It would be an understatement of the highest order to say that it’s been an interesting past 365 days for Attleboro, Mass. native Geoff Cameron.
At this time last year, Cameron’s name swirled as a potential transfer target, all the while he tried to keep his focus on the field with the Houston Dynamo. But before he knew it, he was jetsetting between England and locales across the North American continent, with nary a break to catch his breath.
Now, after a 12-month spell unlike any other he’s ever experienced, Cameron is back in the Commonwealth, where he’s enjoying something he’s missed very much since kicking off his pro career five years ago: a New England summer.
New England Soccer Today recently caught up with the Stoke City defender to get his perspective on what life has been like since we last saw him playing stateside in MLS. In part one of a two-part interview, the local boy turned EPL regular talks about his time in England, as well as the craziness associated with World Cup Qualifying.
New England Soccer Today: Right off the bat, I have to ask – what’s the past year been like for you?
Geoff Cameron: At this time last year, it was pretty stressful. With MLS deciding my fate, it was a pretty hectic and stressful month or so. But everything worked out. It’s been a long year, going from last January to now, without really having a break. It’s been a long season. It tests you as a player, but I think I’ve done well with it. Going through with National Team in January, and then going from there and joining up with Houston in the preseason, and then playing the season, then joining up again with the National Team midway through that, coming back then finishing the season with Houston, then getting bought out at the end of July, joining up with Stoke for their preseason, and then going from there to England and playing a 10-month season there and all throughout that was National Team duty and travelling and then coming back home for the summer and finishing up Qualifying. For me, it’s been an amazing journey so far, and one that I want to continue, especially within the next year with a few more Qualifiers and being a win away from the World Cup. A lot of things can change within a year, and I know that from firsthand experience (laughs).
It’s an exciting year coming up, though. Now, with a new coach Mark Hughes (at Stoke) to impress, I just have to let him know how I can play, and where I can play.
NEST: You hinted about some of the challenges you encountered going from one league to another, and linking up with the National Team during Qualifying. But what were some of the specific off-the-field challenges that you encountered during the past year, especially with the move from Houston to Stoke?
Geoff: You go from completely different living scenarios. In Houston, it’s like 100 degrees every single day and with the heat and humidity and everything, and playing in that every day to playing in the complete opposite of that in England where it’s cold, rainy and dark. It’s two completely different ends of the spectrum. But at the same time, there are little things you can do to help you adapt as a player and a lot of things that go through your life mentally, physically, and having to adjust and dealing with the stress of moving and trying to get things and getting into a routine as fast as possible so things start becoming normal to you again, and just getting into your good habits, and feeling like you’re at home, finally. That’s the biggest thing: not living out of a hotel for a couple of months, because you’re looking for a place, all those little things have an effect on a player’s mentality and mental toughness and that’s why they say you gotta keep your focus at all times because there are so many things that can distract you. But you always have to be prepared, you always have to be willing to do the work on and off the pitch to make yourself a successful player.
NEST: Is it difficult to remain constantly focused with all the adjustments?
Geoff: Yeah, mentally, it was a more of a fatigue thing, whereas my body wasn’t fatigued, but more of my mind than anything, especially toward the end of the EPL season, where it started grinding on me a little bit more. But that’s where you kind of say to yourself, “Hey, a few months ago, you wanted to just get over here and play and now you’re having the opportunity to play so keep grinding it out until you have the opportunity to get a break.” And those are the little things you do to pick yourself up and a lot of the scenarios are just like, “Hey, look what you’re doing right now. You’re doing what you love, you’re playing in the best league in the world.” So for me, it was tough, and it was a hard grind, in that sense. It was more of the mental fatigue rather than the physical fatigue.
NEST: Knowing the differences between playing in MLS and the EPL, did you ever have a “Welcome to the EPL” moment?
Geoff: The first game against Arsenal, definitely. I actually flew back from Mexico after the 1-0 win at Azteca, and I landed in Manchester on Thursday, trained Friday, and then I played against Arsenal on Saturday, and started and I got man of the match. But before that game, I was walking out onto the pitch, and I was like, “(Damn) man, I’m in the EPL! I’m here! This is crazy. I’m playing against the teams I used to watch on a regular basis every weekend and it was so surreal, it was a pretty cool moment. But at the same time, “I was like, yeah, welcome to the EPL,” where you make that first tackle, and I went straight in, and after awhile, you learn that you’re allowed to get away with a little bit more and you really start to get the sense of the physicality over there.
NEST: Which players that you played against on the pitch impressed you the most?
Geoff: I’d say Eden Hazard and Juan Mata, who’s a great player, and you look at Robin Van Persie, who’s great, too. But I thought Carlos Tevez was an absolute stud when we played against him. He was one of the best players on the pitch. It’s crazy, man. It seems like every team has a guy that you just think to yourself, “Uh-oh.” And it all depends on if they show up or not, but I would say those guys were great players. But it was a cool experience, to be able to play against those guys.
NEST: Switching gears – from one significant portion of what’s taken place for you in the last year to another – what’s it been like for you in the past year as far as the National Team goes, starting with the U.S. Men’s National Team’s historic win at the Azteca?
Geoff: It was pretty cool, with it being the first time we’d ever won down there in U.S. history. That kind of showed that the door was open, that we could take care of business the next time we went down there when we played in the Qualifiers (in which the U.S. earned a 0-0 draw on Mar. 26, 2013). Things were going well, you’re down there for a friendly, and playing center back in the Qualifiers, which I think is my best position, either that or defensive center midfield, and playing in those spots was good. But I think that was the toughest thing for me: I was either playing right back or defensive center mid for Stoke City, and I was never given the opportunity to play center back at Stoke because I guess Tony Pulis didn’t see me there at center back or he didn’t want to play me there, even though he could see me in that position with the National Team, which I thought I played really well. But he had his guys that he trusted and chose, so he never really gave me the opportunity at center back. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens when I go back to Stoke, but I think that kind of hurt me a little bit with the last few Qualifiers, because I didn’t get a lot of reps at center back, but at the same time, I haven’t had a consistent partner, so I played with 4 or 5 guys in the back and try to develop a relationship and try to develop a consistency. But looking back, playing right back in the U.K. kind of hurt me in that role (with the U.S.), but I’ll work through it and I was able to take a step ahead in defensive center mid during the last month. I think I had a pretty solid camp, and proved that I can play in another position.
NEST: You mentioned some of the moves that you’ve had to make with the National Team, but how difficult is it to do so much moving with the stakes so high?
Geoff: Just being more comfortable, I think with most games I’ve played together with another partner was with Carlos Bocanegra, I think we played 2-3 games together consistently. But then the other games where I played with Clarence (Goodson), Oguchi (Onyewu), Maurice Edu, and Omar (Gonzalez), so it was tough to build consistency because guys were injured, or there’s a friendly here and you want to give guys experience. So I think the most consistency that I had was with Carlos, and then playing in Russia with Clarence, so it was different, for sure. But thinking about it, I think that over the last month or so, Jurgen’s been trying to get guys as much experience because you never know. If you go to the World Cup and something happens, and a guy doesn’t have enough experience, and he goes in the World Cup and he’s like “wow,” and kind of shell shocked, whereas that won’t happen with him giving guys experience and opportunities to gain experience and get yourself prepared for the World Cup.
NEST: Take me back to where the National Team was about four months ago, especially in the wake of the 2-1 loss to Honduras, and all the whispers about whether this team would struggle through Qualifying. Was there any apprehension or anxiety in camp about how difficult the road to Brazil might be?
Geoff: I think it was more of the media’s making that everyone thought we were hitting the panic button. Some people don’t realize what happens when you go down to Honduras, and you go down to these countries where they do everything possible to throw you off. Whether the grass is four inches high and then you’re dealing with the heat and then they declare it a national holiday and everyone in the country is off from work. They do everything possible to give their team the advantage and because we’re the largest nation, we’re like the big dogs, and every team is trying to knock us off. I think that’s one of the hardest things that people have to realize we deal with on a regular basis, and some people don’t know that, especially the media, who think it should be a walk in the park. But if you think about it, nine of the guys who started that game flew in from the U.K., and Germany, Italy and we got in and we had a day or two to not even adapt, but just get rest and get hydrated and then, boom, we’re playing in the game. Obviously, we came out flat and we were disappointed, but people were saying it’s got to be better and obviously everyone knows it has to be better, but I felt like everyone was like “this is the worst thing ever.” But I think it showed the mentality that we have within the National Team, and as players, we said, “listen, it’s a long road, and we’re in it to win it.” And we came back and had two good results following that camp.
NEST: How do you prepare for a situation like the one you experienced in Honduras?
Geoff: Personally, I just shut off my Twitter account. I just got off Twitter because it was just a lot of nonsense where people writing to you and saying negative things and stuff, and I don’t need to listen to negativity because it doesn’t help you play. So for me, it was just one of those things where people can think what they want, and everyone has their own opinion. But for me, they don’t know what kind of situation we have to deal with on a regular basis with the environment that we’re in. They just expect it to be easy, but it isn’t. Honduras is a good team. Jamaica is a good team. Every team we go against is a good team, and it’s getting better and better every cycle, especially as the U.S. grows in soccer, it does as well in other countries, and that’s what’s so special about international soccer. The CONCACAF nations are getting better, the technology in soccer, in term of nutrition, athlete performance, everything is going to the next level and all the countries are doing it and you have to expect the soccer to get better and your opponents to get better. You’re never going to walk into a game where you’re going to smash another country 12-0, and play a perfect game, there’s always something that’s going to happen whether it’s the heat or the humidity. You just have to deal with it and overcome it.