For most student-athletes, the summer season is a mixed bag.
Its extended days and humid nights are spent traveling leisurely, as well as training. Time back at home is often reserved for both staying away from sports and sometimes going headlong into honing one's athletic craft. While the first day of school stands far away, somehow practice always feels right around the corner.
For a few dozen local soccer players, a recent trip to the 2014 Gothia Cup, more commonly known as the youth World Cup, rolled every piece of summer into an extraordinary 10 days overseas.
Led by Darien High School boys soccer coach Jon Bradley and coach Chris Flaherty, boys and girls from Darien, New Canaan and Stamford flew to Gothenburg, Sweden, to compete under the club title of Darien FC among 1,649 other teams ages 12 to 18.
The players, along with many of their parents, touched down first in England on Thursday, July 10 to train and sightsee for three days before arriving in Sweden on Sunday, July 13. One day later, the opening ceremonies commenced with more than 54,000 people in attendance representing 73 nations. The Gothia Cup celebrated its 40th anniversary this summer as the world's largest and most international youth soccer tournament.
"I no longer feel like I need to go to the Olympics after sitting through the opening ceremonies at the Gothia Cup," Stacy Branca, mother of two Darien players, said. "The diversity of the nations that attended and the excitement of the week were amazing. It was soccer euphoria."
The Darien FC boys, competing in the 12-and-under division, reached the final 16 teams within its group, while the Darien FC girls failed to win a game in their rugged 14-and-under division. However, they did claim a victory during the team's stop in London, where each squad took on a local charter school and the boys suffered a tough defeat.
"From the soccer standpoint, the boys grew up a lot and had a fantastic trip. When we touched down in London, they lost their first game to a team with an 11-year-old who plays for Arsenal and scored seven goals. But the boys really knuckled down, bonded together and really, really improved," Bradley said.
"The girls had a fantastic win to start off the trip. We had four injuries, leaving only 11 healthy players, but they didn't get down on each other and just kept playing. They got along really well. And the parents were brilliant, too. They helped out with whatever was needed."
Other pre-Sweden highlights of the trip included training at the home of the Queens Park Rangers, a Premier League member team, and squaring off against Carshalton, a semi-profressional English club.
Following two full days of Gothia Cup pool play, Garfield and the girls team took part in an elimination playoff game in the morning of Thursday, July 17 and promptly staked an early 1-0 lead on a Fabiana Bueno goal. However, their Swedish opposition quickly answered twice and captured a 2-1 edge going into intermission. Back on the field for the second half, Darien failed to put multiple close chances in, and allowed a decisive third score with two minutes to go, ending their tournament run.
"The trip was not only a great experience because of the many countries we got to travel to, the amazing teams we played and our improvement of our soccer skills, but also because we made lifelong friends," Darien's Marley Garfield said. "I made friends from many countries but also became closer to my teammates."
Battling in their own nail-biting playoff contest, the boys advanced past the first round of the 12U group with a resounding 3-2 victory. Noah Radecki netted two scores and goalie Aaron Sears provided a key save of a late penalty kick, setting up a game-winning goal from Aidan Murphy in the final moments. Later that afternoon, they moved to play in the featured Heden Center, where their game was streamed online for a cost of $8.
There, the boys team faced another Swedish squad, which gained an early advantage when Darien was handed a first-half red card. Down 1-0 in a new formation, New Canaan native Nicky Lambrinos struck and tied the game at one apiece. As time ticked under one minute left, the Swedes increased their offensive pressure and at last broke through on an unlikely goal for a final of 2-1.
While the boys' defeat finished any hopes of Darien playing on in the tournament, all participants expressed great appreciation for their experience on the whole.
"It was an amazing experience," Darien FC boys player Cole Branca said. "I loved hanging out with both teams and playing soccer against different countries."
The entire group stayed in Gothenburg for the final day of the tournament Friday and enjoyed a night in nearby Malmo, leading up to a return home over the weekend on July 19 and 20.
Darien natives on the boys team included George Hult, Pierce Leclerc, Aaron Sears, Robbie Gaaserud, Aidan Murphy, Cole Branca and Billy Branca.
"I loved the trip to Sweden," de Gulis said. "We had a lot of fun, met great people, and most importantly, my soccer really improved. I can't wait to go back next year."