Before the opening ceremonies of the 2018 Schwan’s USA Cup soccer tournament in Minnesota, all anyone wanted to know was who the kids in the loud yellow jerseys were.
As all the teams gathered, “we were the only Wyoming team, and we wore a bright yellow — everyone else was like a blue,” said Hawkin Sweeney, a member of the Wyoming 307 team. “So we were standing out, and everyone came up to us and asked us where we’re from.”
After informing inquisitors that the 307 was from Wyoming, another question invariably followed:
“They’re like, ‘Well, where’s that?’” Sweeney said, laughing.
By the end of the tournament, teams knew exactly where the 307 was — on the podium holding a championship trophy for the 15U Boys Silver Division title.
“It was pretty cool to win it as a small state from the West,” Sweeney said.
Marketed as the largest youth soccer tournament in the Western Hemisphere, this year’s USA Cup featured 15,000 players representing 1,500 teams from 20 states and 20 countries. There were Olympic-style opening ceremonies at the stadium in Blaine, Minnesota (a suburb of the Twin Cities), and the championship games from each division were televised.
Wyoming’s team consisted of players from all over the state. Park County youth soccer was well-represented on the 18-player side, including Powell’s Landon Sessions, Lane Franks and Sweeney, plus Jackson Gail and Hunter Robbins from Cody.
“It was a huge event,” said Josh Westerhold, Sessions’ stepfather and the 307’s photographer. “It was pretty unbelievable.”
The 307 played six 80-minute games over five days — including squaring off against a pair of international teams in the semifinals and finals of the 15U silver bracket. But to get to the championship round, the 307, still unfamiliar with each other as a team, had to go through some growing pains. A 1-0 opening-round loss to a Minnesota side served as a gut-check moment for the Wyoming kids; if they were going to let people know what Wyoming soccer was all about, it had to start then.
“They [the 307] lost their first game, in a game they really dominated, actually,” Westerhold said. “The only thing the other team could really do was possess the ball on us; they were pretty non-threatening. We just couldn’t put one in the net. We had so many opportunities [and] just couldn’t convert.”
The 307 bounced back with 6-0 and 5-1 wins over a pair of Minnesota clubs before squaring off in the quarterfinals against yet another Minnesota team and winning 6-1.
“Our quarterfinal game was against a Minnesota team that was really good,” Westerhold said. “But they tried pressing us high, and we just dominated them. It was easily the best game our boys had played.”
Wyoming followed that with a 3-1 dismantling of Brazil in the semifinals, a team the Powell players agreed had a flair for the theatrical.
“They flopped a lot,” Sessions said matter-of-factly. “It was much different from what we are like in Wyoming. We don’t flop here.”
A language barrier was also evident — and not just with the international teams.
“The Brazilians didn’t speak English, so you couldn’t have a conversation with them,” Sessions explained. “The referees were the same way. We had a Brazilian ref, a Korean ref. We had one American ref in the whole tournament, and he barely spoke English, either. It was interesting getting to see these different types of cultures.”
Franks was a bit more diplomatic in his assessment of the Brazilians’ playing style, though he said the 307 was able to adapt on the fly.
“It was definitely a different style of play that they [Brazil] have, definitely a step above the competitiveness level we’re used to playing against,” Franks said. “We had to come up with something different than how we would play at our normal tournaments. We really came together as a team.”
Against Iceland in the finals, the 307 faced a very physical team that was the polar opposite of their Brazilian counterparts. Wyoming was able to hold on for a 3-2 win and the championship.
“The Brazilian team had a way different technical style,” Sweeney said. “They’re taught to go down a little easier if you run up against them. The Iceland team, instead of more like the flopping part, they were very aggressive, which is kind of like what we play.”
Westerhold was impressed with Iceland’s cool demeanor on the pitch, again in stark contrast to Brazil.
“They [Iceland] had a really good and sound gameplan,” he said. “They were unbelievably calm, they never panicked, even when the ball was right in front of their goal. We went up 2-0 on them, and it looked like it didn’t even phase them. That was impressive.”
After the game, the 307’s coaching staff praised the hard work and effort of the team.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the effort of our boys,” 307 head coach Jay Mahlis said in a release. “Winning a championship in this type of tournament is not easy. They played superbly.”
All three of the Powell players said the experience of the USA Cup was one they will always remember.
“It was an amazing experience,” Sessions said. “It was pretty cool to play against Brazil and Iceland, and beating them was the best part because they had no idea where Wyoming was.”
Franks echoed that sentiment.
“I think it was a desire to do better than we had ever done before,” Franks said. “We’re not really a team — we’re more like a family. We see each other maybe eight times a year, then go to tournaments. At this tournament [the USA Cup], you could tell the Minneapolis team in the opening round wasn’t thinking very highly of us at all. We really can do anything as a team. We’re all there to support each other, to help each other move on.”
Sweeney said for him, meeting and hanging out with players from all over the world will stick with him the most.
“I’m going to remember all the people I met, how much fun we had,” Sweeney said. “Meeting people, hanging out with them after the games, it was just overall a great experience.”
After photo ops with the trophy, Sessions was one of the players interviewed by the local media about the experience, and the animated player’s thoughts on the tourney were used for broadcast. But one portion of his interview hit the cutting room floor.
“They [the media] cut out the part where he said the international players played kind of dirty and flopped a lot,” Westerhold said with a chuckle.