PNT Prepares for First Home Challenge Matches of 2017

Adapt and thrive – it’s the motto for the U.S. Soccer Paralympic National Team (PNT).

It’s a maxim born from the players’ backgrounds. Many have overcome personal obstacles to reach the PNT. Members of the squad have some type of neurological condition, whether a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or cerebral palsy (CP). Now, the challenges shift to international matches and world-class competition. Having reached its highest IFCPF ranking to date, the U.S. looks to prove it can thrive at its next major challenge, the International Federation for CP (IFCPF) Football World Championships in San Luis, Argentina this September.

The team’s last major competition came at the precipice of the sport – the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio. A seventh-place finish guaranteed a slot in this year’s world championships, the start of a new four-year competition cycle. The PNT’s success is all the more impressive when considering the U.S. has reached these heights without a Paralympic league or national championship, unlike seven of the top 10 ranked teams. Additionally, 29 of the 53 participating countries have CP soccer national championships.

In preparation for the World Championships, the U.S. is playing a series of friendlies, or as head coach Stuart Sharp calls them, challenge matches. The PNT is coming off a two-match rout of Chile in South America, defeating La Roja by scores of 6-0 and 10-0. In the second match, contributions came from several players new to the PNT. Nicholas Mayhugh and Tim Blodgett notched their first international scores with a brace apiece, and Ben Lindau struck once for his first tally.

U.S. PNT vs. Chile - July 5, 2017
The U.S. and Chile PNTs play two challenge matches in Chile.

“It’s great to have youth players come in and make an impact,” Sharp said. “That’s a tribute to the more experienced players and the support that they’ve given any new player that comes in … giving them an understanding of the expectations of playing for the U.S.”

This year’s squad returns nine players from the Rio roster. It’s on these stalwarts to promote the team culture as the PNT typically experiences a great deal of turnover. A central reason is that the players are not full-time footballers, meaning they have full-time careers or school to balance with their selection to the National Team. The roster includes aerospace engineers, local store clerks and lawyers. As a result, training camps can be hard to come by.

“They’re having to juggle their careers and studies as well as compete against full-time professional athletes,” Sharp said.

U.S. PNT head coach Stuart Sharp

Without a CP soccer league, the PNT undergoes a unique recruitment process to build its roster. Word of mouth and social media spreads news of the team and potential players submit a video tryout to coaches. If their interest is piqued, the player will be flown out to the team’s training center for a formal tryout.

The turnover also means that many players are facing top-level international competition for the first time. However, Sharp has indicated to the U.S. players that there’s no substitute for playing international matches. Thus, in preparation for Rio, the team played in two top-flight international tournaments to get ready for last year’s Summer Paralympics.

In its current iteration, Sharp says the team is more technically skilled, but has less international exposure. The trip to Chile provided that valuable experience and served to introduce the team to the South American style of play. Facing the adversity of travel abroad and an international opponent, this year’s PNT passed its first test with flying colors.

The team has two more challenge matches on July 21 and 23 against Canada, a team it could draw at the World Championships. It’s a rare set of home games at Lakewood Ranch in Florida. Afterward, the U.S. will hold two more camps and then it’s off to San Luis, Argentina for the World Championships from Sept. 4-24. A top-eight finish in South America guarantees a spot in the 2019 IFCPF World Cup and the USA’s soaring status in the global ranking indicates the team’s enormous potential.

“I always say that there’s no time a U.S. team should enter into a championship without the goal of leaving with a medal,” Sharp said. “We have a number of internal objectives, one is to achieve and go further than any U.S. team ever.”

The Paralympic National Team is made up of players that have some neurological condition such as a traumatic brain injury, stroke, or cerebral palsy (CP). For more information about the team and tryouts, please contact head coach Stuart Sharp at ssharp@ussoccer.org