fouls,” Kuntz said. “Collegiate American soccer is very physical, and we kind of tried to bring that to Spain. Our first game we got called for everything, and we were arguing because we thought it was fair play.”

The team had to adapt its style of play, but Kernan-Schloss said it was also important that the Bears did not change their identity.

“We stuck to who we are as Brown men’s soccer, which is a gritty team,” Kernan-Schloss said.

While the trip was a new and exciting experience for the team, the players also viewed it as a key 10 days in the team’s growth and progression toward next fall’s campaign, both in terms of on-field performance and off-the-field camaraderie. This past fall, the team split the Ivy League championship with Dartmouth before making an impressive run in the NCAA tournament to the third round, but key seniors graduating in May will include forwards Sean Rosa ‘12.5 and T.J. Popolizio ’12, as well as midfielders Rob Medairos ’12 and Taylor Gorman ’12.

“It’s massive, because we got five extra games and five extra practices,” Kernan-Schloss said. “That doesn’t seem like a lot. It’s a week’s worth of practice in the fall, but for the Ivy League where we’re so limited in offseason practices, that’s huge.”

For Taylor, a first-year, the trip was especially critical – he and some of the team’s other younger players were able to get real game experience alongside their more seasoned teammates.

“Especially for some guys who didn’t get to play a lot in the fall, it was definitely an opportunity,” he said. “To actually play a full 70 minutes or a full half was a really good opportunity for us to play with the guys on the team, have an impact, develop throughout the game – I think that will help us so much the rest of the spring and into next year in terms of confidence.”

Off the pitch, the team was equally enthusiastic about its opportunities to learn about Spanish history and culture, from strolling the streets and bartering with vendors to spending time with the family of Madrid-native Jose Salama ’14.

Players also were able to experienc
e a whole new level of soccer culture. The players relished the opportunity to spend time in a country whose devotion to the game of football borders on religious. The team was able to practice in Madrid at the Spanish national team’s training complex and see the team’s 2010 World Cup trophy. The Bears also attended a Barcelona FC match at Camp Nou, one of international soccer’s most hallowed grounds.

“I don’t think any of us have been to a stadium quite like that for soccer,” Kernan-Schloss said. “American football stadiums here hold a lot of people, but to watch the sport you love and be watching it with 100,000 people is pretty cool.”

The trip was one that has been a tradition for Brown men’s soccer. Every four years, through fundraising and donations from alumni, the team embarks on an international tour. In the past, the team has travelled to Argentina, Brazil, England and Scandinavia.

Kernan-Schloss said the team is grateful for the unique opportunity, and that he believes efforts like these on the part of American soccer teams may prove integral to the sport’s attempt to breakthrough into the mainstream of the U.S. sports world.

“It’s their American football, it’s their basketball – all combined,” Kernan-Schloss said. “When we were there, we didn’t see any other sports being played. It’s huge there and for Americans to go see that and hopefully bring that spirit back to the U.S. will be huge for the growth of soccer in the U.S.”



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