#TBT: PNT's Road to the World Championships

Around this time last year, the U.S. Paralympic National Soccer Team earned its highest finish at the Paralympic Games in more than a decade. Now, the team kicks off a new cycle with its first major competition, the 2017 IFCPF CP Football World Championships in Argentina, and highest-ever world ranking, No. 6, in PNT head coach Stuart Sharp’s first full round with the team.

Including the team’s run in Rio de Janeiro, the U.S. has played six matches in South America and contested its first matches on American soil since 2014. Take a look back at how the PNT has progressed over the year in the lead up to the World Championships.

Progress at the Paralympics

 Having qualified for the Paralympics with a seventh-place finish at the 2015 World Championships, the PNT notched its best Paralympic tournament since 1996 when the team finished in seventh place, and signaled its first back-to-back qualification since 1992 and 1996.

Drawing Group B, the USA faced off against Asian powerhouse Iran, Western Europe’s top side in the Netherlands and 2017 World Championships host Argentina. The highlight of the group stage came on the opening matchday against the Dutch. Forward Adam Ballou shocked the Netherlands when he netted in the third minute to open the scoring.  The Dutch took control over the course of the game, scoring in the 44th minute to equalize and in the 57th minute to take the lead, but Ballou answered in the 60th and final minute, notching a brace to give the U.S. a 2-2 result.

In its classification match, the U.S. earned its first Paralympic win in a decade with a 2-1 victory against Ireland. The PNT captured an early lead on a Seth Jahn goal, but Ireland tied the game shortly after the half. Once again, the USA hit its stride late in the game with Andrew Bremer scored in the 56th minute.

Return to South America 

This summer, the PNT returned to South America for a pair of challenge matches against Chile in San Bernardo and Santiago. Buoyed by some new additions, the U.S. rolled in its return to the Southern Hemisphere, winning its matches 6-0 and 10-0.

The first contest saw the first caps for all four of the team’s new players: Cameron DeLillo, Marc Estrella, Ben Lindau and Nick Mayhugh. Kevin Hensley opened the scoring in the 22nd minute and the team kept rolling from there. A 2-0 halftime lead ballooned to 6-0 as DeLillo and Bremer added last-minute goals.

A few days later, the U.S. put together an end-to-end rout in its 10-0 victory. Mayhugh, who plays soccer at Division I Radford University, notched his first international goal and his first international brace. DeLillo scored his first brace in the first half. Lindau also got on the board with a 46th-minute goal. Ballou demonstrated his late nose once again with a score in stoppage time.

Homecoming

The last time the PNT played a match on home soil, it was February 2014. Sharp had just taken over the program and only four players from that squad remain on the team. That changed this July when the sixth-ranked U.S. welcomed No. 10 Canada to Lakewood Ranch, Fla. for a pair of challenge matches. Canada, also set to play at this month’s World Championships, provided an opportunity to measure the team’s progress since Rio.

As expected, the opening match proved to be tight. Canada scored in the eighth minute for an early lead, and doubled it with another goal in the 42nd. Bremer made sure that the PNT’s first deficit of 2017 didn’t last long, scoring in the 50th, and Mayhugh, entering the game as a second-half sub, delivered an equalizer in added time to maintain the team’s undefeated record.

Matchday Two brought a more complete performance from the PNT. Mayhugh picked up where he left off with a 14th minute goal, his fifth of the year. In the 44th minute, Jahn entered the match to chants of “Uncle Seth”. He gave the home crowd even more to cheer about in the final minute, scoring his first goal since the 2016 Paralympic finale.

After July’s Canada matches, the PNT has held two additional training camps to prepare for Argentina. Now, the stage is set for the team to kick off its competition cycle with 2017’s biggest event.