“We’re aiming to leave with a medal preferably gold, it’s going to be tougher,” said U.S. coach Stuart Sharp, a long-time Atlanta resident. “... It’s going to be a good opportunity not only to show that the Americas region how strong and how much we’ve developed, but the World Cup is only seven months after that.”
CP teams are composed of 14 players. To be eligible, a player must be diagnosed with CP, a stroke or traumatic brain injury. There is a classification system of three tiers in which the players are sorted after they are reviewed by a panel of independent medical professionals. Tier 1 are players that are the most impaired and Tier 3 the least impaired. When competing, a team can field only one Tier 3 player and must play with at least one Tier 1. Those rules make roster selection very important because it must be balanced with players from all three tiers.
During the training session, players present how they met the qualifications to be selected in different ways. Some are evident, such as a player who runs only on his toes, or has a weakened arm or leg. Others aren’t as evident. The point is they have developed ways to play and play well enough to represent their country.
“I had a goal, I had something that drove me in life when I was in the Army,” said Josh Brunais, the team’s captain and a former staff sergeant and squad leader in Third Ranger Battalion of the U.S. Army who suffered a traumatic brain injury during an operation. He is a Tier 2 player. “I had a passion because I loved it, and I was good at it. And just for me being able to play soccer at a competitive level, and not just kind of your backyard weekend warrior, means a lot to me because it gives me something to work for every day. But then being able to represent the USA like I did in the Army, that’s just a cherry on top.
“Selfishly, it’s just I needed something to get me off the couch and get me in a good head space again after having to leave special operations. So that’s what this did for me. And I just love having a goal every day. But then knowing I’m one of the best Paralympic American players in the country doesn’t hurt either.”
Once a match starts, there are seven players per team competing on a 70-meter by 50-meter pitch. The goals are 5 meters by 2 meters. The halves are 30 minutes each. There are no offsides. Instead of throw-ins, players may choose to roll the ball into play, but it must touch the ground immediately after it leaves the player’s hand.
The U.S. Men’s CPNT played its first competition at the 1990 World Championship and has played in 11 consecutive word championship events. It hasn’t yet medaled. It lost to Brazil in the 2022 bronze-medal match International Federation of Cerebral Palsy Football World Cup in Salou, Spain. Twelve of the 14 players who will compete in Chile were on the 2022 World Cup team.
The U.S. will make its seventh appearance at the Parapan American Games. Its best finish came in Lima, Peru, in 2019, where it defeated Venezuela 7-0 for the bronze medal.
Brunais and Drew Bremer are the team’s longest-tenured players. They have combined for 87 caps and 23 goals. They said the team has improved immensely from the 2016 training sessions at the Darlington School. The team believes it can win gold. It has beaten the two favorites, Argentina and Brazil, in past matches.
“We were always the hardest-working team,” Bremer said. “But now we’ve gotten a lot more talent as well. And we’ve got a lot of depth. So we’re going to be that hard-working team that all of a sudden now has skill. And we were not losing the hard-work mentality either.”
Stuart hopes that historic achievement of a gold medal, combined with the construction of the U.S. Soccer headquarters in the Atlanta area, will help raise the team’s profile to potential players, therefore possibly increasing the quality of the team.
“I think having the training center allows us to have this focal point that there’s many men and women out there who could come and play for the national team, whether it be college athletes or retired from the military, or have been youth players who have either been born with a disability with cerebral palsy or had a stroke or traumatic brain injury,” he said.