For most college soccer programs, the spring season is a fairly straightforward part of the year.
Train as much as NCAA rules allow. Fit in five exhibition games, from a variety of nearby programs. Prepare and develop for the fall. Catch up on classes with a more relaxed schedule.
Each year, a few lucky programs have the opportunity to inject something different into the schedule – at least for a week – and travel abroad.
This year, women’s teams from Georgetown, Long Beach State, and Jacksonville State and the men’s team from Furman were among the teams to travel to Spain for a week. Meanwhile, the Virginia and Buffalo men’s teams spent their respective spring breaks in England.
Bound for Britain
Teams that head abroad experience a whirlwind package of soccer and sightseeing, and Buffalo’s England excursion was no different. Playing four times in the span of just six days, the MAC program picked up wins in all four games against a variety of opposition, from sixth division side Hayes & Yeading to a select team of UK-based players looking to secure college scholarships in the States.
“We felt confident going across that we were really hitting our straps,” Buffalo head coach Stu Riddle told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “We found it was very physical, there was a lot of communication, but as the game settled down we really started to overrun teams with our fitness level and our technical ability. All four opposing coaches, they referenced that after the game, they couldn’t believe how fit the team was and how technically good each individual player was. That was really good to hear as well.”
Including the first day stops in London, the team had stops in Manchester, Liverpool, Nottingham, Birmingham and St. George’s Park. Along with their flurry of exhibition matches, they also had the chance to attend a pair of English Premier League matches, seeing Chelsea vs. Southampton and Manchester City vs. West Brom. They also squeezed in two English Football League Championship matches, Wolverhampton vs. Bolton and Nottingham Forest vs. Rotherham.
“It came at the right time for us,” Riddle said. “I’m going into my third season here this fall, so those two years we’ve had a particularly young group of players, freshmen, sophomores, so it came at the right time in terms of their development and how we wanted to formulate and bring the team together.”
Buffalo wasn’t the only college soccer program in England. Reigning Division I champs Virginia blitzed the British Isles the week prior to the Bulls’ trip. In similar fashion, the Cavaliers packed in three games in four days, facing an academy side from Crystal Palace, and U21 teams from Blackburn Rovers and Burnley FC.
“We treated the preparation for getting ready for that England trip like we were getting ready to start the season, and it’s easier to do with your players when you have a trip like that set up,” Virginia head coach George Gelnovatch told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “The training leading up to the trip was excellent because the guys knew they were getting something special.”
Splitting time between London, where the national champs took in a Tottenham-Crystal Palace Premier League matchup, and the greater Manchester area for the games with Rovers and Burnley (not to mention a Premier League game between Burnley and Manchester City), it was hectic but a important chance for the Cavaliers to make strides towards defending their title.
Gelnovatch thought his team did well to capitalize on the additional fixtures.
“The foreign trip is basically three extra games, so you go from five games to eight [in the spring],” he said. “Normally your fall season is between 16 and 18 games, and if you’re getting eight games in the spring, arguably you’re getting half of the games you get in the fall. We wanted to take real advantage of it, and we have a good group of returning guys, we didn’t get too depleted after last year. We wanted to keep making progress from the soccer standpoint and you can take advantage of the extra games, take advantage of the quality of the games.”
Soccer under the Spanish sun
Not to be left out, the Iberian Peninsula was a popular destination for a handful of Division I programs. Georgetown’s trip centered on the footballing hot spots of Madrid and Barcelona, with games against Espanyol, Rayo Vallecano and a second division club.
The Hoyas balanced the hectic pace of being tourists during the day before suiting up for exhibition games in the evening.
“You go on these trips and as much as you’re playing these games, the reality is you spend the morning climbing the side of a mountain so you’re never really prepared like you would in the fall,” Georgetown head coach Dave Nolan told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “You kind of take them for what they are, which is a chance to play three additional games in the spring, a chance to play a lot of players, a chance to experience different soccer culture, which we got.”
Trips like these are always about more than just the soccer. Nolan acknowledged the opportunities created by the week abroad on the field, and he praised the ability of a team like Vallecano, which moved the ball extremely well and had the team chasing shadows for long stretches.
But having the chance to see the history of Barcelona, the capital city of Madrid, not to mention a stop over in the old Spanish capital of Toledo was just as important, as this was the chance to provide international and cultural snapshots to DI athletes who usually don’t get to study abroad.
“I would say the majority would love the opportunity to study abroad if they could,” Nolan said of his team. “But they understand if you go study abroad and you’re on a Division I, Top 25 program, you’re basically giving your teammates a spring season to continue to get better while you’re away. Most of our kids don’t go study abroad in the spring but would choose to do so in the summer in an accelerated, six-week program. Our goal in the spring is to really try and give them an international experience, soccer excluded – just the opportunity to do something and see something that being an athlete sometimes it’s difficult to do.”
Of course, even with the appreciation of the opportunities to experience another culture, most of the Georgetown players said that the highlight was having the chance to see Barcelona play at Camp Nou against Rayo Vallecano – and watch Messi score a hat trick.
That soccer culture was one of the highlights of Long Beach State’s excursion to Spain. A morning in Barcelona that started as a run-of-the-mill tourist experience turned into one of the trip’s best moments.
“We were walking to Sagrada Familia, walking through this little plaza and there were a bunch of students playing pickup soccer, maybe seven-v-seven or eight-v-eight,” head coach Mauricio Ingrassia told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “They were playing, and there were teams waiting to play, kind of like a winner stays type, something you might see on a basketball court in the U.S. Our kids got super excited, and all of a sudden they wanted to play, even though they were all dressed up. And I was like, ‘why not?’
“So we went over and talked to them, they were some Catalan kids and some French kids and we sort of challenged them. And they saw these girls who are dressed up, they never would think that they were players. They agreed to play a five or ten minute game, and as soon as our girls started putting their foot on the ball and doing their thing, it became a very intense game. We ended up scoring a goal and I tell you my girls celebrated that goal as much as they celebrated any goal.”
Beach did have their officially scheduled games as well, facing Espanyol in Barcelona and taking on Valencia during a swing south. Ingrassia ended up taking a quick detour with some of the players on the team who are diehard Madrid fans, popping over for a day trip to the Spanish capital for a chance to see the Bernabeu.
There were also the stereotypical Spanish soccer elements, the stadium tours and a visit to the Camp Nou. A visit La Masia, seeing the Barcelona B team in action, along with the youth team and women’s team added another unique layer to the journey.
There was a personal element to the trip that brought things full circle for Ingrassia as he watched his team take the field in Spain.
“Two years ago I took a trip to Barcelona and radically changed our style of play based on possession style,” he said. “For me personally it was very satisfying because we were able to out-posses both teams pretty handily. They had a mixture of players because they were between fixtures. I’m not sure how many of the first team players were there but you could see what they were trying to do and what we’re trying to do. I was really happy to see how our ideas translated to the games.”
On the men’s side, Furman and William & Mary also spent time in Spain. The Paladins cruised through Barcelona and Madrid, taking in a Champions League match in the Spanish capital and seeing the same Barcelona-Vallecano matchup the Hoyas did. They squeezed in a pair of games, winning and losing against St. Andreu and Getafe U19s respectively.
Each school’s spring season is now winding down as students prepare for the long summer break. The memories of these weeklong trips could resurface again in the fall, as teams begin the chase for regular season honors with a tighter bond than before – and a new footballing culture to help give them a competitive edge.