Written by Athletic Communications Graduate Assistant Matt Ensor
Richmond, Va. - There are very few collegiate sports that allow players the opportunity to represent both their university and their country on a multitude of competitive levels. Soccer is the prime example of this rare set of dual duties, and the VCU men's soccer team has a wealth of these international riches.
It's not just the amount of said experience that's impressive; it's the depth, diversity and reach of the Black & Gold's international notoriety. The Rams field a squad of nearly a dozen international players from seven different countries and four different continents. From metropolis of three million people of Lusaka, Zambia in Africa to the quiet country of rural Jamaica, the VCU men's soccer team's embodies the global reach of the sport.
But there's a drawback. National team responsibilities can take players out of Richmond and back home for months at a time during the winter. Case in point is freshman midfielder Jose Carlos Castillo (pictured right), who is currently back home participating in Guatemala's U-20's team camp. His participation in Guatemala is amplified by the fact his home nation is hosting the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship Tournament, which is the qualifying tournament for North American, Central American and Caribbean nations for the U-20 World Cup this summer. Although Carlos Castillo is missing precious training time with his teammates, participation in international soccer is not a negative thing in the eyes of Head Coach Dave Giffard.
"Having represented your country is not only an honor, but it's also a very good experience to play at such a high level against quality players in atmospheres that not everyone gets to play in. Those are experiences that not many student athletes get to have, and for the ones that do, I think it helps prepare them, mature them and make them a little more ready for the college atmosphere and top college games. It certainly helps your growth as a player," Giffard observed.
Carlos Castillo's experience is just one component to a team also known as "VCU Global". However, he isn't the most recent addition to the "melting pot" of VCU Soccer. Incoming freshman, Juan Monge Solano, has an international experience as decorated as nearly any other Ram. Solano has been a fixture in the Costa Rican youth national teams. He's been a member of the country's U-17, U-20 and U-23 teams, making his first appearance in an Olympic team camp just a few days before joining the Rams in January.
A continent and hemisphere away, the trend continues.
"ONE ZAMBIA, ONE NATION"
In southern Africa, the nation of Zambia sits just north of Zimbabwe. A land very different from Richmond, but connected by soccer. Yoram Mwila (pictured left), VCU's leading returning scorer from the 2010 season, is more than a representative of his home nation. The former captain of Zambia's U-17 national team, and member of their U-20 national team, has also participated in the country's Olympic team camp as well.
The prize of that experience is not only playing, training and practicing with some of the best players in your country. On top of that, Mwila's competition against other African nations has allowed him to play against some of the best on the continent.
As one can probably imagine, soccer in Zambia is a little different than soccer here in the United States.
"Actually it's real different. Playing soccer here (in the U.S.) is a lot more physical. You need to be a lot stronger to play here and slightly more technical. Back home is a little bit more fast-paced, a little less technical and a little less organized. Teams work harder on defense here," Mwila noted.
But their difference in styles is yet another bonus of Mwila's international competition. One that is unique to the Zambian sophomore's situation.
"An advantage playing two different styles of soccer is that I can improve what I need to improve. I can get stronger and more physical playing here. When I would go back and play there (Zambia), I notice that I had made some strides. I then have to play quicker there, and I would bring a little bit of that back here," said Mwila.
It's the best of both worlds for Yoram Mwila. No matter how different those worlds may be…
IRON SHARPENS IRON
Anyone who has taken in a VCU Men's Soccer match in the past season has probably noticed an all too familiar scene. A streaking blur of a Ram's jersey surging up the front line. In the blink of an eye, it seems it's gone from midfield to the edge of the box. That blur was probably true freshman Jason Johnson (pictured right). The blazing-fast forward from Jamaica always seems to carry with him that potential energy for kinetic excitement. A cache of energy that he's had with him throughout his young career, Johnson's on-field success goes back to his high school days.
"In eighth grade, I really started playing competitive football. I played throughout five years of school competitively. Later we went to the School Boys championship final, which was the first time in the history of the school. That gave me some confidence," Johnson recalled.
That confidence was something special. How special? Flash forward to February of 2010, and Jason Johnson is a member of the Jamaican senior team. The Jamaicans are playing a friendly match against the Argentinean senior team featuring reigning FIFA Footballer of the Year, Lionel Messi.
Playing against literally the world's best on an international stage can leave a player star struck. Yet, the young Jamaican knows that participation on the international level is something he can build on right here in Richmond, especially under the guidance of Head Coach Dave Giffard.
"It's a goal of mine (playing internationally) and Coach Giffard is helping me to achieve that goal. He wants us to play internationally, and he knows that training will be the right thing for us," Johnson said.
Head Coach Dave Giffard recognizes that the type of student-athletes he wants in his program may have an international calling. However, he also knows that it comes with the territory of wanting to be the best in the world of college soccer.
"For us to be successful at that level, we need players like JJ (Johnson), Yo (Mwila), Juan and Jose (Carlos Castillo) who are some of the best players, at their age, in their countries. These are guys who have aspirations of playing professional soccer. We look for players anywhere in the U.S. or around the world who fit the mold of very talented, hard working, driven and goal oriented. They're here to be a student-athlete, but also as a part of their preparation to move on and play professional soccer. It's great for our program to have players like them, but I think we have created an environment that allows them to continue to grow, improve and hopefully take their career to the next level after they leave us," Giffard noted.
It's a two-way street when it comes to international play among college soccer athletes. Playing against elite international stars can improve your game for the upcoming collegiate season. Playing collegiately can give you that extra time to improve on your skills for international competition.
As Yoram Mwila put it, "Every player wants to play for their country on an international stage. He's (Coach Giffard) helping us a lot by forcing us to get better at the things we need to get better at to improve our games. Going onto the international level, it's a step up, and you have to get better at everything and be on point with everything."
And regardless which of the seven countries or four continents a Ram is from, all roads lead to an international career go through Richmond.