The impact of soccer, as a global game, has spanned countries and continents. Whether the ball moves on grass, field turf, or ground, millions of people have been unified by the opportunity to play the sport or cheer on friends and family.
Last month, a pair of Cheshire High School sophomores had the opportunity to travel abroad and experience soccer from a different perspective. As part of the Fussball Project team, Zack Brown and Marcello Pannone played 11 games from Aug. 13-22 in Dortmund, Germany.
“It was really nice,” said Pannone, who plays with Brown for the CHS Rams and Connecticut Football Club (CFC). “We had a really good experience and it will definitely help us going forward.”
Created by U.S. soccer players, the Fussball Project seeks to open doors for people to pursue careers on the professional level. For the trip to Germany, organizers wanted the boys to see a different brand of soccer and also have the chance to be seen and recruited by academy teams in the region.
Pannone learned about the trip from his CFC coach last year. To find boys for the team, two tryouts were held in New York.
In November 2018, Pannone went to Randall’s Island for the first session. Players worked on passing drills, played games, and participated in a fitness test.
“Going into the tryouts, I was kind of nervous because I didn’t know anyone,” recalled Pannone, a forward/mid-fielder. “I also knew there would be great competition.”
Pannone was excited to be invited to attend the second tryout held in January of this year at an indoor facility in Manhattan. Since organizers were looking for more players to work out in the session, Pannone and his CFC coach suggested that Brown be given the chance to display his skills.
“It was a really good feeling,” said Brown, who plays center back on defense. “It was nice of him to give me this opportunity.”
While initially nervous about the tryout, Brown felt more comfortable once he started working in one-on-one drills and playing in scrimmages.
After the coaches deliberated, the Cheshire boys were both selected for the travel team.
“It was great,” stated Pannone. “I got excited when he (Brown) made the team. I met a lot of guys in the tryouts and knew that I was going to have a lot of fun in Germany.”
To develop teamwork among boys coming from Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Illinois, the team held practice sessions in the winter and summer in New York City and New Jersey.
“It was very important because a lot of us didn’t know each other,” recalled Brown. “It took some time to play as a team, but it wasn’t hard forming bonds with the guys.”
Back in January, Pannone felt that the team benefitted from a three-day camp on Randall’s Island.
“It definitely helped to build the chemistry of the team and develop our style of play,” explained Pannone.
After a long plane ride and commute to their hotel in Germany, the boys got to unpack and settle in before playing games in Dortmund.
“We talked about tactics for our games and got to relax,” stated Pannone.
Brown didn’t know what to expect going into the first game, but in the course of playing in a 1-1 tie, he caught the eye of an Oberhausen club coach. Oberhausen is based in the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia.
“The coach came back to see me play later in the week,” said Brown, who captained his team abroad. “I’d love to get the opportunity to play outside the U.S.”
Like Brown, Pannone wanted to play hard and get noticed by academy coaches. On the Fussball team, playing time was determined by how well players did and how much time they received in the previous game.
“If you only played 10 minutes in a game, you would probably get more time in the next one,” Pannone explained.
In his favorite game, Pannone helped his team battle for a hard-earned victory.
“We got down 1-0, but then had a really good halftime speech,” reflected Pannone. “We came back and won 2-1. It was a great experience.”
Pannone felt that the German teams were more organized, larger, and more physical, but the U.S. squad adjusted to their style.
“I thought we did well,” said Pannone. “Going back to our practices together, we built up chemistry and learned how to play against those teams. We didn’t want to battle them physically. Instead, we moved the ball quickly and tired them out.”
“It was a good experience seeing that physicality and speed of play,” added Brown.
After many games, the German squads invited the players to have lunch with them and they shared soccer stories.
“It was cool,” stated Brown. “A lot of the teams had cafeterias. They served us pizza and sausages.”
Brown enjoyed seeing a high level of respect for the game abroad.
“Soccer is a way of life in Germany,” stated Brown. “After a game, one of the German teams joined us to dance to music in the locker room. That was fun.”
At most, the boys only had to travel 25 to 30 minutes to play matches.
“Most of the games were played on turf. We played on grass sometimes, but you couldn’t tell the difference,” said Pannone. “The fields were really nice.”
In contrast to many travel teams abroad, the Fussball Project focuses on playing games instead of touring.
“There was not much sightseeing. We did go to a mall for shopping,” reflected Pannone.
While the trip centered on soccer, Brown’s dad Tim had the chance to learn more about his German heritage.
“My dad’s side of the family dates back to the 1800s in Germany,” said Brown. “On the trip, my dad (and mom) went to the town (Schotmar) where my grandmother was born. He met some people who knew my aunts and uncles.”
Brown also spoke to the Oberhausen club coach about his German lineage. With his family connections to the country, Brown hopes to return next year to play his favorite sport.
“A lot of my life revolves around soccer,” said Brown, who started playing at age 4.
Now that they have returned home to Cheshire, Pannone and Brown want to share what they’ve learned with their high school and club teams. On the club level, the boys have both led their squads as captains.
“I think it (the trip) will help us a lot with our knowledge of the game and making touch passes,” stated Brown. “The pace of the game is slower in high school, but it is always good to play with friends.”
Pannone hopes to impress the CHS coaching staff this fall.
“I’m still a sophomore and want to show that I belong on the team,” added Pannone.