After competing in last summer’s Paralympics, the U.S. Paralympic National Soccer Team (PNT) is set to begin a new competition cycle at the IFPC CP Football World Championships in San Luis, Argentina, in September.
The tournament features a total of 16 teams, eight of which competed in Rio de Janeiro, dividing them into groups of four for the opening round. This month’s draw placed the PNT in Group D alongside Ukraine, the strongest side in 7-a-side Paralympic soccer, Northern Ireland and Australia.
The Ukrainians enter as reigning champions of the sport’s biggest competition (Paralympics) and current No. 1 team in the world. The European powerhouse has won or finished as runner-up in every Paralympics that they have entered. Its lowest recorded world ranking is No. 2.
Last year’s squad rolled through the Paralympics, winning every match with a plus-13 goal differential, never allowing more than one goal in a game, nor trailing. The Yellow-Blue was similarly dominant in a silver medal finish at the last World Championships in 2015, a stretch that featured a 16-0 rout of Japan and only two goals against over the course of the tournament. Ukraine was the first country in the world to sponsor full-time residency for its CP soccer team, a key catalyst for the team’s incredible success.
The U.S. PNT saw the Ukrainians at a pre-Paralympic tournament last June in the Netherlands, falling 9-0 and 5-0 in the two matches. With a new-look U.S. team at its highest ranking yet, the PNT will look to battle for a result in Argentina.
Northern Ireland is a team on the brink of a breakout. Currently ranked No. 13 in the world, the Green and White Army seems poised to crack the top 10. Playing a physical style that’s complimented with technical ability, the team was the strongest No. 3 seed in the tournament draw and is coached by an experienced staff, including former Manchester United and Northern Ireland captain Mal Donaghy.
The team clinched its spot in the World Championships with a fifth-place finish at last summer’s Qualification Tournament in Vejen, Denmark. Northern Ireland finished 14th at the 2015 World Championships and eighth at the last European Championships in 2014.
While the team doesn’t have a full-time residency, nearly the whole roster is located near Belfast, allowing for frequent training sessions with the entire squad. U.S. PNT head coach Stuart Sharp is very familiar with the Norn Iron, having served as head coach of the Scottish National CP Team from 2005-2011. He garnered results against Northern Ireland in his time in the United Kingdom, and he’ll look to continue that success in September.
The Pararoos are flying high thanks to a brand-new sponsorship deal that will allow the team to train together full-time. Australian health company Zest Care announced a partnership with the squad last March, signaling an influx of resources to help the team better compete on the international stage. They’ve also instituted a nationwide regional structure to facilitate the program’s organization and reach.
Head coach Kai Lammert has been with the team since 2006 and in the top job since 2011. Hailing from Germany, Lammert has instilled an unpredictable style of play with a vicious counterattack. The Aussies qualified for the World Championships with a sixth-place finish at the Qualification Tournament. They are currently ranked No. 16 in the world and No. 3 in the Asia-Oceania region.
The USA is currently ranked No. 6 in the world, its highest-ever ranking after an undefeated mark in four challenge matches this year. In a June series, the PNT took down Chile 6-0 and 10-0 in South America. Last month, the team played its first home matches since 2014 in Lakewood Ranch, Florida against Canada, a potential knockout round opponent at the World Championships, recording a hard-fought 2-2 draw and impressive 3-1 win.
After a seventh-place finish at the Paralympics, the U.S. has several fresh faces that have made a huge impact in this summer’s challenge matches. Leading the way looks to be Nick Mayhugh, a Division I college player who has notched two multi-goal games in his first four international contests.
While a number of injuries mean that the Americans will enter the tournament at less than full strength, a primary goal is advancement from the group stage, guaranteeing a top-eight finish and a spot in the 2019 IFCPF World Cup in Pinto, Spain.