Geoff Cameron's Rise from Unheralded Youngster to USMNT Star

Noah Davis@noahedavisContributing Soccer WriterJune 9, 2017

SAN JOSE, CA - MARCH 24:  Geoff Cameron #20 of United States prior to the World Cup Qualifier match between the United States and Honduras at Avaya Stadium on March 24, 2017 in San Jose, California.  The United States won the match 6-0 (Photo by Shaun Clark/Getty Images)
Shaun Clark/Getty Images

Geoff Cameron is cruising down the streets in his BMW M5. It's a powerful, expensive whip, but hardly flashy. He likes the ride for its quality and functionality. "It gets me from Point A to Point B, just a little faster," the 31-year-old American says over the phone—on his hands-free, just for clarity.

In this case, Point A is a late-season training session for his club team, Stoke City, and Point B is Cameron's home in Manchester. It's a Wednesday afternoon in May, four days after the Potters suffered a resounding 4-1 destruction at the hands of Arsenal. The Potters ended the season with a whimper, winning only two of their final 11 games, and Cameron is not in any mood to pull punches.

"The team played liked s--t," Cameron says. "Some guys are checked out already, ready for vacation. They really have nothing to play for."

Cameron, who joined Stoke in 2012, understands this feeling. He gets it, the desire to tune out after an intense 10 months of football, to pull out of a meaningless mid-May tackle rather than dive in full force and risk injury.

He does not, however, abide by these unspoken realities. He cannot. Cameron does not turn off when there's a game on. He lives by three words: Dedication, Discipline, Desire—which were instilled into his being by his father and grandfather, and which are tattooed on his cut frame. These words are typical athlete rhetoric, but they feel true in Cameron's case.

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Cameron always possessed the self-confidence to believe he could achieve the standing he has today. He was waiting for the rest of the world to understand. "I don't think he's proving people wrong; he's proving himself right," Dominic Kinnear, the coach who drafted him in Houston, says.

While American fans waited for the next big hyped young thing to succeed, a player who no one saw coming transformed himself into one of the best in the country. He's exceeded all expectations, which isn't true of many other American players.

Cameron, perpetually overlooked and frequently underrated, is now impossible to ignore. He might not be the player U.S. supporters wanted, but he's the guy the team need as they look to press on and claim a place at the 2018 World Cup.

Cameron's dad, Scott, was a hell of a hockey player. In high school, he starred at Rhode Island powerhouse Mount Saint Charles. The sport came easily to him. Too easily.

"The lessons that I learned in organized athletics were not the best ones," Scott says. "I didn't take my lessons very well. I didn't train hard. I was one of those thousands of kids who had some ability but didn't follow that ability through. Alcohol was a big part of it. Early on, I would much rather be in bars and having fun than working out and trying to improve my game and get better."

When Geoff, who has two older sisters, showed interest and aptitude for athletics early on, his father set out to teach his son the right lessons—without being overbearing. "I always asked him, 'Is it still your dream to do this?'" Scott says—but he was stern. The three D's, remember?

Geoff went to his first football game when he was eight, and in sixth grade he started to focus solely on the sport. Dad drove to practices, watching with a careful eye. When Dad was busy, Geoff's grandfather, the third leg of the Cameron men tripod, would pick him up and would drive him back to "Pop's" house.

They'd listen to jazz and opera on the ride. "Pop, I can't get into this," Geoff remembers complaining. "You'll appreciate it when I'm gone," came the reply. (Pop passed away a few years ago. Cameron says he loves saxophone but still can't get into opera.) They'd watch games that the older Cameron, who subscribed to every football channel he could, taped during the week: Real Madrid against Juventus, Manchester United versus Arsenal, Liverpool. Matches featuring Edgar Davids, Alessandro Del Piero, David Trezeguet. This was part of Cameron's education.

Cameron grew up watching videos of Alessandro Del Piero.
Cameron grew up watching videos of Alessandro Del Piero.Massimo Pinca-/Associated Press

After Cameron's sophomore year, he transferred from Attleboro High School to Providence Country Day, a private school in East Providence, Rhode Island. Stacey DeCastro, who coached Cameron at Bayside United and had taken over PCD's team, didn't know Cameron was joining his team. Cameron never told him. When he arrived at the first pre-season practice, DeCastro simply assumed he was there to train because "every time we were on a field he showed up to play with us," he says. The coach finally asked the teenager what he was doing, and the truth came out.

"He was like a gift," DeCastro, who also preaches the three D's, says of Cameron. In two seasons, he scored 35 goals and added 62 assists while the team won two New England championships. DeCastro remembers Cameron as being skilled with or without the ball, sharp on the field and anticipating well.

What was missing was the strength and the size. His dad noticed, too. "He didn't have the scrap and fight on 50-50 balls that let's say a father who was a hockey player would want his soccer-playing son to have," Scott says, laughing. "He certainly had a desire to win, but he didn't always have the fight and scrap inside him until he developed some size and gained some confidence in those types of battles."

The size came. Cameron grew in high school, first up to more than six feet by the time he graduated (he's 6'3") and then filling out. "When he came back after freshman year of college, I had no doubt that he would go all the way. He played some pickup games and it was like, 'Holy s--t, he's a player,'" DeCastro says. "Once he got that, boy, he was a complete player."

Cameron spent two years at the University of West Virginia, starting 28 of the 38 matches he appeared in, and then transferred to the University of Rhode Island.

Gareth Elliott, a URI assistant coach at the time and the team's current head coach, went to watch his new player during a summer PDL match with the Rhode Island Stingrays.

He remembers that Cameron took a corner from the side of the field that normally would be an in-swinger for a left-footed player. Cameron, however, had other ideas. "He hits this whipping, dipping ball with pace with the outside of his right foot. I'm like, 'I haven't seen this before, but that's quite something to be able to do that,'" Elliott says. "You could just tell how he moved. For such a big guy to have that kind of technical ability is not that common."

Cameron started in central midfield for the Rhody Rams, winning the inaugural Atlantic 10 Midfielder of the Year award in 2007 and making the All-Conference First Team as well. After Cameron helped URI turn a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 victory over Harvard, Crimson assistant coach and New England Revolution defender Jay Heaps told Elliott that he'd love to have Cameron on the MLS club. But when the draft came, the hometown team didn't take the versatile senior who grew up just down the road.

MLS teams wanted players from the ACC, the Pac-12, the Big East or the Big Ten. Cameron fell all the way to Houston at No. 42. Kinnear and his Dynamo staff noticed Cameron's ability to pass out of the back at the MLS combine, but Kinnear admits he wasn't expecting much from the pick. "It was a gamble," he says.

Geoff Cameron impressed for Houston Dynamo.
Geoff Cameron impressed for Houston Dynamo.Branimir Kvartuc/Associated Press

Cameron didn't take long to change his coach's mind. "After about two weeks, we realized we fell onto something pretty good," Kinnear says. "He had good size, good pace, but the way he brought the ball out of the back really opened teams up. He was so comfortable breaking the first line of pressure and passing the ball. It was a luxury."

Cameron impressed off the field as well. He brought a list of goals to his first meeting with Kinnear, long-term ones about making the team, becoming a starter, making the national team and getting to Europe. "He's the first player I ever had who set goals in one-year and three-year increments," Kinnear says. "That showed a lot of thought on his end."

He fell into a talented squad featuring serious veterans like Brian Ching, Ricardo Clark, Brad Davis and Pat Onstad and learned to be a professional by watching them.

"I played with good players, like [U.S. international Brian] McBride and [Mexican star Cuauhtemoc] Blanco," Calen Carr, who joined the Dynamo in 2011, says. "Some of those guys had different qualities, but as far as all-around ability combining athleticism and technique, I really don't think I played with anybody better than Geoff. And I saw it right away. It was like, 'This guy is kind of a freak.'"

Opponents saw the ability as well. "I played against him in a pre-season friendly," a former MLS first-round pick says. "We matched up at center mid, and it was the first time I've ever known the opponent was just way better than me: more athletic, better on the ball, calmer in possession."

U.S. national team head coach Bob Bradley spotted the emerging talent. He called Cameron into the January camp in 2009 and again in 2010. Cameron debuted for the Stars and Stripes on February 24, 2010, subbing in for Robbie Rogers.

During the camps, he bonded with Alejandro Bedoya. They were the new guys, playing Call of Duty—each says he killed the other man more—and bonding over their Massachusetts connection and love of cooking shows. "He's a little more outspoken at times," Bedoya says. "I was one of those guys who laughed at his jokes."

When Jurgen Klinsmann took over the national squad in 2011, he continued to bring Cameron into the mix, lining him up at centre-back, right-back and central midfield. Cameron started three games at the 2014 World Cup. During the 2016 Copa America, Cameron paired with John Brooks in the back as the U.S. reached the semi-finals.

The upward trajectory continued in his club career too. In July 2012, Cameron moved from the Dynamo to Stoke City, thriving under Tony Pulis and then Mark Hughes. He solves problems and makes teams better when he's on the field. "I've never been the big flashy player," Cameron says. "I'm not the goalscorer. I'm not the flamboyant guy who does all the step-overs and all that s--t. I do the dirty work and the simple things good. But I'm here for a reason."

When Cameron is healthy, he's on the field for both the U.S. and Stoke City. He missed four months between late October and late February with an MCL injury. He tweaked it late on in a 2-0 win over Hull City but thought he'd be back the next week. A week stretched to two, then four and then six. "It was just like, OK, it's not getting better," he says. "That's when you get frustrated. Then it goes to two months and you start to get stressed out a little bit more. It's Groundhog's Day."

Cameron responded how any pro might: He bonded with his new dog. Duke, a German shepherd-Belgian Malinois mix, has his own Instagram account. "It took my mind off the negative stuff," Cameron says. The pair dressed up for Christmas.

During Cameron's absence from the field, the U.S. squad struggled. The backline looked disjointed and disorganized in November World Cup qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. Omar Gonzalez and John Brooks were overmatched. The two defeats cost Klinsmann his job.

Cameron returned for the March qualifiers, playing 59 minutes at right back against Honduras in San Jose, California. That game showed his value. In a match the Americans had to win, Cameron stepped into a role he hadn't played in months—he'd only played a handful of games since October—and didn't put a foot wrong in the red, white and blue's 6-0 destruction of Los Catrachos. No other player in the U.S. pool could have handled that assignment.

Cameron is becoming a leader on the American team. He and Bedoya have taken some of the younger players, specifically Christian Pulisic and Kellyn Acosta, under their wing. It wasn't that long ago that he and Bedoya were in a similar position. Pay it forward, right? "I'm sure they'll remember it later on when they are older guys and they have younger guys who come into the team," Cameron says. "They'll probably do the same thing."

While Cameron was one of the players who most benefitted under Klinsmann, he understands the need for change. Arena's national team is one that's more laid-back, a place where players have time to themselves. Every minute of every day is not programmed. It's a looser environment.

When the team stayed in San Francisco before the qualifier with Honduras, Cameron says he, Bedoya, Pulisic and Acosta went out to get ice cream one night. I asked if that would have been OK under the previous regime.

"I don't think we were allowed to get ice cream," he says.

No profile of Cameron is complete without a brief diversion into politics. In February, SI.com's Grant Wahl asked Cameron, who is (or at least was) open about his more conservative beliefs on Twitter, for his thoughts on President Donald Trump's Executive Order 13769, which banned travellers from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Cameron's response: "I believe it's important to support our president whether he was your candidate or not. I am pleased he is making security of all Americans one of his top priorities. Our enemies have stated—and in Europe they have proven—they will take advantage of lax immigration procedures for the purposes of staging attacks. A temporary pause on immigration for the purpose of evaluating and improving vetting procedures makes sense. The United States is one of the most generous and compassionate nations. Our ability to care for and support countries and refugees in need resides in our own sense of security. If we don't feel safe, how can we protect others?"

His comments upset many people, and American team-mates including Michael Bradley, Bedoya, Darlington Nagbe and Sacha Kljestan spoke out against the executive order.

A couple of months removed from the incident, Cameron—who has a sleeve tattoo that depicts "how proud I am to be American"—no longer tweets about politics, but he wouldn't change his answer either.

"I was asked a question and it opened a can of worms," he says. "It was set up to fail. [Wahl] knew I was more conservative than liberal, but the way the piece was written, it set me up in a negative connotation. Immediately, readers were like, 'This is not good.' But if you actually read the quote and what I said, it wasn't like that."

I don't agree with Cameron's view. To me, Wahl's piece reads straightforward. Cameron knew he was wading into a contentious issue when he answered the question.

But Cameron didn't deserve the death threats and vitriol aimed at him after he spoke his mind. No one does.

He and Bedoya, perhaps the team's most outspoken liberal, have spirited debates. "I've definitely changed his mind about a couple of things and maybe given him a bit more perspective," the Philadelphia Union midfielder says.

For Cameron, the future is now, and the future is bright. In late May, he signed a two-year deal with Stoke that will keep him with the club through 2020. He's on the short list of most successful American players ever in the EPL. "My play speaks for itself," he says. "If there were other Americans who were good enough to be playing over here, they'd be here."

Does he think he's proved that he's good enough? "100 percent."

Cameron in 2017 has a simple life, the one he's always wanted. There's his dog, his starting spot in the position he prefers with his club team, and his major role with the national team of the country he loves.

He's come a long way from Attleboro, Massachusetts. And yet, as his dad constantly tells him, Cameron is still that same kid he was 25 years ago: "Every time I go visit him I remind him that we're still doing what we were doing when he was six years old: getting up on the weekends and going to games."


All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.

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