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Souders Steps Up: Residency Veteran Takes New Leadership Role in Madrid and Bradenton

Wake up. Eat breakfast. Hit the training field.

Six mornings a week start just like that in Residency, where defender Andrew Souders has spent the past three semesters. Last week, however, Souders and 23 of his U.S. U-17 MNT teammates were waking up not in Bradenton, Fla., but in Madrid, Spain. Rather than a short van drive to the soccer complex at IMG Academies, they took a bus to Ciudad de Futbol, home of the Spanish FA.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it,” said Souders, a 5-foot, 10-inch defender.

Along with training twice daily, the U.S. team scrimmaged the youth teams of Real Madrid and Rayo Vallecano in preparation for a pair of international friendlies against Spain.

As Wilmer Cabrera’s team continues preparation for the fast-approaching 2011 CONCACAF U-17 Championship in February, playing games at the home of the 2010 FIFA World Cup champion may prove to be invaluable, even though the scoreboard did not favor the young Americans.

“Everyone knew about Spain’s traditions. Obviously the full team just won the World Cup in South Africa, and we were all ready to play against them,” explained the Crew Soccer Academy product, who wore the captain’s armband for the U.S. in Madrid. “There were a lot of people at the game and you could just feel that everyone was behind their team. The head coach of the full Spanish team was there and that showed how much they care about even the youth program there.”

The first game was an even affair, but a fluke Spanish goal proved to be the difference in the 1-0 loss. In the second match, Esteban Rodriguez put the U.S. ahead in the fifth minute before Spain answered quickly with two goals to take a 2-1 win.

“Spain moved the ball around very crisply and it showed us the level that some of the top teams in the world are playing at right now,” said Souders, who played in both games against the European power. “We played them pretty well I thought, but we know that we need to improve to get to and stay at that level. It kept us in check and reminded us that we have to keep working.”

While in Madrid, the U.S. team also took a private tour of Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, legendary home of Real Madrid, where they toured the locker room and got to walk around the field. The next day, Souders and his teammates were sitting right behind the home bench as Real Madrid hosted La Liga foe Osasuna. Many of the U.S. players were attending their first club game in Europe.

“Something about being in that stadium just felt different,” said Souders of the team’s front row vantage point. “The atmosphere was amazing and the game just kind of flew by. We could see from close up how fast the game is at this level and how skillful every player is. On television you can tell it’s good obviously, but we could really see what they were trying to do when we were so close. We heard them talking and yelling for the ball, things like that.”

Now that Souders and his teammates have returned to Bradenton, they are back to the lifestyle that the Amherst, Ohio-native is now accustomed to as one of only eight players entering his third semester. With 21 new teammates in Residency, Souders is a veteran in the program and has seen his role shift with the start of the new semester.

“It’s nice to be back with the full roster of 40 guys,” he said. “Everyone is fresh and ready to go here, getting back in the groove of it. We are trying to get to know [the new guys] and help them around since they are still figuring a few things out down here. I try to be more of a leader and just help out with little things as much as I can.”

The U.S. U-17 MNT will continue to take international trips in preparation for the difficult situations that can sometimes arise during World Cup qualifying. But in the meantime, Souders and his teammates know what lies just a few short months away.

“In training sessions, everyone is getting a little more into it so we can prepare for qualifying. I think it’s a little more intense because we are all realizing how close we are to that event and how important that is.”

Waking up, training and going to school continues to be the way of life for the 40 players in Residency, but with next year’s major international events approaching, the players dream of waking up next year at the World Cup.