Playing soccer with Team USA in Brazil

Tess Follman
Tess Follman playing in Brazil.

 Over the summer, two of Pitt-Bradford’s women’s soccer athletes played the game they love so much in one of the sport’s meccas: Brazil.

Andrea Gundlach and Tess Follman, along with other NCAA Division III soccer players, were selected to play for Team USA, sponsored by USA Sports Tours and Events. The organization draws Division III athletes from all across the country in volleyball, basketball and soccer and provides a once-in-a-lifetime experience in international competition.

Pitt-Bradford women’s soccer coach Mike Idland approached the duo last year about the opportunity, and they both jumped at it. 

 “I was happy that Dre and Tess took advantage of the opportunity to go play in Brazil,” Idland said. “I think good things are going to happen to a player’s game any time she has a chance to get around other top players, especially in an environment like Brazil, whose culture is so steeped in soccer.”

On May 20, the two arrived in Orlando, Fla., with their new teammates for orientation and training. Follman was the youngest on the team, which was composed mostly of juniors and seniors, including many who had graduated just weeks before.

The first day of practice was canceled due to lightning, but the team managed to squeeze in a practice session before departing for Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Both a men’s and women’s team made the 10-day trip, and Gundlach’s parents and Follman’s mother also joined the party of more than 40 people.

Once in Brazil, the group traveled by buses with some being more modern than others. Many of the buses featured glass dividers separating the driver from the teams, and not every bus was installed with televisions, something Gundlach and Follman were accustomed to in the United States.

The teams wasted little time experiencing their first taste of international soccer, meeting the Jundial and Paulista Futebal Clubs their first day in Brazil; the women won 1-0.

The following day, the two teams visited the Divino school, featuring students of all ages. The men scrimmaged the high school team in what Gundlach and Follman described more as an

enclosed court with netting. Students clamored for the players’ autographs and photos as they

toured the facility.

“The kids were crazy, just the energy and excitement,” said Gundlach, a senior. “We were signing autographs forever.”

Games were played at night, and one game in particular was played on Astroturf, and cleats were not allowed. Many of the women didn’t bring tennis shoes to the match with them, and one player even went so far as to borrow a pair of shoes from a spectator.

“You could go up to the turf and lift it,” Follman said. “None of us had shoes. I had to use coach’s shoes; it was horrible.”

“We all had sandals,” Gundlach said. “I think if we would have had our cleats, we would have won that game.”

The group traveled to Rio de Janeiro on day six, weaving through the mountains to reach the city. After checking into the hotel, they took in the season opener of Vasco de Gama against Portuguesa FC of the Brazilian Soccer League. More than 20,000 were there for the game.

“There was a section with flags and people jumping up and down, cheering the entire game,” Gundlach said.

The group sat in the visitors section, which was walled off from the home crowd, and neither team, men nor women, was allowed to visit the Vasco team store for fear they might be hurt. They were told to blend in as much as possible and prohibited from wearing USA gear.

The teams ate in Copacabana on day seven, “carb loading” for the next day. Many of the restaurants the group visited featured pizza and pasta. They were advised to never drink the water, both at the hotels and out and about.

They spent the first half of day eight venturing up Sugar Loaf Mountain, taking in the beautiful view of the city. That night they traveled to the Brazilian Naval Base for their final games. Against more experienced competition, the women suffered their worst defeat, 4-1.

It was revealed by USA Sports Tours and Events Director Ron Smith after the game that many of the women on the naval team would represent Brazil in the next Olympic Games.

“It was pretty much their job to play soccer,” Gundlach said. “They were pretty legit.”

The women spent their last day in Brazil taking in the Christ the Redeemer statue and lounging on the beach.

“I wish we would have had more beach time,” Follman said. “I didn’t get to tan as much as I wanted.”

Both Gundlach and Follman shopped the local markets and vendors, learning to employ barter skills when dealing with the natives. Among the most notable items they brought back were a ceramic bowl for cooking that Follman purchased and a decorative knife that Gundlach bought.

Following the conclusion of each contest, the women would exchange Pitt-Bradford women’s soccer shirts for jerseys and other apparel.

“Andrea received a really sweet jersey,” Follman said. “Our last game they wanted to trade our shin guards.”

Since returning to the United States, Gundlach and Follman have stayed in contact with their teammates through text messaging, Snapchat and Facebook. In September, they had the unique chance to play against one of their teammates, Alicia Snyder of Juniata.

“She was a captain, and I went out for the captain’s toss and was like, ‘Hey, I know you already,’” Gundlach said.

USA Sports Tours and Events has scheduled a reunion in Brazil in three years for all former players, and both Gundlach and Follman expressed interest in going back.

 “I thought it was pretty sweet,” Gundlach said. “Not everyone gets to go to Brazil and play soccer.”